March 26, 2008

Blessed Are the Persecuted. Really.

2008 1509 page50 capF A BEATITUDE GOT AN AWARD FOR MOST blatantly ignored, my vote’s for “Blessed are the persecuted.”
In today’s hypersensitive, religiously correct culture of victimization, shrieks of “Blasphemy!” and “Anti-Christian bias!” fill the airwaves and Internet. But to tell the truth, when I see self-appointed guardians of virtue leaping to their feet at every perceived slight against Christianity, I never think, Wow, I wish I had what they have. They look so . . . blessed.
The odd catch to it all, though, is that what gets their goat the most are the least consequential issues. For instance, when God told Israel, “Don’t take My name in vain” (see Ex. 20:7), one thing He meant was, “Don’t take Me for granted.” But when I get an e-mail spreading an urban legend about “In God We Trust” coming off American money, I wonder, Since when did God become nothing more than something we never notice ’til it’s gone? Didn’t Jesus tell us to look for Him in the people around us, not just omnipresent invisibilities that take His name in vain? Shouldn’t we focus on people who actually are suffering and being persecuted for Jesus’ sake—and rejoice, rather than whine, when those people are us?
The Bible’s advice on relating to outsiders stands in stark contrast to such attention-grabbing, outsider-condemning antics. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 5:12 not to criticize non-Christians for their sexual immorality (“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?”). And most pointedly of all, Jesus reminds us in John 3:17 that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
2008 1509 page50As for those Internet forwards I sometimes get, too few of them focus on genuine persecution. Nobody’s e-mailed me about, say, the Adventist pastors in Uzbekistan fined last year for conducting worship services at home (all religious groups are restricted in the majority-Muslim country as an antiterrorism measure). Maybe if we dedicated ourselves to solidarity with the truly persecuted around the world, we’d be a little less petty here at home.
Christians experienced persecution from the outset—their faith was founded, after all, on a Man falsely imprisoned and executed. And for the first few hundred years, Christians not only expected persecution, they embraced it. The beatitude “blessed are the persecuted” is three times longer than the others. Jesus continued, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11).*
The moral is clear: Following God has never been a job 
for the faint at heart. Describing the other-worldly perspective shared by those who gladly suffer for God, the author of Hebrews exclaimed: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:35-38).
Witnessing is something Christians love to talk about, but most of us avoid it as much as possible. Sure, “everything we do is a witness,” and “we should witness by our lifestyle,” but we usually avoid anything that truly contrasts with our comfortable, middle-of-the-road routine. Yet Hebrews 12:1 declares that “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, . . . let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The Greek word for “witness”? Martyr.
When we think of reasons to rejoice today, we think about increased tithe rates, scores of baptisms, maybe a new gymnasium at our alma mater. We don’t praise God for the cancer, or the car crash, or the foreclosure. When not working Sabbaths restricts our career opportunities, it’s hard to give God the glory.
But when we give ourselves wholly to God’s will, trusting that no matter what we face He will resolve everything to His glory, people can’t help noticing something different about us. A certain peace. An indefinable confidence. A transfixing reflection of God’s character.
When people spend their time kvetching about how they get no respect, for some reason it doesn’t tend to inspire more respect. When people live like they know something worth dying for, selflessly pouring themselves out for others “like a drink offering” (Phil. 2:17), as Paul wrote from a dungeon, the world takes notice.
*New Revised Standard Version, paraphrased.
Tompaul Wheeler wrote the books Things They Never Taught Me and GodSpace. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


issue header 2008 1509 52 2008 1509 page52 capESUS SOMETIMES PREACHED AND told parables without explaining the truths behind the message. Some hearers probably walked away with nothing more profound than a warm fuzzy feeling, while others, like miners after gold, dug deeper for the wealth of the gospel. The Master Teacher, Jesus encouraged His hearers to discover truth rather than leading them directly to it. It wasn’t emotional, unquestioning disciples that Jesus wanted, but engaged, thinking followers.

The Beatitudes illustrate Jesus’ preferred style of teaching. These sayings seemed almost foreign in the religious world of first-century Judaism. In a culture that prized wealth, power, and connections as indicators of God’s blessings, Jesus’ difficult words about what heaven values most must have sounded entirely strange.
The wider Sermon on the Mount in which the Beatitudes are found reinforced that living right sometimes means choosing options that don’t deliver more wealth, power, connections, or comfort. Jesus urged believers to choose heaven’s values over any other value system, secular or religious.
Twenty centuries later, His words remain powerfully 
relevant to our lives.
Jesus’ teachings do not lead to greater comfort, at least at first: How can a believer stay “pure in heart” when it appears that money and power often pull strings to sway decisions—even in the name of the gospel? When race, ethnicity, or culture play a more prominent role than telling the good news? How do you live as a peacemaker when those closest to you—perhaps even your own family members—refuse to make peace, when they ignore the conflict, or enable atrocious behavior?
I can’t remember the last time I hungered and thirsted for righteousness. With increasing age, a routine emerges that eats away at my desire to know the gospel and change my life accordingly. Perhaps that’s just it. I know that if I were to hunger and thirst for Jesus’ good news, I would have to change my life—and I like my life the way it is. I don’t want to make the changes called for by His teaching because they might turn my life upside down.
That is surely a formula for gaining my comfort but losing my soul. The attraction of the familiar is so much easier: attend worship and go to religious meetings rather than actually do something in the world and for the world outside of my “church” life.
How should I engage with the world around me? I see 
misery, violence, torture—and persecution—all around. How should I relate to the persecution others are experiencing when I am not the one being persecuted?
I’m not comfortable courting persecution or being actively involved in reducing it. I’d rather just pray for the people in Somalia, Darfur, Chechnya, Tibet, Yangon, and any other number of places. Isn’t prayer more effective than human action? Besides, getting involved in Amnesty International, Save Darfur, Refugees International, or any other number of organizations will put me on their mailing list and I would have to attend meetings.
I can’t attend those meetings, hear those stories, bleed over those crises when I am supposed to be sharing the gospel, attending spiritual retreats, converting the heathen, preaching in developing countries, dealing with planning committees, and preparing for the Second Coming. I’d rather simply send those agencies a donation (provided I get a tax deduction of some sort) than be actively involved.
Besides, isn’t there some place in the Bible that says there will always be those who will be persecuted? There should be. Maybe this is how those who are suffering will find the door to the kingdom of heaven.
A tongue-in-cheek soliloquy, to be sure, but not so far off the way I sometimes think.
And so unlike Jesus.
Jesus was involved—involved with the Samaritans, the Romans, the publicans, the lepers, the sexually immoral, the Pharisees, and the “average” individual. He was involved—concerned, compassionate, engaged, and active. Jesus relieved suffering wherever possible.
And those who are persecuted suffer beyond our imagination.
When Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who suffer for their faith in Him—“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness”—He wasn’t issuing a call for His followers to seek persecution in the work of the gospel. He was reminding them that persecution would attend their following of Him, and that this experience should give them a special sensitivity to other victims of intolerance, prejudice, and heartlessness. Not one thing that the persecuted experience is missed by God—a God who sees and understands their suffering. The persecuted are blessed because God always remembers them, even when His people forget.
We read the blessing on the persecuted as applying chiefly to ourselves—as Christians—but the blessing Jesus spoke extends as far as the compassion of God extends. When we are not the ones being persecuted, it is our mission as His followers to support—to stand up and shine for—those who are being victimized. Some of us may have the tendency to act as the priest or Levite (or, dare I say, the thieves themselves?). But like the Samaritan in the parable (Luke 10:30-35), we are to lift those who are suffering and deliver them from the atrocities committed against them. The blessing on the persecuted both offers an assurance of God’s presence in our personal times of trouble and calls us to get involved and reduce the pain and suffering when others are the ones being persecuted.
“You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).
Leave your comfort zone. Shine well so that others may appreciate the Source of your energy.
Falvo Fowler is an executive producer of Sabbath School University and an editor in the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland.

issue header 2008 1509 54
Spoken in the schoolyard,
Born of careless words.
And actions battering like fists
Pummel in the workplace.
Places (even)
Such as church pews
Are not safe.
Isn’t an option where
We live.
We feel the sear
As hatred brands through word and deed.
Better left undone,
Fall from their (and our) own fingertips.
The scales, embrace the pain,
And turn to One who will heal.
(When) healing
Comes, the words will lose their sting
. . . teardrops will fall away in Heaven’s wash.