Blessed Are Those Persecuted for Christ

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:11-12

The Beatitude before this one pronounces a blessing on those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Taken in isolation, it would be easy to read that Beatitude as a sort of general “Rah, rah for the underdog” sentiment. But coupled with this saying, it takes on a very different sense. For this Beatitude is a refinement and a refocusing of the one preceding it. Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are, whether they realize it or not and whether they like it or not, persecuted for Christ. So the pro-life atheist like Nat Hentoff who endures brickbats and ultimately loss of his job at the hands of people committed to the murder of the unborn is, whether he knows it or not, suffering on Christ’s account.

This does not mean that salvation is guaranteed everybody who endures persecution. One can be unfairly persecuted and still be a jerk, a fool and a dastard. The murder of SA brownshirt Horst Wessel may have been political persecution, but that did not baptize Nazism or render Wessel a martyr for righteousness.

But still and all, the fact remains that those who do God’s will are doing it whether they think they are or not — and inasmuch as they are doing God’s will even in ignorance of the One they serve, they may be in for a happy surprise among the sheep who say, “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee, or thirsty and give Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger and welcome Thee, or naked and clothe Thee? And when did we see Thee sick or in prison and visit Thee?” Such people have no idea they are serving Christ. But they are doing so nonetheless. And we have it on pretty good authority that “the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”

If this is true of those who suffer for Christ without even realizing it, how much more true is it of the Christian martyr, who endures all sorts of abuse and even goes to his death in conscious awareness that he does so for Jesus Christ? That is the ultimate meaning of the promise that lies behind this (rather frightening) last Beatitude of Jesus’. Like all the Beatitudes, it’s counter-intuitive. We admire martyrs, but we don’t want to be one. And this is especially true of Christian martyrdom since a) the devil really tends to pull out the stops for Christian martyrs (just read the hair-raising stories of the fiendish cruelties devised for them) and b) these days, you don’t even get the payoff of the admiration of the mob that some of the early Christian martyrs got. William Tecumseh Sherman once remarked that the lot of a soldier is to die in battle and have his name spelled wrong in the papers. The lot of the soldier for Christ in our current culture is to get beat up in the culture wars (and in some parts of the world, killed) and have it covered by headlines like “Sectarian strife in Iraq” (meaning “Innocent Christians who did nothing to provoke their neighbors but exist are getting threatened, robbed, beaten and shot by Muslims”) or “Religious zealot hits innocent man in fist with nose, assaults bystanders’ knee with groin.”

We see this all over the place among the Manufacturers of Culture, where the general media narrative goes something like this (inhale deeply and read the next paragraph as quickly as possible without taking a breath):

That Radical Muslims fly planes into buildings or burn down Europe over cartoons is the fault of religion—and by “religion” we mean “Christians” and especially Catholics, who are every bit as evil, if not more so, than the 9/11 bombers. Let’s not forget the 45 million people killed by the Inquisition and besides those Indian Christians getting bombed and burnt alive had it coming for proselytizing and the real murderer is the Pope who wants to kill all the AIDS victims in the world and oppress all women and Christians hate science and reason and they think too much and don’t trust the intuitive Flow of Nature’s Energy and they cause all the wars and they refuse to fight for what’s right and they are always changing their tune and they refuse to change with the times and they complicate the simplicity of Love and they are unbelievably simplistic and they don’t admit the truth that Jesus was really a New Age Sacred Feminist, a marginal Jew, a magician, a homosexual, a myth, etc. (He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water. – e.e. cummings)

In short, the basic rule of thumb is to respond to every act of persecution against Christians with a tu quoque while focusing on isolated acts of violence by Christians as a demonstration of the Inmost Essence of Christianity (because we all remember the huge anti-semitic pogrom that accompanied the release of The Passion of the Christ, right? It stunned a world still reeling from the riots, murders, burning and looting that accompanied the release of The Da Vinci Code and the fatwas and assassinations that followed The Last Temptation of Christ). News of Christian persecution in China, India (or, for that matter, Britain) is wrapped up in a litany of self-contradictory complaints and accusations about how Christians have it coming in which any stigma will do to beat a dogma. Outrages are perpetrated against suffering Christians every day around the world, and the general method of our Manufacturers of Culture is to simply ignore that and focus on the phantasm of some imminent “theocracy” if a bishop or preacher remarks that abortion is bad or heterosexual marriage is good. If that fails hold up anti-Christian nutjobs like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph as “fundamentalist Christians” (no one will be the wiser that they were in fact hostile to Christianity) and emit the standard moral equivalence bleats. The point is: when Christians get killed for their faith it’s no big deal. They’re just Christians after all.

Having said that, here’s the thing: it’s easy as pie to note the injustice of an anti-Christian media culture that is always looking for (or manufacturing) reasons to despise Christians and downplay the abuse heaped on them. It is entirely natural for Christians to do so and I, for one, have no trouble following the natural course here.

But the Beatitude does not urge us to take the natural course and Jesus does not, in fact, follow my lead and spend a lot of time complaining about the obvious injustice of the world toward the Church, just as he did not spend a lot of time whining about his own persecution, passion and death. To be sure, he warns the Church of the injustices to expect. But he does not instruct the Church, “When they persecute you, file a class action suit.” He does not say, “You will be hated by all men, and you must write angry letters to the editor complaining about this fact.” He does not urge us “When someone strikes you on the right cheek, let it burn with resentment at the injustice of it all.” His counsel, as usual, is counter-intuitive. He tells us to do things like cowboy up and take it (“He that endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)) and even more astonishingly, he says we should rejoice.

That would seem incredible and impossibly pollyanna, except that we know for a fact that his followers have actually pulled it off down through the ages. From the apostles in Acts, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer for the Name, to Paul, writing from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4), to St. Thomas More greeting the news of his condemnation with gratitude to the King who was ordering his judicial murder to the martyrs of the 20th century such as Edith Stein, who wrote her fellow on the way to Auschwitz to tell them her prayer life was going wonderfully well, we see that it really is the case that we can rejoice and be glad about suffering for Christ.

Paul could write such words—instead of “Why me?” or “This shows the need for the proletariat to rise up and smash the oppressor!” or “God must really hate me and I deserve it!” or “This proves I really am a saint since people hate me!”—because he could see beyond his circumstances. He set his mind on Christ and saw everything through Him. Instead of being amazed at the injustice of the world to him or (worse still) assuming that being a victim automatically made him a saint (something every narcissistic slimeball in the world assumes), he instead kept his eyes on Jesus and let him do the justifying. He kept in his heart that Jesus had said “If they call me Beelzebul, they will do the same to you.” He focused on Jesus, not on himself or on his persecutors.

This meant that Paul was not shocked or offended by persecution. Paul had no comforting modern mental buffer in his head which assured him that people used to persecute Jesus’ followers long ago in the early Church, but that such thing are no longer to be expected because we are Americans or live in the 21st century. He knew that Christ’s words to the Church were his words to the Church, not to “the early Church”. And so, Paul recognized that his very bonds were simply another way of being conformed to Christ, who was Himself part of the prison population on the night before His own execution. Paul could rejoice, realizing that to live was Christ and to die was gain. He (following Jesus) endured what he endured, not because he couldn’t wait to get out of this lousy world, but because he couldn’t wait to see the world renewed. He knew that joy, not grief, is the final word that will be spoken. And he knew that our task is to ready our souls to receive it. So he knew that “he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” and urged the Church “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:8-9).

Oddly, our post-Christian culture and its ideological jailers, the God-haters and acolytes of the New Atheists, really detest the notion of Christians bearing up under suffering (whether through persecution or just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) in the hope of a heavenly reward. They simultaneously declare that there is no God, that Christians should join the “Blasphemy Challenge” and denounce him as evil for permitting them to suffer, and (failing that) that Christians are vile mercenaries whose hope of Heaven is a cheap childish consolation that seeks to escape the fact that life’s a bitch and then you die.

This is curious when you think about it. Good materialists should operate under the assumption that since this life is all there is, it doesn’t matter what Christians think about the afterlife. But they don’t. Instead, they rankle at the thought that the talking piece of meat who is bound for the grave has hope for life in the next world. Indeed, since they themselves are constantly banging on about the fact that We Create Our Own Meaning, you’d think they wouldn’t mind it if a Christian holding his little girl as she gasps out her last breaths after a car accident found consolation in the thought that she is going to her Heavenly Father. But the instinct of the New Atheist is to crush all such hope, to extinguish it by any means and to resent any possibility of its fulfillment. They cannot rest with anything less than the complete triumph of death and the void. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, heaps contempt on Jesus’ Resurrection on the grounds that his Passion wasn’t a real sacrifice if he didn’t have the decency to stay dead. Others condemn Heaven as “escapism” (a subject jailers are particularly concerned with). In all this, we hear the note of Hell that C.S. Lewis describes in his classic work The Great Divorce: the curious lust of evil to extend Hell. Like Lewis’ ghosts, the God-hater is not content to make this life into Hell for Christians, the persecutor of Christians hopes to stamp out all hope in the next life too. He is not content saying that this world is a cacophony of meaninglessness, a raw struggle for survival in which Christians are deluded fools best killed so that the Fit can survive. He must seal it with the final triumph of the Void.

It is this desire to extend Hell that ultimately drives the contempt for Heaven as a “reward” among God haters and other jailers in the employ of the Zeitgeist. They mask this Hell-extension agenda with a moralistic condemnation of heavenly rewards as “working for a bribe”. But this is rubbish. A man who marries for money is dishonestly working for a bribe. A man who marries his Beloved because she is his Beloved is obtaining the reward proper to his love. Likewise, the Christian who endures persecution for Christ does so in order to obtain Christ, who is his heavenly reward. Other rewards (virtue, joy, eternal life, power, communion with the saints) shall attend that reward, just as other rewards (family, a home, new friends) often attend the grace of marriage. And such things have their place so long as they do not supplant the great and more perfect object of love. None of that is “mercenary.” It is simply the fullness of human life.

So it is idle to complain that Christianity is “selfish” in seeking Heaven. That’s like accusing Christians of not being Buddhist and seeking the extinction of the self. Christianity is not and never has been purely altruistic. It does not and never has sought the extinction of the self. The command by Christ to “lose your life” has never been an end in itself but has always had in view the goal of “gaining your life”. There has always been an element of reward in it, because it is all about seeking the desire of your heart with God in a communion of love, not about living in the icy loneliness of stoic pride. But though Christ calls us to seek our reward he frankly tells us that it will indeed be heavenly (i.e, ordered toward relationship with him and his Body), not mercenary. Therefore, in this world, we shall have tribulation since this world is at enmity with him. But this world is not the end of the story. The next will be wonderful!

Christianity is, in fact, quite frank and open about the fact that it promises to give us what we most deeply want—what we cannot, in fact, not but want: happiness. In a word, Beatitude. It has no truck whatever with any moral theory that tells us we should not desire happiness. In fact, it explicitly denies that it is even possible for us to not desire happiness. The only thing we can do is desire and attempt to gain happiness in right or wrong ways. Every act of virtue has as its ultimate goal the ordered pursuit of happiness. Every sin is a disordered love of some good, in short, a grab at happiness done wrongly. Even the suicide commits self-murder in the pursuit of happiness.

It’s because of our tendency to look for happiness in wrong ways (due to sin) that Jesus gives us the Beatitudes, because without them we will always act by the light of our fallen intellect, weakened will and disordered appetites, which tells us that it’s crazy to lose your life in order to save it and insists that the war of all against all is the iron law of existence.

So, since you are going to seek happiness no matter what, you might as well do it by following the directions given by Him who is Happiness. If you are nervous about this whole “laying down your life” thing (as who isn’t?), listen to the voices of our ancestors in the Faith who have already field-tested the Beatitudes in the crucible of experience. For us, as for them, our model in all this is, of course, Jesus who was Himself innocently persecuted and put to death for no cause other than that He bore witness to the truth of who He was—and He came through it rather well, promising that we would too if we relied on Him to get us to where He is.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:1-4)

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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