In the last of his articles on the Beatitudes, Hugh Bates asks who ‘the persecuted’ are, and whether persecution can be a blessing
Like the poor in the first Beatitude, the persecuted are promised the Kingdom of Heaven. But who is included? It should be a fairly straightforward business to identify those who have suffered, or are suffering, in a righteous cause. The prophets of old would be an obvious example. But does this exhaust the possibilities?
Identifying with the unrighteous
People are often only too ready to claim victim status for themselves, but the Blessing is something that is awarded, not assumed. They may indeed have suffered for what may be deemed the cause of righteousness and justice, but equally they may be persecuted simply for who and what they are.
They are different. They are perceived to be deviant, anti-social or subversive. Perhaps they are of the wrong race, nation or religious affiliation. Rightly or wrongly, they have forfeited any human rights they may once have had, and nobody may speak up for them. Anybody who shows them sympathy will risk being identified with those whom they befriend.
Thus the Suffering Servant ‘is numbered with the transgressors’. Jesus eats and drinks with tax-gatherers and sinners – not the most savoury characters. In the parable, the back streets and squares of the city, together with the highways and byways of the countryside, are combed to make up the numbers of guests to share the great king’s feast.
Is this what St Paul means when he speaks of ‘Christ being made sin for us’? To touch a leper was to incur pollution. To sit at table with sinners has the same effect. The healthy have no need of a physician. Paradoxically, the cause of righteousness involves identification with the unrighteous.
Cruelty to the righteous
Of all those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, Christ is the unique and supreme victim. The second chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon details the cruel experiments which the ungodly propose to inflict upon the poor righteous man. At last, ‘let us deliver him to a shameful death, for God will deliver him – or so he claims’. ‘He trusted in God that he would deliver him. Let him deliver him if he will have him.’
It is quite uncanny that this should have been written in Egypt, by a Jew who thought and wrote in Greek, who would have known nothing of the story of Jesus, and probably would have cared even less.
If persecution is a blessing, it is a very bitter one. We thought that we had rights, but now we find that we have none. They have been denied us. Bitterness and resentment is all that is left.
Reasons to be bitter
But if anyone had reason to be bitter and resentful, it would have been Christ himself. Yet, ‘as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, when he was reviled he did not revile in return, but committed his cause to the one who judges righteously’. His persecution was a blessing because it provided the final and supreme occasion for obedience and surrender to the Father’s will. I can make nothing of this but my Father will not be thwarted. He is able to take and transform even this to his glory.
‘The servant is not greater than his Lord.’ When St Paul was producing evidence that he was a true servant of Christ, he did not cite an impressive CV combining extensive evangelistic activity with impressive theological achievement.
Instead, he boasted in his weakness – imprisoned, stoned, beaten, shipwrecked; we can hardly hope nor expect to follow such a dramatic list of sufferings. Perhaps we need to become more ‘radicalized’.
The worst (or the best) that may happen to us is that we will be ignored, patronized, or simply tolerated. Now and then we will be bad-mouthed and discriminated against. But do not despair. Rejoice and be exceeding glad.
We must be doing something right, and the great reward awaits us.