"The bravest person in America? The second to admit to being a Christian after the UCC shooter murdered the first."
When gunman Chris Harper-Mercer entered Oregon's Umpqua Community College last Thursday, he set about destroying lives with abandon. Actually, 'abandon' is not quite right; he did so with precision. According to an eye-witness report, Mercer deliberately targeted Christians, asking them to self-identify and then shooting them when they did.
That means, as the variously-attributed quote above suggests, Christian students chose to identify themselves as believers, even after they'd seen others killed for doing so. If that's true, then it's extraordinary. Young Christians decided that to stay silent would not only expose others to risk, but would betray God. So strong was their faith, they decided they would rather meet their maker than deny him.
I find that utterly humbling. Rather than using it as an opportunity to reflect on my own inadequacies, I marvel at their incredible commitment to the hope that was within them. I am convinced that while they were cut down tragically before their time, they will rise together in glory.
The horrors of what happened in Oregon were cruelly echoed when the story emerged just a few days later of 12 Syrian Christians who were brutally murdered by Islamic State militants for refusing to renounce the name of Jesus. The group included a Syrian church planter, who was forced to watch as his 12-year-old son was tortured and killed in front of him. The militants reportedly told him that they would only end the attack if he renounced his faith and returned to Islam. He refused.
And in February this year 21 Coptic Christians were marched onto a Libyan beach and murdered by Islamic State fighters. On the video released by IS the 21 are seen whispering the name of Jesus. Even as they faced their certain death, they held to the same faith as that Syrian pastor and his followers, and those American college students.
In the West, few of us will ever find ourselves in the same position as these men and women. Yet in parts of the world where Christianity is illegal or simply hated the risk of such situations is a daily hazard. In North Korea, thousands of Christians face life-long imprisonment in labour camps, and according to charity Open Doors (which lists the country as number one on its persecution watch-list), torture and even public execution.
What is it about the Christian faith, a religion of peace, love and in the vast majority of cases positive activism, that so threatens these diverse perpetrators? Why are an American murderer, an Islamist terror group and a political regime all so threatened by the idea of Jesus that they want his followers wiped from the earth? Perhaps a little of the answer lies in that famous verse in John 1: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it." Evil simply cannot co-exist with the presence of Jesus; they're like two magnets repelling one another. Perhaps it's only natural that when evil is personified, it can't help but target the followers of Christ.
All of which causes us to ask some searching questions of ourselves. Are we living in such a way that the darkness can't understand us? Is our faith so vibrant that it causes shockwaves in the worst areas of culture?
And perhaps more obviously, what would we do if we found ourselves in the same position as those college students in Roseburg, Oregon? Could we own up to being a Christian even when doing so could carry the ultimate price?
Jesus' closest disciple, Peter, faced the same test after Jesus' capture by the Roman soldiers. When asked by some of the servants of the high priest if he's one of Jesus' followers, he knows that to answer in the affirmative could start a chain reaction that puts his own life at risk. Shockingly, but perhaps reassuringly, he fails the test. As Jesus has predicted, Peter denies him three times.
At Umpqua Community College, Peter's modern day equivalents didn't hesitate to do the opposite. Their deaths are a tragedy, but their faith is an extraordinary example. I'm left to reflect whether, in the same circumstances, I could follow it.