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"The Meaning Behind Being Blessed Are The Persecuted"

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—ST MATTHEW 5:10.

Perhaps of all the Beatitudes this last is the most obvious and requires the least explanation. All that is good within man rises up in revolt at the notion of the excellent and noble being persecuted; every instinct of natural justice approves the promise of a reward hereafter to those who have suffered for God’s cause here. A man might not feel himself strong enough or convinced enough to take a very bold line about religion, who yet would read the stories of the early martyrs with a secret envy. He would wish he were as they, he would count them happy because of the halo which undeserved suffering spreads over them, because of the courage of which their deaths were the outcome. And so, whenever we look back, we have no difficulty in recognising the truth of this Beatitude. The victims of religious persecution, those who endured the rack and the flame for the sake of their conscientious beliefs—men like Huss and Savonarola—kindle the admiration even of men who may be hazy about their own religious convictions; for there is something in the historical recital of undeserved suffering, bravely and nobly borne, which calls out man’s deepest sympathies and moves his most profound admiration. It is not only that we recognise now the cruelty, the barbarity, even the stupidity of religious persecution in the past; it is not only that there is now a natural reaction against what everyone once took as a matter of course; in the deepest parts of their nature men have always felt the wrong of it, however much bigotry and passion may have stifled the expression of their feelings. When we think of the cruel scenes which have disgraced this earth we know quite well what is meant by “being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” All cases of distinct persecution, where loss of life or goods, or where painful sufferings have been inflicted by heathens on Christians, or by Christians on one another, for the sake of religion—all such are plain and unmistakeable enough, however deplorable they may be. Alas, we have not to look far for such now under the hateful reign of the Turk. At this hour our hearts turn sick and our blood boils when we read of the atrocities committed in the name of the Turkish Government.

I. It does not seem very likely that there will ever be a revival in Europe of such persecution, at any rate in an open fashion; for it has become transparently obvious that that particular method of stifling conscientious convictions only succeeds in stereotyping and fixing them more securely. Every cause that has really got any backbone of solid conviction behind it is the better, the stronger and the more deeply rooted for being persecuted. Persecution that stops short of extermination makes the survival stronger, cuts off the insincerities of unreal professions, draws men together, and kills their personal rivalries. No doubt a trace of religious tyranny remains among us which would burn if it could, but it is never likely to regain its power; for so convinced have men become of the folly of persecution of the kind of which I have been speaking, that they are unlikely to propose its revival on grounds of mere worldly policy. But it can never fail to be a subject of regret, to all those who are jealous for Christian morality, that historically the evolution of toleration came through ation of Christ’s own principles and meaning.

Public persecution, however, for whatever reason among civilized nations, has passed away; but men and women and even children still win the blessing of those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The warning of the Master, “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” will never lack its fulfilment. The expansion of this Beatitude in the verses that follow—“Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake” will never cease to have its meaning, for the persecution by means of flame and sword, or even through the spoiling of goods, does not exhaust the possibilities in this direction. There are still all kinds and varieties of private persecution, which involve no actual violence, but which certainly leave behind them a train of misery. The persecutors whose weapons are gibes and sneers, or innuendoes and cruel speeches, the spiteful neighbours or even irreligious and worldly parents, are always pursuing their hateful trade in some shape or other in the quiet places of the earth. There are still the meek and gentle who have to bear without a murmur things that are harder than public disabilities—secret troubles, private miseries and stinging words that leave a pain behind them. Who shall say who knows anything of the private side of some lives, that give no sign in public, that persecution for righteousness’ sake has yet ceased? In shops and places of business and even in homes where the world rules, it goes on; there is much bitter if unpicturesque suffering in holes and corners of the earth; there are chills and estrangements that test the strength of principles; there are misrepresentations and slanders which cause misery to the innocent and patient. Not that such think themselves persecuted even when they suffer the most. There is nothing of the martyr-pose about them, no aggrieved countenances nor long-suffering expressions; only “the Father Who seeth in secret” notes their shrinking and marks their efforts to be brave, counts their tears and pronounces them blessed, “The patient abiding of the meek shall not perish for ever.”

We cannot doubt that, when the last account between heaven and earth shall be made up, it will be found that those who have suffered for Christ and for righteousness in private and social life have endured as much, even in actual bitterness, as those who have been persecuted unto death.

And the consciousness of this will be our great support in those trials which ever and again come to those who have to do unpopular duties, or to further unwelcome causes, or to say things which do not at the time meet with approval. By patient acceptance of whatever reproach or misrepresentation may come to us, we establish a fellowship with all those who, in every age, and under whatever circumstances, have suffered for Christ “of whom the world was not worthy”; we are being made perfect with the faithful confessors of every age of whose company in other respects we feel ourselves to be so unworthy. All suffering for Christ’s sake looks forward; it is in St Paul’s language “an evident token of salvation.” I do not mean to say that such considerations should move us to take up causes merely because they are unpopular or because they have a good religious sound about them, still less out of sheer antagonism; for nothing that is not born of a convinced sincerity could find a point of union with the great Sufferer. But what helps us so much, when we are witnessing for what we know to be true and right, is the sense of our fellowship with Him and with those who have followed in His steps. All history tells us that nothing has been more powerful in its moral influence than the adherence to truth and duty where that adherence has cost much—“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” When the eloquent tongue has said its most brilliant word, it has not climbed beyond the first rung of the ladder of influence, which has been scaled by those who have meekly endured “persecution for righteousness’ sake.” There are things which die with men and there are things which live on after their death, and assuredly the result of a life which has learnt this inmost lesson of the Cross will ever be to “bring forth much fruit.”

II. But those who would keep the sense of this blessedness have need always to beware lest they lose the very thing itself through loss of the necessary spirit for attaining to it. There are essential characteristics of this spirit of Christian endurance which Christ has pronounced blessed.

(a) And first of all, it must be filled with love. If a man die for Christ’s sake with a grudge in his heart, or with an angry feeling about his persecutors, he lets go of the Christian spirit. Stephen’s “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” expresses the only possible attitude. “A man may poison the blessing in the very cup of his sorrow by a hard and an unforgiving spirit.” Those who have died for Christ’s Church, or for some apparent cause of His, with threats of damnation towards their persecutors on their lips, or hurling texts like “Vengeance is Mine” at their adversaries, have proved themselves to be none of His. If we forgive not our brother his trespasses we have no right even to forgiveness for ourselves, much less can we expect a higher blessing.

(b) And another consideration is that no man has a right willfully to court persecution or ill-treatment (if with a good conscience he can avoid it) for the sake of winning the blessing promised to the persecuted for Christ’s sake.

People who are in earnest often forget this; they provoke persecution by folly and unwisdom; there is a kind of conceit which would sooner be ridiculed than remain unnoticed. One must ever remember the woe pronounced upon those who create hindrances and make themselves stumbling-blocks to others by their own folly. *Christian suffering is a gift of God, and that is no gift which is asked for, usurped, or taken, that can bring no blessing which is won at the expense of another’s sin. The persecution which carries the blessing with it can not be brought upon a man’s self by his own folly, by a mere unhealthy craving for a mock martyrdom; it must come (when it comes) altogether from the evil of others; it must be the wilful antagonism of men to the truest reflection of the Christ within us. We may be “fools for Christ’s sake” in the sense that others may see no worldly wisdom in our Christian profession, but we are not to make fools of ourselves for Christ’s sake—a caution which, at any rate in some of the developments of modern ritualism, is not unneeded. It is a fearful thing to provoke others to sin, or by folly to turn men into scoffers. If we would really catch His spirit of endurance we must study the Passion of Christ. None ever was persecuted as He was, and none was ever righteous as He was, yet He has no desire to win the blessing at the expense of others. Again and again He withdraws Himself before His enemies, because His hour was not yet come. He passed through the midst of the crowd to avoid violence. He reasons, He argues, He persuades, He shows deeds of love, till everything is exhausted. He has done all that He could. At last He must suffer. He stands firm, He is true to His Mission, and the result is the Cross and Passion, “The cup which My Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” The highest teaching even of Calvary is to give oneself without a thought of gaining good for oneself for the sake of others. This is self-sacrificing love. Let us gaze on it till it sinks into our very souls, and we shall be ashamed of the folly that courts ridicule or makes our brother to offend.

We shall do the highest right that we know and take the consequences, but we shall count this the highest blessing of all—to win others to share our hopes, and to enter into their complete fulfilment.

* Moberley on “The Beatitudes.”

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Persecuted for Righteousness. In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 176–184). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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