Grappling with the Meaning of Martyrdom

It’s an unfortunate symptom of our times that tragedy can so often invite cynicism, but what else can we expect in our politically-myopic age? A recent example of violence being appropriated as political spectacle came with the truly heart-wrenching mosque shooting in New Zealand. No doubt it represented the worst kind of racist, bigoted violence. But the zeal with which the mainstream Western media reported the incident tipped their hand. Religious persecution, including violent attacks targeting specific groups, is unfortunately common around the world. For instance, just recently 40 Nigerian Christians were killed as part of what some have called a “genocide” in the country. What makes one killing more newsworthy than another? One starts to wonder if the deciding factor in whether or not an attack is Facebook-status-worthy is whether or not the perpetrator supports Trump.

It’s difficult not to feel cynical about a morality of convenience. After all, such a morality will consistently confirm the biases of your own political narrative and allocate sympathy solely to victims adjacent to your own provincial interests. And yet to some degree it’s something that we all do. This is why German author Martin Mosebach’s The 21: A Journey Into the Land of Coptic Martyrs is so essential. In a time when digital and social media have created narrow ideological ruts through which our news and opinions flow, it’s important—necessary, really—to explore different ways of understanding. Not newer, mind you, just deeper alternatives to the anodyne. Perhaps even antecedent to it. And in the case of the Copts and their sense of martyrdom, we’re talking about a very ancient way of understanding indeed.

Against the Grain

Mosebach is the perfect figure to write a book exploring the lives and beliefs of the 20 Coptic Egyptian migrant workers (and one man from Ghana) whose brutal beheadings on a Libyan beach were videotaped as propaganda by ISIS back in 2015. In the most general terms, Mosebach is a fantastic writer—one of the most talented being translated from German today—and so anything he writes is interesting. And “anything” does describe the vast range of his writing. Mosebach has composed novels, poems, radio plays, libretti for operas, and journalism. For all of that he’s received accolades as prestigious as the Heinrich von Kleist prize, the Goethe Award, and the Georg Büchner Prize. What makes his accomplishments even more impressive is that Mosebach is an openly practicing Roman Catholic who puts his piousness at the very center of his work—a brave move in uber-secular Germany, and not something you might expect from a lauded European writer.

I suspect that it’s Mosebach’s against-the-current religious beliefs which give him the audacity to take on topics normally overlooked by mainstream Western media and to address them in language that can probably come off as almost radically anachronistic to the average, older, white, secular, childless, denizen of the European Union. This attitude (or perhaps it’s more than that?) is front and center in The 21, where Mosebach summarizes the project in the first chapter. Of course the murders of the Copts were made into an internet spectacle:

And yet such figures feel far removed from us, as if they belong to some other, seemingly incomprehensible era. Much as the brutal nature of their deaths and the firmness, even stubbornness, with which they confessed their faith seem to match one another in context, we find their fate equally eerie. Hasn’t the Western world, with its openness toward discussion and dialogue, long since overcome the need for opposites to be regarded as life-threatening? We live in an era of strict religious privatization, and want to see it subjected to secular law. Society seems to have reached a consensus on the rejection of proselytizing and religious zeal. Hasn’t all that put an end to the merciless, all-or-nothing alternatives of believe or leave; or worse, renounce your faith or die?

In other words, the role the Copts themselves played in their own deaths is equally as strange to us as the motives of the murderers themselves. Who in our day would willingly confess their faith knowing full well that it meant death? Well, as Mosebach goes on to explain through the rest of the book, a martyr would. But who are the Copts who call themselves The Church of Martyrs?

The Original Egyptians

Mosebach tells us that the Copts consider themselves the “original Egyptians”, and although what little we in the West might know of them today is inseparably associated with the Christian faith, it’s probably more accurate to say that historically they are the peoples of Northeastern Africa who resisted the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the Seventh Century. They’re technically a distinct ethno-religious group set apart from Egyptians who have fully embraced Arabic influence, and even speak a language based on Demotic Egyptian last used in Late Antiquity. Numbering in the tens of millions, they’re also the largest Christian Church in Egypt. But because of their unique history, generally associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church but having officially broken away in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon and then living in a land dominated by Islam, they existed for long swaths of history in something like a vacuum, disconnected in many ways from larger Christendom.

This isolation became, as wounds so often do, a point of strength. For writing The 21, Mosebach traveled to Egypt in order to meet the families of the Coptic martyrs firsthand and glean something of their distinct sort of Christianity, which seems to carry a living memory of suffering within its ancient identity. As a church leader explains to him during an interview:

We Copts are the real, true Egyptians. This has been our land for many thousands of years—it was our land long before the pyramids were built. We have an ironclad, far-reaching memory. Our memory is at least as good as the Jews’, who to this day have not forgiven Pharaoh, and always remember that God gave them the land of the Canaanites back in Moses’ day: two thousand years later, they took it back . . . But our situation is different from that of the Jews. We’ve become a minority in our own country, even if we aren’t as much of a minority as the government would like.

This is the double-vision which Mosebach is constantly encountering in his travels among the Copts: a profound sensitivity to current political grievances tempered by an archaic, almost timeless, collective identity. Though the Copts claim what seems like almost chthonic origins that predate Christ by thousands of years, this sense of the primordial-bordering-on-eternal only seems to strengthen their faith. It’s almost as if in identifying with timelessness, they’re able to avoid the snares of worldliness. As Mosebach writes:

Conversing with Copts about their martyrs invariably involves allusions to the Bible—in their eyes, everything that happens is a reflection, fulfillment, or repetition of biblical events. They are so close to the books of the Old and New Testaments, it’s as if two millennia hadn’t passed in the meantime. Might their ability to tap into this kind of timelessness stem from some continuation of Egyptian antiquity, as if time had simply held its breath for nearly three thousand years? . . . . The Coptic Church, situated as it is—in the ongoing, sometimes more oppressive, sometimes gentler stranglehold of Islamic authority—has long seemed doomed to a slow death.

But it seems a death perpetually deferred, with the ancient words and ceremony of the Christian fellaheen fighting erasure to a stalemate. This struggle with death is essentially a battle against the myopia of the present-tense. The Copts are able to survive, flourish in their faith even, because they disregard the siren song of the au courant. Their lives are pierced by timelinessness. Mosebach renders the daily lives of the families of the martyrs in gripping detail, these mostly poor peasants living side by side with modernity yet keeping their eyes focus towards the eternal. He’s worth quoting in full:

Sixteen of the Twenty-One had been neighbors in El-Aour and lived on the same village lane. Life there was lived in public, without much privacy, just as it had been in rural Europe at least until World War II, and in many places for a good while after. Contemporary Westerners suffer from not just a general historical amnesia, but a genealogical amnesia as well, and it seems to have erased all knowledge of how their own grandparents and great-grandparents lived. Countries where such living conditions continue into the present day are regarded with condescension and pity, as if they’ve failed to strive for and reach a prescribed socioeconomic goal. The horror such long preserved ways of life inspires carries with it a kind of prudery—as if what is widely termed ‘backwardness’ also implies some kind of moral failure. To be perfectly clear: the Twenty-One never slept on sheets, so had never experienced the physical benefits of a freshly made bed. It’s entirely possible that they were well acquainted with fleas and lice; none of them had a bathtub. The fact that their families now live in new houses [recently built by the Egyptian government] and that some of them own a refrigerator, hasn’t much affected their way of life. But in each of the living rooms of these homes there is a picture of a murdered son wearing a crown and the white robe of a deacon. Much like King David, who once lived in a shepherd’s hut, a king has emerged from each of these families.

In other words, timelessness relates to what martyrdom means for these people. Mosebach does a moving job of showing what we might perceive as the cultural backwardness and economic deprivation of the rural Copts is in some ways a sign of their sense of spiritual priorities. We might have a TV and comfy furniture, but we probably don’t have a martyred saint hanging on our walls. We might have access to any material object we desire, but one wonders if we have the same rich meaning in our lives.

Conversing with the Doubter

In the beginning of the book, Mosebach writes an imagined conversation with a secular Egyptian about the nature of martyrdom. The Doubter, as Mosebach calls his interlocutor, finds the Twenty-One’s refusal to repudiate their religion in order to save their own lives “a bit creepy”. Shouldn’t they have done whatever it took to survive? Isn’t openly accepting death a bad business model for the continued existence of a religion? “It sounds like your peasants from those dumps in Upper Egypt might be the very last Christians,” The Doubter taunts. To which Mosebach responds: “At the moment it may seem so. But if the phrase from the early North African church still holds true—that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’—then perhaps the Twenty-One should not be counted among the very last Christians, but rather among the first.”

It’s a brilliant retort, even if it’s just against his own imagination, and it gives us some sense of what the attitude that Mosebach himself brings to the book. He isn’t a skeptic. He wants to understand. He longs for some firsthand knowledge of the spiritual strength of these people. Mosebach says that in everyone he spoke to, there was no hunger for violent retribution. Neither was there a dull fatalism, an acquiescence to the ‘senseless’ of the act. Of course the act made sense. Of course it had meaning. As Mosebach writes of the beheading video near the beginning of the book, “This video is two things at once: both the documentation of a very real massacre and an allegory of the never-ending struggle between good and evil.” It’s a credit to the Copts that they always maintain this double vision, seeing the the bare act itself as well as the rich spiritual context which gives it meaning. This sometimes manifests in small pronouncements of humility and gratefulness, as when a church leader says to Mosebach:

We find ourselves in the odd position of being grateful to the Islamist killers for the film with which they documented their acts. Now, instead of relying on potentially contradictory testimonies, we can see it all with our own eyes. Had the killers had any idea of the significance this video would have for the Coptic Church, they probably would not have made it. Far from being intimidating, it gives us courage. It shows us the martyr’s heroic bravery, and the fact that they spent their last moments alive in prayer proves the strength of their fate.

After reading The 21, there’s no wonder why Mosebach was drawn to the particular strength of the Copts and their Church of Martyrs. As the imagined dialogue of Mosebach and The Doubter unintentionally shows: the Copts might very well be the first and last Christians both. Mosebach seems to think that their particular Christianity, tested by time and trial and yet still flourishing, has much to teach our own Western denominations. And of course, it does. But what’s most striking perhaps about Mosebach’s work is how it stands in such sharp contrast to our own vapid understandings of death, loss, and meaning in the secular West. Through the spiritually rich but physically impoverished lives of the Copts, we’re offered a glimpse of our own society’s much more profound destitution.