Egypt, Praying for Persecutors, and Good Friday

On Palm Sunday, Christians and people of good will around the world grieved as bombs ripped through two Coptic Christian congregations during their worship service. As I sit here with tears in my eyes reading more about the attacks, forcing myself to look at pictures of the destruction, my own sadness cannot compare to that of my brothers and sisters in Egypt for whom these bombings must be unspeakably horrifying. I want to express my deep sorrow with and for the people of Tanta and Alexandria and throughout the Coptic community. Though this kind of attack is not new, especially to Egyptian Christians, The word "persecution" has been filled with even deeper, more painful meaning this week.

Just a couple hours after I read the news story, I lead our own Palm Sunday service at Oakland Communion. But before I had a chance to pray for our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt during our gathering, one of our own Oakland Communion brothers reminded me of Jesus' words: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...."

These were hard words to hear even while sipping coffee comfortably in Oakland. I can't imagine how difficult they would be to live out in Tanta or Alexandria this week. But, because we follow Jesus even into difficult things, we prayed for the bombers. As I was praying, the words felt like their own kind of explosion in my soul.

Prayers of mercy ripped through the incipient hatred that had begun to sprout. The difficulty I had forming the words showed me that the same thing that motivated people to blow themselves up in churches--fear that morphs seamlessly into hatred expressing itself in violence--could happen in me, and perhaps was beginning to happen in me. (Ironically, instilling fear is exactly the point of the attacks. That's why they call it terrorism.)

Jesus' completely counterintuitive, incredibly challenging, and downright painful command to love our enemies is at the core of his good news, his gospel--the good news that in his world, in his realm, under his kingship love is not earned by goodness and life is not a zero sum game comprised of winners and losers. Even while losing our lives, we can bless those who don't see our flourishing and existence as compatible with theirs. And as we do that, we the discover the good news that the hatred producing the headlines does not have to govern our hearts.

On Good Friday, we remember Jesus' own death. We remember his persecution. It has long been a scandal of Christianity that we call the death of our leader and Lord "good." It is even more of a scandal because of what actually happened on the cross. Jesus took his own advice. While he was hanging there dying, being mocked, being made a spectacle of state sanctioned terror, he said, "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing." Jesus prayed for his persecutors from the cross. And he still does.



*Photo courtesy of Emily Alhadeff on Flickr via creative commons