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The 21 martyrs of Libya. Icon written by Tony Rezk.

The 21 martyrs of Libya. Icon written by Tony Rezk.

By murdering the 21 martyrs on camera, the Islamic State wanted to make us a passive audience for their theater of horrors.

But against their own intentions, in trying to tell their story, the killers presented us with a clear choice and an important opportunity to act.

We know the story they wanted to tell: “We can terrorize these Christians at will, because our strength and cleverness have brought them into our grasp.”

But the real story of what brought Copts into their grip is not one of terrorist genius. The truth is, the martyrs were snared by preventable causes: the crushing poverty and lack of jobs that drove them to Libya.

If we had addressed the root causes that pushed those fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles to leave Egypt in search of their daily bread, there would have been no massacre of Copts on that beach.

Let there be no mistake: It’s not for a lack of wanting to help that we failed to prevent what happened. Our readiness to help is immense; our Coptic generosity pours out at the first sign of a tragedy like Libya.

This tradition of giving after the tragedy is laudable; no one questions the importance of helping the victims’ families when disaster is past. But it is not the same as having a vision for the future.

In that light, here is the choice before us: Will we continue mainly to react to tragedies by aiding the victims — or will we start working together to end the causes that make Copts victims?

These are two very different approaches to dealing with poverty. One — the “charity” approach — reacts to events and relates to people as victims. The other — a “transformational” approach — is proactive and defines people as partners in transforming lives and developing communities.

What makes the second approach “transformational” is acknowledging that all true change comes from the Holy Spirit, and flows from and points to the Kingdom of God.

Put more simply, a charity approach says: “If you help people pick up the pieces after their tragedy, you’ve done your job.” In contrast, the transformational approach says, “Let’s start working side-by-side now so that we all become closer to the Kingdom of God, and are strong enough to head off tragedies.”

It might sound abstract, but I’ve seen the transformational approach make huge changes in the lives of children, adults, and their communities. Just as importantly, this way of “working together” is transformational for all of us living outside Egypt. So choosing one or the other approach has real-world consequences.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re one of the hundreds of parents I’ve met in the Saeed, where the poverty is ferocious and the jobs are scarce.

If you’re a father in a village, your work may be drying up. Your children may be getting thinner before your eyes. Going to Libya may mean death. But you’re willing to risk it for your family. So there you go, and there you die.

Suddenly, after you’re gone, there’s help for your family. Which is important, and one way we affirm that we’re all responsible for each other within the Body of Christ.

But the help doesn’t change the fact of your torture and death, nor does it restore you to your wounded family. Nor does it repair your lost contributions to your church or your community.

Wouldn’t it have been better if the flood of generosity had arrived before you were massacred?

Moreover, wouldn’t your life have been a different life, your village a different village, your Egypt a different Egypt — had that generosity had been focused on improving your family’s education, encouraging your entrepreneurial ideas, promoting job creation, and developing community resources?

Most importantly, wouldn’t that have kept you from desperately seeking bread for your children in places where the Islamic State is a threat — or is ready to hatch?

One thing is for sure: You can’t massacre someone who isn’t there. That’s a sure form of prevention.

To go back to the original thought: The Islamic State wanted us to focus on their capacity to do Copts harm. But the more important story is our capacity to do ourselves good.

This is our choice. We can still make the best outcome from the worst intentions.