Sign of the Nazarene

Many of my Facebook friends have changed their profile picture to the Arabic letter N. It stands for ‘Nazarene’, or Christian. ISIS is drawing it on the houses of Christians in Iraq, to indicate who to target… much like the Nazi treatment of Jews.

The Islamic militants of ISIS have committed horrific acts: cutting a child in half, as described by Andrew White*, and the burying alive of 500 Yazidi women and children. It has been described as ethnic cleansing and genocide.

So why haven’t I changed my profile picture? After all, I did post this article of five things you can ACTUALLY do to help, and the fifth is to raise awareness on social media.

Initially, a few weeks ago, it was due to technical problems uploading the image. Then I was distracted. Now the worst interpretation is that it is vanity over not wanting to be seen as a johnny-come-lately.

But when I take the time to reflect on the events and actions in my mind’s eye, it is not for the suffering of the Iraqi Christians – terrible as it is – that my heart cries out. It is for the perpetrators.

I imagine a young man, with little education, desperate to belong, to fit in, to be respected. His only role models are the teachers who are brainwashing him. He has learnt about ‘them’ and ‘us’, to follow orders, to hate ‘them’, to enjoy killing and inflicting pain on ‘them’. And with every child that he kills, or family that he buries alive, his soul is shriveling. Empathy, compassion, and an understanding of his own humanity becomes further out of reach. He is losing himself. He is dying inside.

I cannot imagine doing what he has done, but then I have led a completely different, privileged life – educated, middle class, living in rich western country, a democracy with the rule of law, respect for minorities and human rights. Who knows how I might act if Britain descended into chaos? I have to believe that I share a common humanity with my imagined young man. There is the potential in me for doing harm, and there is the potential in him for doing good.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “pray for those who persecute you”. And he prayed for the soldiers who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

Many people are praying for the persecuted, fewer for the persecutors. My brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted, and many of them will I am sure feel unable to pray for their persecutors, even though I am equally sure that many of the persecutors do not truly know what they are doing. So I suppose that in taking that upon myself, I am bearing some of their burden in some small way.

All of which is why I usually find myself praying for the perpetrators in any crime at least as much as the victims, and why it is the members of ISIS and similar groups who I am trying to hold in my heart before God.

And why I haven’t changed my profile picture… because for me it would be identifying with an ‘us’ against a ‘them’, and perpetuating ‘us-ness’ and ‘them-ness’. I choose instead to identify with, appeal to, and pray for our common humanity.

* Canon Andrew White is known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, and I am in awe of him.

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