The Beatitude for the Persecuted

The Beatitude for the Persecuted May 16, 2019

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If you have ever been insulted, ill-treated, had evil things said about you, hated, excluded, or suffered rejection for trying to effect societal justice, then this sayings of Jesus is for you:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.” (Luke 6.22-23)

There are a few things I need to say first. Experiencing ill treatment or exclusion doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the right. You could be being “persecuted” simply because you are a jerk! Keep this in mind. It’s equally true that any time people endeavor to effect the social changes, working for social justice, they will be slandered by whomever has the most to lose from those changes.

Societies rooted in domination and privilege are structured in the shape of a hierarchical pyramid: the privileged elite lives at the top of the pyramid while the subjugated live at the bottom. This domination structure isn’t always based on population: it is not always the elite few benefiting from the masses’ oppression. Sometimes a majority subjugates and oppresses a minority, a marginalized group pushed out to the social fringe by those at the center.

Friedrich Engels commented on this pattern: “(Ever since the dissolution of the primaeval communal ownership of land) all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social evolution; [this] struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, class struggles—this basic thought belongs solely and exclusively to Marx.” (Preface to the 1883 German edition of the The Communist Manifesto; London)

What we see in the teachings of Jesus is recognition that every person is a version of the Sacred Divine. Every one of us is of inestimable worth. We are, every one of us, deserving of the same sunshine and rain that falls on all life. Jesus casts before the imagination of his listeners a world where no one in our society is privileged at the expense of others. No more oppressed people, no more subjugated people. No more hierarchy. No more exclusion and marginalization.

Yet a world where the sun and rain are equally shared, where all the ravens and lilies are fed and clothed, can be very threatening to those who benefit from the presently imbalanced arrangement. 

When balance or equity is promoted, when redistribution of wealth is suggested, don’t rush to claim persecution. First ask yourself, “From what position in our society am I feeling like I’m experiencing persecution?”

“Am I in a favored position? Do I feel like I am losing some of my comfort and ease?”

If your answers to these questions are “Yes,” then you’re likely not experiencing the persecution that Jesus refers to in this saying.

But if instead you are pushing for greater justice and equity in our world, and intimately feeling pushback from those who have much to lose by moving in this direction, you are who Jesus is speaking to in our scriptures for the week.

In other words, are you at the top of the social pyramid and feeling like the entire world is changing around you? (see Acts 17.6). Or are you closer to the bottom of our society and feeling pushback from those higher on the hierarchy as you call for a more balanced world?

Where you are in the hierarchy of our society?

Which end of the pyramid do you feel “persecution” coming from?

Today, in my daily life as an American, I continue to bump into a group of Christians crying out that they are being “persecuted.” There are places around the globe where Christians are legitimately being persecuted. But here where I live, in America? Fearmongers have stirred up well-meaning people with the claim that Christians are under attack. 

There are legislative acts cropping up all over the nation from Christians who are not being persecuted, but are intent on bullying and making life harder on others. Too often, these acts practice discrimination against those who don’t share their religious beliefs. We saw this presently happening in the southern regions of the U.S. If one was truly concerned about lowering the number of abortions in a society, economic structures surrounding pregnancies must be addressed, birth control should be readily available, a woman’s autonomy over her own body must be supported and affirmed, not eliminated, and men must be held accountable for their choices. (Christians here in the U.S. have a long history of crying persecution when movements in society call for a equitable and just society. We saw this in the 1960’s when private Christian schools began popping up all over the south, claiming persecution. Yet these private schools were aimed at enabling White segregationists to opt out of the integration of the public schools in the name of “religious freedom.”)

What the Jesus of gospel stories proposes, instead, is a society that eliminates all injustice, especially for the marginalized and vulnerable. Injustice can be economic, racial, gendered, based on orientation, or whatever! Jesus has a vision for human society that mimics the indiscriminate shining of the sun and pitter-patter-pit of the rain.

People, who have the most advantages to lose by an equal society that looks like Jesus’s vision, too often cry persecution to stop it from becoming reality. (See Matthew 20.11-16) I’ve witnessed where I live locally Christian folks, too, claiming persecution, exclaiming, “unfair” in recent movements in our little town toward the direction of equality. (“Lewisburg is trying to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, and all anyone can talk about is bathrooms.) The irony is that they are the ones actually persecuting those calling for equity and justice.

Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who, as a result of following his distributively just vision for humanity, are insulted, ill-treated, have evil things said about them, are hated, excluded, or suffered rejection. And he tells us to take courage. If you are experiencing any of these judgments, you are following in the footsteps of the Jewish prophets.

Consider the book of Amos. Marcus Borg used to say he wished every Christian would read the book of Amos, and so, this week, I’d like you to read it. What you’ll discover is that the heart of the Hebrew prophets is social justice. A true Jewish prophet spoke on behalf of YHWH, critiquing the the social pyramid of their day, and calling for justice and equity for the oppressed and marginalized.

Jewish prophets stood up to the status quo’s exploitation or subjugation of others. They called those at the top of social pyramids to grant the oppressed justice. They did not call it charity; it was rather the restoration of that which was just in an unjust system. A false prophet, by contrast, would proclaim that the subjugation and oppression of the poor was the will of God or by God’s design.

Jesus stood in the same Jewish prophetic tradition as Amos, but he wasn’t alone: he called his followers to join him. When you and I follow the teachings of Jesus and stand up against oppressive systems in our own day, Hebrew tradition teaches that we are speaking with a prophetic voice as well.

Today, Jesus’s teachings call us to work for systemic change in favor of the marginalized, those pushed to the fringes, those less privileged, and those who find themselves bumping their heads against glass ceilings and feel their backs against invisible walls. We follow Jesus’s teachings when we work for these changes, either as members of oppressed and marginalized groups, or in areas where we find ourselves among privileged groups and able to work alongside the oppressed and marginalized.

All those who engage in this work will be insulted, ill-treated, have evil things said about you, be hated, excluded, and suffer rejection. Others may attempt to disparage you by calling you a “social justice warrior.” It’s okay. You’re in the right story!

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.” (Luke 6.22-23)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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