Would I have the faith and the courage to look the ISIS cowards in the eye and say, "I believe in Jesus Christ."
I can't explain why.
Perhaps it doesn't require an explanation.
But as the calendar quickly moved toward Easter Sunday, the more an image flashed in my mind: 20 Egyptian Christians and one other man, forced to their knees on a Mediterranean beach by members of ISIS on Feb. 15 and asked one by one if they believed in Jesus Christ.
Each answered yes, knowing the consequences.
All 21 were beheaded.
In order to write this column, I felt it was necessary to watch a beheading on YouTube. A beheading is not swift. Death is not instant.
I do not recommend watching. But it gave me a deeper understanding of what must have gone through the minds of those 21 men and countless other Christians who have been beheaded by ISIS in recent months.
It made me look inside myself, perhaps deeper than I've ever looked before.
It made me face the question: If I were in a similar situation, would I have the faith and the courage to look the ISIS cowards in the eye and say, "I believe in Jesus Christ."
Knowing those would be the last words I ever said. Knowing the torture I was about to experience. Knowing my family and friends would grieve over my death. Knowing this life, which I can only comprehend as a struggling human, would end.
I would like to say yes, I would have the strength.
But do any of us really know until we are put in that situation?
To help me have some comparison for my struggle with this, I reached out to eight friends.
I asked them how they pictured themselves answering that question with a knife to their throats.
Some answered by email, others by Facebook message. Each provided food for thought. And I must commend them for digging deep inside their souls to help provide their answers.
- One of the first I received: "This is very hard. I have tears. No, I am crying ... I want to scream yes to those butchers. I believe in Jesus Christ!!!! But when I think of never seeing my husband, my family, my grandchildren, my grandchildren to come, I have to pause. More tears ... "
- Friend No. 2 wrote, "I believe each Christian would always be ready to say, 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.' However, after watching two beheadings on YouTube, it gave me pause for thought. How could I possibly endure torture and a painful, slow death for my beliefs? My next thought was, 'But that's what Jesus did for me. Would he expect any less of me?'"
- Friend No. 3: "There is a peace I believe God gives you in that situation. Just as Jesus prayed in the garden, twice, to let this cup pass from his wrath ... I might say the same prayer, but in the end I would submit to God's plan."
- Friend No. 4: "This is, of course, an impossible question to answer. Under the circumstances, I cannot imagine what I would do ... it is always easier to sit in your living room and be convinced of your own virtues under the proposed circumstance. I also know I can rationalize decisions and I can waffle between what I want I know to be true ... I could see this part of me rationalizing that it's more important for me to live for any or all of the following ..." My friend named his wife, children, extended family and church.
"I have so much to live for that lying to people who want to kill me is easily excused ... (But) the scenario you describe is no time for rationalizing. It is a test ... I hope I would get it ... I want to be counted among those who would forgo this life for the better eternity to come."
"Last point," he wrote. "Hearing about the death of these 21 men has mattered to me — and not for the reason the killers wanted. It encourages me to live a life worthy of my calling. They died for Christ. May I at least live for him?"
- Friend No. 5 wrote, "In facing a gruesome, wicked, evil death, my faith would still be in God. I hope and trust that such a painful ordeal would be ultimately redeemed and used by God for his purposes. Therefore, such a death is not in vain."
- Friend No. 6 was equally sure of his answer: "Faith is all you have left in that situation. To reject your faith would leave you with nothing — even if you lived. I can say unequivocally I would not reject my belief in Christ. If I did, I would be dead even though I lived. The other thing I know is that I would not die passively. I would fight with all my being. I would not let them dictate the terms of my death."
- Friend No. 7: "When you reach the most terrifyingly vulnerable moment of your life, you're stripped to nothing but the things no can take away ... the core beliefs that have driven every decision you've ever made. Ultimately, I would rather die outwardly professing my faith, with my death serving as a testament to those beliefs ...
"But then I think of my child, of helping teach him those beliefs ... If being a coward and lying to save my life means I'll have the opportunity to raise a Godly man, so be it ... Maybe this isn't the right answer. But doing the right thing often means forgoing interests of the present so you can protect interests of the future."
- Friend No. 8: "Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote, 'And how can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?'
"This world doesn't afford many civilians the chance to die well for something that matters ... it sounds cavalier, but I would be humbled and honored to be put in a situation where I had to choose between my life and the one thing that means most to me — my faith in Jesus Christ ... I have a passion for this world, and ultimately the honestly amazing and blessed life that I've been given.
"I believe if he brings us to that place of choice, he gives us the grace to handle it if we remember that he is the ultimate source of everything ... it's not the end, it's the beginning ... let me go how he would take me, and let his will be done."
This is what I believe: If I were put in that situation, I believe Jesus Christ would bathe me with a peace beyond human comprehension.
I looked at the faces of the 21 men who were about to be beheaded. I didn't see a single expression of panic. It appeared as if they could almost see the other side of life. I would like to think I could, too.
This Bible verse also rings home to me — Matthew 10: 32-33. "Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven."
There would be a reason we must say, "Yes, I believe." Maybe, we wouldn't understand it at the time. But our answer would matter in ways we can't imagine.
Consider the 21 men. Notice that I wrote in the third paragraph "20 Egyptian Christians and one other man."
Perhaps you know the story.
The 21st man was a non-believer. According to Ahram-Canadian News, the man became a believer in Christ after watching, one by one, his fellow captives refuse to say Jesus wasn't their Lord and Savior.
When it came his time to answer, he told the terrorists, "Their God is my God."
Then he died.
And then ... he lived.
Billy Watkins, a lifelong Mississippian, is a writer for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, and author of two books. This column first appeared in The Clarion-Ledger on April 4, 2015 – the day before Easter.
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