‘Blessed Are the Persecuted for Righteousness Sake’
I remember reading about the experiences of Pitt Street Uniting Church and their minister, Dorothy McRae-McMahon, some years ago. Dorothy and Pitt Street Uniting Church (UC) had a prophetic ministry amongst the disenfranchised of the inner city. Over a period of a couple of years, Pitt Street UC came under attack from a group who were both racist and homophobic (she believes they were anti-Semitic as well but that wasn’t the focus of their attacks but members had a history of identifying with the swastika). The attacks didn’t seem to have an obvious focus but began after Pitt Street UC held two rallies for Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa. They had also been given publicity as people who had wiped out racist graffiti around the city. One morning as the congregation were worshipping, a group of men carrying a flag marched into their church, placed hated-filled literature on the lectern and distributed threatening material as they left. There were various forms of attack – hated filled pamphlets and letters, threatening early morning phone calls, graffitiing the house that Dorothy and others shared, throwing foul-smelling material around the house, late night knocks on the door and a ‘life-sized effigy of a woman burnt on my front doorstep.’ The group also sent a photo of themselves in army gear lighting the fire to a major city newspaper, along with the promise they would end Dorothy’s ministry. There were similar threats to others within the parish – threatening phone calls, hate-filled letters and pamphlets, racist stickers placed in the church and regular dumping of foul substances in the doorway of the church.
At first, the church decided to make minimal issue of it other than to alert the police. The attacks continued so they wrote an open letter to the group through the local daily paper. They outlined their position on the issues, which arose out of their reading of the Bible and responding to the call of Jesus on their lives, and said that regardless of the attacks they would not give in to this group. They would remain an open church community who welcomed everyone and stood up for those who were alienated, oppressed or marginalised. The attacks continued but the congregation felt empowered. They placed a large banner on the church that invited everyone to attend a rally that celebrated the unity and worth of humankind. It attracted hundreds of people turned up. Community leaders shared their own stories of human unity and representatives from more than 60 cultures offered gifts of their culture to the Australian community. When they had finished, the gathered people together received these gifts. Finally, an Aboriginal woman came forward and said that the gifts of her community would be fully offered into the community when justice prevailed. It was a powerful, grace-filled night that energised the wider community in love and peace.
Many from the local community gathered in support of this small congregation. They lobbied police and parliamentarians on behalf of the congregation. One morning as the congregation moved out after worship, local community members had gathered carrying posters with slogans like, ‘if the police won’t defend this church, we will’. The church also made contact with other groups who had been attacked by the same group and worked to support them.
‘Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven!’ From Dorothy’s story, we can understand something of the experience of powerlessness, fear and vulnerability of a small, faithful group who believe the Scriptures and seek to act on them in their communal and personal lives. There is persecution from those who disagree and feel threatened – it can be quite significant! Dorothy speaks of the fear she lived in for some months until she was able to share her experience and receive the peace of God through the support and encouragement of others (see ‘Everyday Passions’ – Dorothy McRae-McMahon, ABC Books 1998). There is also the sense of experiencing glimpses of the Kingdom of God amidst the persecution as others were drawn into the situation and the sense of community developed and the Spirit brought life and hope.
Another story is that of a couple, formerly of our congregation but now in Melbourne, serving with Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH). When they come to visit family, they share with our congregation how things are going. UNOH works amongst impoverished neighbourhoods to offer support, grace, faith and love. They live as those around them, relying on support from others for the small amount of money they need. They covenant to live on the poverty line and incarnate God’s love and grace amongst the poorest Australians. They live in shared households and welcome anyone who needs a bed and a meal. This opens them to abuse, theft, threat and a myriad of other problems. One of the workers shared how a young man with schizophrenia was going through a bad time and moved into their home (he has a wife and children). Whilst out the man threw his TV, VCR and other things into the lane way – the voices told him to. They didn’t find them for a week! Often they are attacked in various ways or threatened because they seek to live as Christ invites us to. They seek to live a life of righteousness, love and grace, incarnating God’s love amidst their community. They experience a different form of persecution for righteousness sake to that of Dorothy and Pitt Street UC. Others throughout the world are killed, forced out of families, communities, and so on, because they are Christian and seek to live faithfully according to Jesus’ way.
Jesus invites us to the edges of life where people need to hear and experience the Gospel of liberation, hope, healing, forgiveness and life. We are encouraged to live in a prophetic manner that challenges the status quo where it abuses people and dehumanises, where evil and sin abound, where people find themselves bound in addictive and oppressive lifestyles and where alienation and hopelessness prevail. We may find ourselves persecuted for the sake of righteous living but that is the way of Christ. Somewhere in our experience will be grace-filled moments pointing us towards the fullness of God’s Kingdom that will one day be revealed in all its glory and wonder!
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account! Rejoice and be glad!’
This is a strange kind of blessing that Jesus offers. It is one we don’t often hear preached from our pulpits! It follows on from the previous beatitude, where persecution can be considered an expectation for those who live in the way of Jesus (who walk the edge!). We cannot expect to receive any different reception to the one we follow, can we? We can’t expect that the world around will treat us any better than they treated Jesus and many of his followers.
Over the years, I have been attracted to many Christians who have taught me much through the story of their lives and ministries. Three, in particular, continue to inspire and challenge me. They are Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the Lutheran Pastor who helped form the Confessing Church of Germany under Hitler’s reign), Martin Luther King Jr and Archbishop Oscar Romero (of El Salvador). These three men all lost their lives. Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis because he opposed Hitler, spoke and wrote against him and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He wasn’t able to support the hatred, racism, violence and evil of the Nazi regime. Nor could he remain silent. He had opportunities to leave Germany but remained to share the fight. King and Romero were killed by those who feared them and disagreed with their stands, based on their faith and desire to follow Jesus. All were reviled and persecuted, falsely because of their deep faith in Jesus and ultimately lost their lives.
I’m not sure why these three attract me – I certainly don’t wish to follow in their footsteps of martyrdom – but there is something true and gracious about their lives. They were certainly not perfect and many imperfections, doubts and questions filled them. Regardless, they were faithful men who opposed the status quo of their context, fought for truth, peace, love and grace and glimpsed heaven. They were people who lived with a sense of their own peace and hope, despite the persecution and struggles they experienced.
These people were entrusted with the mission of God in this world and through their preaching, writing and prophetic ministry, they sought to transform the system, culture and values of the dominant society in which they lived – as Jesus did! The powerful of their time feared them and opposed them. In some sense, the powerful defeated them by taking their lives. In another, truer sense, they overcame the powers of this world in the power of God’s Spirit and proclaimed the truth of God’s Kingdom to those who had ears to hear and eyes to see. They followed Jesus way!
The more they were opposed the stronger they became and they gave voice to the hopes and expectations of many powerless and oppressed people. Romero went from an ineffectual, ignorant archbishop who was welcomed, wined and dined by the wealthy and powerful of El Salvador. After the poor of his congregations took him to see how the poor really lived and how the powerful oppressed and murdered them, Romero was transformed. It was a spiritual conversion – his eyes were opened and his heart filled with compassion. He became the voice of the voiceless in that small, struggling nation. He gave voice to truth, peace, hope and justice. He was rejected by those who formerly befriended him. He was persecuted by the powerful. He was threatened and knew that one day he would be murdered. He said that if the government or powers silenced him, he would rise up in the voice of the people, the common, oppressed people. That is exactly what happened. He was murdered whilst offering the Eucharist and his death empowered the people to rise up and seek the justice and hope Romero proclaimed. He experienced grace and peace in God, through the profound love and care of the poor for whom he spoke out.
Blessed are we when we are courageous enough, faithful enough, vulnerable enough to live in the way of Christ, to walk the edges and live as hope-filled people. Blessed are we when the world persecutes us, reviles us, accuses us falsely or tries to silence the gospel we live and proclaim because of the One we proclaim and gives us life, hope and joy – Jesus!