The recent siege of systematic targeting of Christians in the Middle East should spur us to action in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. While separated from them geographically, we are called to unite ourselves with them in spirit: praying for their safety and an end to the widespread anti-Christian violence in that region. We should do our part to educate those around us, informing our communities and making the seriousness of this situation and our position known to our leaders and representatives. The truth about this tragic and fearful situation must be understood with honest clarity. Our readiness and ability to identify with our fellow “Nazarenes” who have been branded as subjects for oppression and victimization is truly a test of our own Christianity. If we are unmoved by their plight and do not feel compelled to act on their behalf, we fail to live out our calling to be “members of one another” (Eph. 4:25).
Perhaps we should also ask ourselves, at this critical juncture, whether or not we would be marked as Christians by those around us. Would our lifestyles, attitudes, and actions identify us as followers of Christ? Would we be found worthy to bear the title “Nazarene,” as our persecuted brethren in Iraq have been, labelled as such in a context reminiscent of the betrayal of our savior who, “knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out and said to them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’ They answered him, ‘Jesus the Nazorean.’ He said to them, ‘I AM’ ”(Jn. 18:4-5). How often do we hide away, preferring our own security and social acceptance to the demands of discipleship? We regularly cower in secrecy, seeking our own comfort while concealing our Christian identity as Peter did, warming his hands by the fire while denying that he even knew Jesus.
Those who are identified and marked as Christians in Iraq are given three choices by their ISIS persecutors: conversion, acceptance of oppressive conditions, or death. Though, thanks be to God, in the West we are not faced with the immediate danger of this sort of threat, in spiritual solidarity perhaps we should recognize that we are all given these same three options, though in a different form with perhaps more room to attempt compromise. Christians living in any society that is inhospitable towards Christianity are given a choice either to convert (abandon their Christianity in favor of popular anti-religious attitudes and rhetoric), to passively accept oppressive conditions (silently enduring infringements upon freedom, biases, and the general difficulty of trying to be faithful in an opposed society), or to die: to actively resist and counteract evil in our world, willing to accept the full consequences of doing so in the hope and trust that we will be vindicated and that Satan will not have the last word.
The notion of being marked in accordance with our relationship to God should be horrifying for us all. It leaves no grey area: you are either marked or you are not. Most of our notions of Christian identity leave us some opportunity to blur the lines of inclusion and allow us the benefit of the doubt. But when we are presented with a choice of either bearing a mark or not bearing it, we are faced with a concrete and blatant choice. Our mark, or lack thereof, is both objective and affective; it signifies and brings about a real change in our existence and future. It brings to mind several instances in Scripture where God’s faithful are set apart by a special marking bestowed upon them for the purpose of preparation for an imminent crisis.
For example, God appeared to Ezekiel in a vision through which God showed Ezekiel the horrendous abominations that were being committed in the House of God, explaining why his presence was forced to leave the Temple (Ezek. 8:9-18). In this vision, the Lord marked those who were faithful with an X (the Hebrew letter tahv) as a promise that they would be saved from the destruction that would befall all those opposed to God. His servants were instructed to pass through the city and strike down without mercy those who did not bear the mark (Ezek. 9:4-10). This marking and subsequent judgment in Ezekiel’s vision would have reminded the Jews of their history as God’s specially protected people, rescued in dramatic fashion at Passover. In preparation for the final plague, the Hebrews were to mark the two doorpost and the lintel to signify their identity and be spared from death (Exod. 12:7).
We are given a similar image in the Revelation to John, where once again a select group is made distinct from the masses by the bestowal of a mark, signifying their preservation by God. “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God” (Rev. 7:3). The 144,000 (a multiple of the 12 tribes of Israel: the assembly of God’s chosen) would be spared from the wrath of the Lamb. This also draws a distinction between those sealed with the name of God and those that bear the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:17). In other words, everyone bears a mark: we are either marked for God or marked for the anti-God; destined for everlasting life in the new creation or for everlasting death in separation from it, “for the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31).
So what do all these Scripture passages have in common? The Bible seems to consistently teach that being marked for God means two things: 1) a great tribulation is going to ensue, and 2) those who are marked will be spared. This is not to say, however, that being saved means that you will not suffer. It seems significant that being marked never, in Biblical Tradition, suggests that there are easy times ahead. Quite the contrary: those who are marked know that judgment is at hand; that an experience of “the great and terrible day” (Mal. 3:23) is assuredly on the horizon. The good news is that even though those who are marked will be a part of the same crisis as those who are not, their mark assures them that the crisis will not destroy them; it will purify them in preparation for the glory that awaits. Those marked by their identity in Christ have been called to share in his experience, as Jesus said: “I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you, No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:19-20).
Mosul Christians marked by the “Nun” fit this Biblical category, though they do so in a seemingly reversed way. While Scriptural revelation describes a marking for the faithful given by God for their protection, we are witnessing the opposite: the faithful given a mark by those opposed to Christ for their condemnation. But, when viewed in the context of the larger Biblical theme, we see that their mark (and ours, if we are courageous enough to accept it in our own sphere) accomplishes the same purpose in the end. The violence of this world is transformed into an instrument of divine justice in which the forces of evil at work in the world, bent on eliminating Jesus Christ, become the very means by which the glory of God is made manifest.
When we suffer at the hands of those seeking to remove God from the world, God is invited to become present in new and fruitful ways. When those who want us to abandon our faith persecute us, we truly become Christians. Our oppressors “open a hole and dig it deep, but fall into the pit they have dug. Their mischief comes back upon themselves; their violence falls on their own heads” (Ps. 7:16-17). Like the King’s servants who cast the companions of Daniel into the furnace, they themselves are consumed while the servants of God “walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord” (Dan. 3:22-23). The conditions of this world which, when fanned by the evil actions of fallen humanity, seem so incompatible with God’s presence, are the ones which, if we have patience and faith, can be the very conditions which bring about salvation. The ones who deal out vengeance become the ones who suffer its consequences, while the victims are consoled and vindicated. As we hear from the Prophet Malachi:
The day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire…. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays; And you will gambol like calves out of the stall and tread down the wicked; They will become ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day I take action, says the Lord of hosts (Mal. 3:19-21).
When is this day of the Lord of which the prophets spoke? It is past, present, and future. It is, as God himself is, always right now. It is right now that God offers us a share in his identity, with all the pain and all the joy that comes with that identification. He invites us to be marked for him: marked for rejection, marked to suffer, and marked indeed for eternal happiness with him. As we pray for the suffering members of our Church, whose suffering is our suffering, perhaps we should also pray for our own worthiness to be identified with our Risen Savior. It seems that in order to be marked for salvation, we must first be marked for persecution, suffering, and, in one way or another, a dying in this world and, hopefully, rising in the next.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a Christian home in Mosul, Iraq marked with the “N” sign.