8. those who are persecuted
Blessed are those who are ‘persecuted because of righteousness’.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5.10)
In approaching this text, I think it is very important for us to be clear about what Jesus is not saying, before we consider what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not saying ‘blessed are those who are persecuted’. As if there is some intrinsic merit in suffering persecution. Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus ever suggest that suffering – especially suffering persecution – is essentially meritorious or glorious at all. What Jesus does say is: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteous-ness’. (Matt.5.10) It is the willingness to suffer persecution ‘because of righteousness’ which is inherently worthwhile.
All through the gospels Jesus tells his disciples if they want to be ‘righteous people’ in an ‘unrighteous world,’ they will need to face the same inescapable certainty of systematic persecution as he did. Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12) and ‘You are the light of the world’ as well. (Matt.5.14) Which, at first, seems wonderful; but, on second thoughts, is a role, which has dreadful consequences. A light is not only a blaze, which attracts interest; but is also a radiance, which illuminates darkness. ‘Everyone who does evil hates the light – because they do not want their evil deeds to be exposed.’(John 3.20) People who ‘do not want their evil deeds to be exposed’ always do their best to crucify enlightened figures like Jesus and the good folk who seek to follow in their footsteps. So Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16.24) He says: “Be warned. All people will hate you because of me…they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.” (Matt.10.17-25)
We are not to called to suffer, but to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If suffering is necessary in order to do justice in the face of injustice, then so be it; the call to follow Jesus, in that case, is a call for us to suffer for ‘righteousness’ in the same way as Jesus did. ‘Christ suffered for you’, Peter wrote, ‘leaving you an example – that you might follow in his footsteps!’ (1 Pet.2.21) The telling word in this sentence is the word Peter used in his letter for example. It is hupogrammos. Which indicates the perfect line of writing at the top of an exercise book, that anyone who wants to learn to write, needs to learn to copy, as closely as they can. Thus, Peter is saying that when it comes down to it, we need to copy Christ as closely as we can – developing our capacity to suffer persecution for ‘righteousness’ like Christ. 1
There are three things that we can achieve by our willingness to suffer persecution for righteousness. We can overcome evil; we can accomplish good; and we can witness powerfully to the way of Christ.
Firstly, we can overcome evil. To be persecuted for righteousness is evil. When people do evil to us, the temptation is to return evil for evil. But that only serves to strengthen the stranglehold of evil in the world. So, we are explicitly instructed not to return evil for evil under any circumstances. (Rom.12.17) Instead of reacting to evil, we are expected to absorb evil, without reacting, and thus destroy its power. ‘ Do not resist evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ (Matt.5.39)
As Gale Webbe says, ‘There are many ways to deal with evil. All of them are facets of the truth that the only ultimate way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like a spear into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.’ Those who ‘turn the other cheek’ when they are persecuted for righteousness, as Christ said, are blessed because when they absorb the insult and the injury, ‘like a spear into one’s heart,’ the evil ‘goes no further’. 2
Secondly, we can accomplish good. In an evil world, we are only ever free to do the good, if we are prepared to suffer persecution for righteousness. In our willingness to suffer is our freedom to act. Jesus says, in a context where people may kill you for doing the right thing, ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it’. (Mark 8.35)
Viktor Frankl, says what he observed as a Jewish psychiatrist in a German concentration camp was, that if we compromise our values in the hope of staying alive at any cost, we lose our souls and become ‘zombies’; but if we have a steadfast bottom line of righteousness we will not compromise – even if it means being killed – we are blessed because we can be true to ourselves and preserve our humanity.3
Thirdly, we can witness powerfully to the way of Christ. Someone dying for a cause doesn’t make it right. But a manifesto of love, written in blood, cannot be easily dismissed. A movement, which is worth dying for, may lay claim to be worth living for. Our suffering can reflect the way of Christ, that is the only beacon of hope for compassion in the dark corners of our current pitiless political economy.
Christ says those of us who are ‘persecuted because of righteousness’ are blessed, because though we may not be honoured for our quest for justice now, we will be honoured in the world which is to come.