Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jesus and the Suffering of His Followers


Woodcut of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer,
Oxford, 21 March 1556


In his 1539 treatise, "On the Councils and the Church," Martin Luther provided a list of seven marks of what could truthfully be called, in the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, "una, sancta, catholica et apostolica ecclesia" ("one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church"). The seventh of these marks is striking to those of us raised in the comfortable West, where Christianity, at least in the dessicated form of civil religion, has historically been the dominant religious presence and contributor to the culture at large. This mark, in a word, is persecution:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil. the world, and the flesh ... by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God's word, enduring this for the sake of Christ.
First, a disclaimer. I am now 55 years old, and have never personally been the object of persecution. Yes, I have been laughed at, mocked even at times for my belief in what they describe as "my invisible friend upstairs." Yet I have never suffered bodily harm or civil consequences for my faith. Indeed, the experiences of Jan Hus, Thomas Cranmer, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, let alone millions of my contemporaries in the two-thirds world, are as foreign to my own experience as their faithful responses to persecution and martyrdom are inspiring.

This is why I stand perplexed at the stance of many in the "evangelical" Christian world today. It may be uncharitable to speak of a "Christian persecution complex," but the fact remains that an increasing number of American Christians view themselves as besieged defenders of a putative "Christian" America under attack from the nefarious forces of secularism and pluralism. Recent months have brought this phenomenon to the fore once again, both with the perennial chest-beating over the supposed "war on Christmas"—is the greeting "Happy Holidays" really offensive?—and the kerfuffle over Denver quarterback Tim Tebow's very public displays of piety.

Now, I understand full well the sense of loss involved here. I, too, remember a simpler time when liberal Protestantism was the de facto civil religion of the land and real Christmas carols were sung and performed in public schools—in my case, the late, lamented Oakmont School in Havertown, Pennsylvania. I remember a time when Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism were accorded a societal privilege not granted to other faiths. And, as a young Christian, I was fine with this. Time moves on, however. More than four decades down the road, I realize that the era in which Christianity was granted societal pride of place is in the past. More importantly, I am more than ever convinced that days may be on the horizon in which followers of Jesus, myself included, will indeed pay for their discipleship with their lives.

Nevertheless, the nagging feeling remains that much of the current penchant of Christians to complain of persecution is both unseemly and unChristian. First, the constant complaints trivialize the true nature of persecution. Whinging over mockery demonstrates thin skin more than it does faithfulness to the gospel of the cross. Of course, none of us enjoys being laughed at and ridiculed. But such treatment pales in comparison to that which millions of today's saints gladly suffer from Sudan to Indonesia and countless places in between.

Second, many of the current evangelical complaints derive, it seems to me, from displeasure over the notion of the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Of course, interpretations of such separation that attempt to ban all public religious displays and speech are patently invalid. Yet so are attempts to deny that such constitutional separation exists or that, somehow, Christianity is not thereby refused pride of place in the public square. Constant complaints such as "Tebow wouldn't be criticised if he were a Muslim," or "Christianity is the only religion not allowed to be practised openly" are both empirically false and based on the presumption that Christianity, as the culture's predominant religion, should be treated accordingly. But time marches on, and de facto religious pluralism has arrived. Christianity must therefore relinquish its assumed pride of place and take its place in the public square. And this is, in my opinion, a good thing. Any would-be Christianity that resents its fall from cultural hegemony and shrinks from its God-given responsibility to confront the world in proclamation and apologetics is a bastard Christianity unlikely to be of any use for the kingdom of God.

Third, and most important, the current evangelical complaints about persecution are unChristian in that they patently ignore what Jesus said about the persecution his followers would inevitably experience. The place to start is the famous Sermon on the Mount. This is what our Lord reportedly said:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12, ESV).
I would like to summarize the import of this text in three points. First, the theological context in which persecution must be understood is that of the inauguration of the kingdom of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is seen most clearly in verse 10, in which the reason for the "blessedness" of the persecuted lies in their present status as heirs and citizens of the kingdom. This eighth beatitude indeed forms an inclusio with the first beatitude of verse 3: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The intervening beatitudes in verses 4-9 all promise future blessings for Jesus' disciples. By means of the literary device of inclusio Matthew thus intends to define these future blessings as kingdom blessings whose eventuality is made secure by the inbreaking of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus.

What is immediately striking to any American reader is the description Jesus gives of the types of people who meet God's favor and thus are "fortunate"—the poor (in spirit), mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after "righteousness," the merciful, the "pure" in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted. These are not the categories to which the world—especially America—aspires, and Christianity's elevation of such people has sparked derision from the wise of the world, not least Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom power was the summum bonum. You see, the values of the kingdom of God invert the values of the world. Those who by faith and through the Spirit live those values inevitably arouse the opposition and wrath of those who don't. By invoking the presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus supplies the perspective necessary for his followers to understand that all is not as it presently appears. This perspective likewise encourages them to persevere in the hope that they will be vindicated when the kingdom arrives in its fullness.

Second, persecution is a sign of God's approval and favor only if it is the consequence of the disciple's quest for "righteousness" and identification with Jesus, the crucified Messiah. "Righteousness" is a fancy theological word with various meanings. Matthew, however, consistently uses the word to refer to right conduct that God requires. As such, Jesus' followers are those that "hunger and thirst" after righteousness (Matt 5:6), seek the righteousness of God's kingdom (Matt 6:33), and thus who will enter the kingdom with a righteousness exceeding that of the notoriously pious Pharisees (Matt 5:20). What this "righteousness" entails is elaborated on in the content of the Sermon on the Mount. It is not mere external conformity to law, even God's law. Indeed, I would suggest that it is the "eschatological" righteousness of those who, by the Spirit, have circumcised hearts (Deut 30:6), who have been given a new heart and new Spirit (Ezek 36:26), and who thus have had the law "written on their hearts" (Jer 31:33). This righteousness, in other words, is the product of the transformation of the human heart as a result of the fulfillment of God's new covenant promise.

This "righteousness" is also one that must be tempered, as Richard Hays has suggested, by a "hermeneutic of mercy." This hermeneutic is especially clear in Jesus' citation of Hosea 6:6 ("I desire mercy and not sacrifice") in dispute with the Pharisees (Matt 9:13; 12:7). Indeed, those who have experienced God's mercy will temper their interactions with others with the same mercy they were shown by God. Anything less devolves into the very self-righteousness that far too many Americans see manifested in Christ's supposed followers today.

Finally, Christian victims of persecution are to respond by rejoicing in their suffering. This is one area where today's American Christians, with their propensity to whinge, clearly miss the mark. Nowhere does Jesus' ethic of nonretaliation come into greater relief. Those who love their enemies will pray for them and deal with them according to the golden rule. When insulted, they will not reciprocate but rather "turn the other cheek." And most certainly they will not complain about persecution but rejoice in it. Jesus indeed teaches his followers to understand such persecution as validation for their discipleship. Faithfulness to Jesus, like the faithfulness of the Old Testament prophets, will result inevitably in societal opprobrium. The kingdom of God, however, guarantees that their reward, which today is hidden, will gloriously be revealed when that kingdom is manifested in its fullness.

In the meantime, let us look to the example of the apostles who, when beat by the Sanhedrin, "rejoic[ed] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). We can do no less for the one who suffered and bled for us.


The cross marks the spot on Broad Street in Oxford where Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake on 16 October 1555 and 21 March 1556 (photo courtesy of the author, 19 May 2002)

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