A Review of
The 21: A Journey into
the Land of Coptic Martyrs
Reviewed by David W. Swanson
I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten about the twenty-one men whose beheading in Libya by ISIS fighters was broadcast around the world in 2015. In the ensuing years my memory has constricted to the frenetic pace of our world’s rolling timeline of disasters and tragedies, whether close to home or, as with those young men kneeling before their masked captors, on a lonely beach on the other side of the world. It was the cover image on Martin Mosebach’s recently translated book, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, that jostled my mind. On it we see a procession of bound men in orange jumpsuits, their heads bent under the heavy hands of their captors, dressed head to toe in black. Even those readers who had forgotten this story, or had somehow managed to miss it the first time, will understand that this choreographed march will end terribly for the men in orange.
I say that I am ashamed to have forgotten because Mosebach, a German novelist and poet, in his pilgrimage to Egypt in search of the stories behind their murders, discovers how deeply the men’s Christian faith had prepared them to face such gruesome deaths. While the Coptic expression of Christianity in Egypt has a significantly different shape than my own, the overlaps in beliefs and allegiances cannot be missed. How is it, I wondered, that my own generally comfortable version of Christianity has distracted me from the sorts of trials and suffering commonplace to so much of the church around the world?
The heart of The 21 is not the gruesome massacre foreshadowed on the book’s cover, though it is the gravity which pulled the author to Egypt looking for answers. It can’t help but capture our attention as well. The twenty men from Egypt were joined by a migrant worker from Ghana in their quest to find work across the border in Libya. In 2014 political instability roiled that country, rendering the Egyptian Christians vulnerable to ISIS. Still, like migrant workers all over the world, they remained in their precarious circumstances in order to support their families back home. Toward the end of that year they disappeared and were not seen again until the video of their final moments was released.
Mosebach, a Roman Catholic, is drawn to Egypt by a curiosity about the circumstances which led to the men’s deaths. “How might I get closer to them and find out more about their lives, their origins, and the circumstances in which they grew up?” (7) The details about the lives of many of the church’s martyrs throughout history are lost to us; we know them only through the immediate circumstances which led to their deaths. But in this case, staged and recorded for mass consumption, the author sees an opportunity to figure out what would lead this group of impoverished farmers to become the ultimate symbol of Christian sacrifice and faithfulness.
The author’s questions about the men’s sacrifice quickly become ours as we learn about their agrarian lives among extended family members. For the Copts in these villages, life seems centered on work, family, and most of all, in Mosebach’s telling, the church. In fact, what begins as a pilgrimage to understand the martyrs as individuals, becomes an exploration of the church that so thoroughly formed their character and assumptions about the world.
One of the frustrations about The 21 for this reader is that we never really learn about the men as individuals. Despite organizing the book around chapters titled with each of the martyrs’ names, Mosebach is unable to discover much that made the men distinct. They were ordinary in every sense, with little to have predicted their spiritually significant deaths. It is, in fact, difficult to distinguish most of the men from one another. While visiting the two priests who had visited the migrants while they worked away from their families for months at a time, the author learns that they slept together in a small room. “Seeing the Twenty-One sleep on the floor, one beside the other, for months on end, as a community, they had always viewed them as a group… the men had been a choir from which individual voices could not be distinguished.” (130)
Being a Coptic Christian in Egypt means experiencing life as a vulnerable minority. In this environment, the church is a compass pointing beyond earthly struggles. The Copts, we are to understand, are living an expression of the earliest forms of Christianity, as though Christendom itself had never happened. Faith in this region assumes persecution, suffering, and even martyrdom as inevitable attributes of discipleship.
The answer to the author’s question about what led the men to their martyrdom repeatedly comes back to the church that was the center of their lives. This is a church with hundreds of fast days throughout the year, whose services last for hours, and whose buildings fill with young people for spontaneous prayer. The author devotes one of his longest chapters to the liturgy of the Coptic Church which he understands as having been the strongest formation in the young men’s lives. However “little or much there is to be learned about them,” he writes, “they can in any case certainly be called homines liturgi, men of the liturgy, which in the Western world is now a very rare mode of being human.” (152)
While The 21 spends most of the time in proximity with the Coptic faithful, Mosebach begins in dialogue with Egyptian friends who are skeptical – scornful, even – of the Copt’s piety. And he ends with an excursion into New Cairo with an artist who thrills to the burgeoning neighborhood’s malls and western franchises. Homines liturgi is contrasted with their more modern cousins, people whose identities are rooted not in the transcendent but in more immediate cynicism and consumerism.
Though he doesn’t say it plainly, it’s as though the author-cum-pilgrim concludes that only a people so rooted in their church’s liturgy could produce the faithful sacrifice the world was introduced to in that terrible video. Only a people who had already been shaped so thoroughly to understand themselves as outsiders to this world will be willing to face the world’s violence and hate.
David W. Swanson ( dwswanson.com ) is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church and the founder of New Community Outreach in Chicago’s Bronzeville community. His book about race and discipleship will be published with InterVarsity Press early next year.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com