Review: The 21


The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic MartyrsMartin Mosebach, translated by Alta L. Price. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of the background and faith of the twenty-one men martyred on a Libyan beach by ISIS, profiling their village, family, the Coptic faith, and the challenges of living as a minority religion throughout history.

Twenty-one men in orange jumpsuits walk single file along a Libyan beach, each accompanied by a hooded figure clothed in black. They are forced to their knees with a figure in black behind each, holding their color with one hand, the other hand on a sheathed dagger. Then the speech “The Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Then back to the kneeling men, who in the last moments of their lives softly pray, “Ya Rabbi Yassou!” (O My Lord Jesus!). The video resumes, twenty one decapitated bodies, heads laid on their backs.

With this, twenty Coptic migrant workers and a Ghanaian Christian who had joined their company, become martyrs and saints. Icons are printed of each with the martyr’s crown. Their remains become sacred relics.

Martin Mosebach traveled to Egypt to explore the families, the village, the land, and the faith associated with these men, a group he refuses to call “victims”  because “they had a strength that granted them a well-protected inner core of independence, and I was convinced their murderers cruelty couldn’t penetrate that deep.”

He begins with a dialogue on martyrdom with a “doubter” exploring what to many of us is the strange phenomenon of people who accept the consequence of death out of love for Christ. Mosebach then takes us on an exploration of the culture out of which these men came. He interviews the bishop of these men and discusses the history of oppression and martyrdom etched deeply into the Coptic Church. He visits first their pilgrimage church, and then their village El-Aour, in upper village. We meet their families, most in new homes because of assistance by the Egyptian government. We hear of men who were good sons, husbands, and people of integrity and piety, yet ordinary young men. One, after hearing a sermon about martyrdom said, “I’m ready.” We meet Fathers Abuna and Timotheus, who had ministered to the migrant workers in Libya until it had become too dangerous. They tell of this group sharing a single room to send more home to their families, their readiness for martyrdom, and Issam, who especially seemed to play a role in strengthening the resolve of the others.

The latter part of the book goes more deeply into the Coptic Church, the liturgy that shaped them, their special connection with the flight of the holy family into Egypt, the church hierarchy that mirrors the heavenly hierarchy of angels and archangels, the cloisters. We also zoom out to the larger context of Egypt and the cave churches of Mokattam next to the garbage mountain, old and New Cairo, and the minority that calls itself “The Church of the Martyrs” in a time of increasingly tenuous relations with the Muslim majority.

Mosebach neither glorifies or denigrates any of this. Rather, he takes these people on their own terms. He brings to life a church most of us know little about, that has preserved the ancient faith from earliest Christianity, has survived and even revived under great pressure, and whose people have lived with martyrdom, not as a theoretical possibility, but a possible reality.

Through Mosebach, the martyrs also bear witness (what the word “martyr” means) to those of us in the West. They bear witness to love for Christ in the face of death. They bear witness to faithfulness as a religious minority when conversion would be easy and safe. We also see working men, some illiterate, trying to support their families, now pictured with martyrs crowns. One thinks about the last being first, the humble exalted. Many who will read this have far more education and other resources. I do, and I find myself wondering, both how I would respond, faced with what they were faced with, and whether many of us will be among the “least of these” honoring these men.

The Coptic Church has been a footnote in my church history. Through this book, I realized that I need to reconsider that outlook. Might they be one of those parts of the body of Christ worthy of greater honor? Might there be gifts they have been entrusted with, as well as an important history, that the rest of the church needs? Above all, if we are entering a post-Christian world, they may have much to teach us of how, then, we might live…and die.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Scandal of Redemption

the scandal of redemption

The Scandal of RedemptionOscar Romero (edited by Carolyn Kurtz, Foreword by Michael Lapsley). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: Diary entries and radio broadcast homilies by the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, capturing both the injustices that moved him and the gospel message of hope he proclaimed to the oppressed people that eventuated in his death.

Oscar Romero became the Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, considered a “safe” choice who wouldn’t rile the oligarchs–until one of his priests, Rutillo Grande was shot down by a gunman connected to an alliance of government and oligarchs who controlled the wealth of the country. When Romero went to the church where Grande’s body lay, he spent time both in prayer and listening to stories of violence and exploitation of the people. From then on, he insisted that the rulers of El Salvador, many formally believers, rule with justice. On that day, he said, “There can be no true peace or love that is based on injustice or violence or intrigue.”

This work, with a brief introduction to Romero’s life, collects nine of his homilies, broadcast over the radio, and a number of his diary entries. The diary entries recount the many visits and meetings in which he comforted survivors of killings, and worked with those seeking justice. The homilies apply gospel teaching to how the church must live, resorting neither to violence nor secular liberation movements, nor allying with the powers that be. The church is called not simply to pray and bear it, but to speak on behalf of the powerless, to forthrightly expose injustice, and to be willing to walk the way of the cross in confronting injustice.

What surprised me was to find how deeply grounded in the gospel Romero’s appeal was. He taught,

For Christ does not suffer for his own faults; Christ made himself responsible for the sins of all of us. If you want to measure the gravity of your sins, simply look at Christ crucified…

His message is a call to continuing conversion:

Conversion means asking at every moment: what does God want of my life? If God wants the opposite of what I might fancy, then doing what God wants is conversion, and following my own desire is perversion.

While affirming the true liberating power of the gospel, he denies the power of secular liberation movements to free people:

By his resurrection Christ offers all the liberators of the earth this challenge: ‘You will not free people! The only liberation that endures is that which breaks the chains on the human heart, the chains of sin and selfishness.’ 

He vigorously opposes any political captivity of the church:

“The Church is not on earth to gain privileges, to seek support in power and wealth, or to ingratiate herself with the mighty of the world.”

The nine homilies in this collection cover the topics of “The Creator,” “The Word Made Flesh,” “Redemption,” “The Call,” “The Way,” “The Church,” “The Kingdom,” “Liberation,” and “All Things New.” As I read these sermons and diary entries, they revealed a gospel that was not an opiate for those crying out “how long?” but a call to Christ-centered faith, to holiness in all of life, and a courageous refusal to allow authorities to cover oppression and violence and exploitation with a cloak of spiritual legitimacy. It makes me reflect on the sad state of political captivity of significant sectors of the American church while other brothers and sisters, as well as the creation itself, cry out “how long?” It challenges me as I read of the courage of the El Salvadoran priests and lay people who died violent deaths for what they stood.

The book closes with Romero at prayer at a funeral mass, on March 24, 1980, for one of the martyrs:

May this body that was immolated and this flesh that was sacrificed for humankind also nourish us so that we can give our bodies and our blood to suffering and pain, as Christ did, not for our own sake but to bring justice and peace to our people. Let us therefore join closely together in faith and hope at this moment of prayer for Doña Sarita and ourselves.

Moments later Romero lay dead at the foot of the cross, slain by a gunman, who fired at him in this moment of prayer.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.