Every year since 1997, people in North Korea have celebrated April 15th as “The Day of the Sun”. It’s apparently the most important holiday the nation has where they celebrate the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday. He was the founder of North Korea and its former president, who—were he still alive and kicking—would be 105 years old.
The citizens of North Korea go all out for The Day of the Sun with a big parade where children get candy. But don’t look for floats made of paper flowers or clowns from the Shriner’s Club trying to get some laughs out of spectators by driving around in tiny cars. This parade is highlighted by showing off its weapons of war. Lots of them. Current president Kim Jong Un was there and he’s all about the fire power.
As all this took place yesterday, Christians here and around the world prepared to celebrate a different kind of power—the resurrection power of Jesus Christ—on this day, Easter Sunday. After remembering his suffering and violent death on Good Friday, we wait through the silence of Saturday to get to the joy of Sunday morning.
What a striking contrast of two celebrations. One that remembers a man who started a communist nation and celebrates by flaunting its military might that could wipe out millions of lives in mere moments. The other, held in gratitude and remembrance for a man who was God in the flesh—Jesus, the Son of God. Believers all over the world celebrate not so much the death of Jesus, but His life. What makes it so different is the empty tomb.
The man celebrated by North Koreans this weekend died and he stayed dead. His bones are still lying in his grave. But, with the power of God His Father, Jesus the Son rose again on the third day, and the Good News is—He’s alive and His Spirit lives in anyone who puts their faith in Him to forgive their sins. Jesus, the One Who Saves, beat death once and for all…and because of Him, so can we.
Now that’s real power—and that’s something to celebrate.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama and penned his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In it, he explained to a group of fellow pastors why he had to be in that city, which at that time, was the most segregated city in the United States. He wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Perhaps it was that same Spirit that desires to see freedom for the oppressed that prompted Kayla Mueller, a 20-something relief worker from Arizona, to go to one of the most dangerous parts of the world to help people living under the dark shadow of the Islamic State (ISIS). Kayla had done relief work in India in the past. When her boyfriend Omar Alkhani went to Syria to do some internet service work for Doctors Without Borders, she asked to go with him.
They were both captured in August, 2013 after leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Alkhani was beaten and released after two months, but Kayla’s ordeal was to continue on. According to reports that have since been confirmed by American intelligence, Kayla was raped repeatedly and forced into a “marriage” to top ISIS leader and financier Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
During her captivity, Kayla wrote a letter to her family that made its way to them and has since been released. To read it, knowing what we now know, is truly heart breaking. She tells her family she was “in a safe location, completely unharmed.” However, it’s apparent she was just trying to spare them any further worry about her situation. She’s even apologetic, to the point of feeling like forgiveness from them is beyond her reach: “If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness.”
She writes about her cellmates who were released…2 Yazidi teens who were also kept as sex slaves. They wanted her to come with them, but she insisted she stay behind because she thought her obviously-American appearance would put them in jeopardy and that they would all be re-captured. So she stayed behind. Though she was hardly old enough to be a mother to the teen-aged girls, Kayla’s family said she became a “mother figure” to them as they all tried to survive together. They were held in the home of another ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf and his wife Umm Sayyaf. The teens with whom Kayla was imprisoned confirmed Kayla’s forced marriage to al-Baghdadi. He would often come to visit the Sayyafs, and when he did, Kayla was taken to his room. When she returned, she would often be in tears and told the other girls what he did to her.
Her mother, Marsha said, “Kayla did not marry this man. He took her to his room and he abused her and she came back crying.”
Kayla’s death was confirmed back in February of this year, but even now, no one knows how she died. ISIS claims she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have not said that those were the circumstances that caused her death. As for the Sayyafs, Abu Sayyaf was killed in a May 16th raid by the elite U.S. Delta Force that intended to capture him, but was forced to kill him because he drew a weapon on them. This lead to a “treasure trove” of new information about ISIS, some of which came from Sayyaf’s wife Umm, who is said to have pretty much spilled her guts about ISIS leaders’ routines and locations. She also corroborated much of what the Yazidi teens had told to U.S. officials about Kayla and the torture she endured to the end of her life at the hands of al-Baghdadi.
What happened to Kayla Mueller is just one example on a long, long list of examples of the inhumanity of the group called ISIS. They behead men, burn people alive, crucify children, throw homosexuals off of buildings and force women and young girls into sex slavery. Kayla saw injustice and oppression on the other side of the world, and like MLK before her, decided she couldn’t sit and do nothing about it. She did what most of us wouldn’t be willing to do: to be a light in the darkest place on earth. She may have lost her life, but she gained so much more, as she clung to her faith in God. In her words, “I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”
If Kayla’s story has inspired you, please share it.