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The Beatitude of Persecution
by Jim Forest
I used to sing with my children the black spiritual that rose out of Jacob’s vision of the angel-filled ladder linking heaven and earth:
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Pilgrims of the Cross.
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Pilgrims of the Cross.
Perhaps it’s from singing that lovely song so many times that I came to understand that the Beatitudes are an eight-runged ladder to heaven that starts with poverty of spirit and rise to the Cross and finally to the joy of the Resurrection.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount begins with the ten verses we know as the Beatitudes, or, as the Russians call them, “the commandments of blessedness.” With only a little effort, all the Beatitudes can be memorized. Once we learn them by heart, we carry within us for the rest of our lives a short summary of the teaching of Jesus Christ: the whole gospel in a grain of salt. The Beatitudes provide an entranceway, a glimpse of where we are going, and a map of how to get there.
According to tradition, the “mountain” on which Jesus announced the Beatitudes was in fact a massive hill near Capernaum, an ideal place for a large gathering. While our family was picnicking near the top of that hill in 1985, admiring the sweeping view of the Sea of Galilee, we found ourselves listening to a spirited black minister from Chicago explaining the Sermon on the Mount to a crowd of American pilgrims. The minister must have been 50 yards away but we heard his voice easily. It wasn’t hard to imagine a much larger crowd listening to Jesus teach in the same place 20 centuries before.
The Mount of the Beatitudes is linked with Mount Sinai, a barren fortress of stone in the southern Sinai desert, on the pinnacle of which Moses, amid flashes of lightning in a dense cloud, talked with God and received the tablets of the Law. But there are contrasts more striking than the difference between a green hill and a pinnacle of rock. On Sinai, only Moses was permitted to come near, while in Galilee, anyone who was curious was welcome to listen to the Son of God explain the principles of living in the Kingdom of God. Moses had to hide in the cleft of a rock to endure proximity to the glory of God. But on the Mount of the Beatitudes, God shows himself as the Son of Man. Infinity hides itself in that which is finite. The Uncreated Light is illumined by sunlight. The Maker of matter, the Source of all being, leaves footprints on the earth.
The Meaning of Blessed
“Then he began to speak and taught them,” writes Matthew. What we hear next is Jesus’ inaugural address.
There are eight Beatitudes, eight facets of discipleship, each an essential element of living in communion with God.
Christ gives them to us in an exact order. There is a pattern to his arrangement. Each step builds on the foundation of the previous step, each leads to the next, and each is indispensable. We can’t divide them up, retaining those we find appealing and leaving those we don’t care for to others, as if one could specialize: “I’ll take peacemaking—someone else can concentrate on purity of heart.”
Consider the word blessed. The first word of each Beatitude isn’t an everyday word. We have to ask ourselves before going further what blessed and beatitude mean.
Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the gods in Elysium, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word St. Jerome, patron saint of translators and author of many letters that were hot enough to cook on, opted for in his translation of the “blessed are” verses.
Beatus can be translated as “happy,” though in my opinion the word happy isn’t ideal. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for “luck.” The word happen is a daughter word. A happenstance approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a haphazard manner is to do things by chance. To be hapless is to be unlucky, but to have good luck is to be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star—they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.
The Founding Fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.
But what about the word blessed? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant something consecrated to or belonging to God.
The Greek word used in the Beatitudes is makarios. In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Kari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix ma the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.
In Christian use, makarios came to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky, all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes, and that the objects that produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities that seem humanly unattainable.
So perhaps one way of understanding the word blessed is to read it as “risen from the dead.” “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit, risen from the dead are they who mourn. . . .”
The Underlying Poverty
While our special concentration on this occasion is on the last Beatitude, the Beatitude of persecution, I want first to consider the first Beatitude, the Beatitude of poverty, as poverty of spirit is involved in each Beatitude and finds its culmination in readiness to suffer for Christ’s sake.
Poverty is not something Americans are encouraged to aspire to. We avoid poverty like the plague, have wars on poverty, and court wealth avidly. If the smell of wealth could be bottled, it would be the most popular of perfumes. The scent of poverty would not do well on the marketplace. The word makes us nervous. We do our best to understand it in a way that won’t make our lives less comfortable or make our relatives and neighbors begin to worry about us having lost our minds. (When St. Xenia of St. Petersburg began to give away her fortune, relatives summoned a doctor whose job it was to certify that she had lost her mind. Perhaps the first miracle in the life of this particular Holy Fool is that the doctor told the family she was the only sane person he had ever met.)
The Greek word used in this verse is ptochos. It refers not just to a person who possesses very little but someone who is destitute. There is another word for a person who has the basic necessities—no luxuries, no savings, nothing superfluous—but is not in debt. He lives from the honest work of his hands and enjoys the respect of his neighbors, while a destitute person has been reduced to begging and has, as Jesus said of himself, “no place to lay his head.”
The state of need Christ describes is urgent and absolute, the desperate condition of need of someone at the very bottom. One way of translating the first Beatitude into modern English is, “Blessed are the beggars in spirit. . . .”
This does not mean that we must become panhandlers to become followers of Christ. We learn from the calendar of saints what myriad forms poverty of spirit can take. There is no one-size-fits-all Christian vocation. We have on the one hand people like St. Basil the Blessed, whose name is linked with the great church on Red Square in Moscow, a man who lived much of his life wearing either nothing or very little more than Adam wore before the Fall. But there is also St. Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles, a ruler who probably wore enough clothing for several people, ate well, and lived in a palace. The Slavic people regard him as a saint not only for bringing the people of Kiev to the Dnieper River for baptism but also because, following his conversion, he himself gave a heroic example of what it means to follow Christ. He became renowned for his care of the poor, the orphans, and the sick. The palace gates were opened to the hungry. He built hospices for the aged. He banned torture and executions.
Sanctity is not the automatic consequence of having empty pockets and winning the Ascetic Olympics. There have been many penniless people whose feats of asceticism were displays more of pride than of poverty of spirit. Early in his monastic life, John the Dwarf announced to a brother that he was going deeper into the desert, declaring that from now on he would live like an angel. Several days later, close to starvation, John knocked again on the brother’s door. “Who is there?” asked the brother. “John.” “No, it can’t be John,” said the brother. “John is now an angel—he no longer needs food and shelter.”1
The exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life.
Dorothy Day, a saint of hospitality and a writer who often recommended voluntary poverty to readers of The Catholic Worker, wore hand-me-down suits and struggled to own as little as possible. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. She was distressed about the irritation she felt when her books were borrowed and not returned—“I am too attached to my library,” she confessed to me more than once. The impressive thing is that this attachment did not cause her to live a life in which her books would have been less likely to disappear.
St. Francis of Assisi spoke of having “Sister Poverty” as his bride. “Holy Poverty,” he wrote in his “Salutation of the Virtues,” “destroys the desire of riches and avarice and the cares of this world.”2
We see in all saints that, no matter what they possessed, they held their possessions lightly. As St. Leo the Great observed:
While it cannot be doubted that poverty of spirit is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich, for submissiveness is the companion of those in want, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of mercy, regarding as the highest profit that which it expends in the relief of others’ hardships.3
The superficial differences among the saints are stunning, yet when you look closely at the life of any saint, you discover that what he had or didn’t have was part of his particular obedience to Christ. All saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit—the condition of being a spiritual beggar—is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.
Other than Christ himself, Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit. Her unconditional assent to the will of God is a model for every Christian: “Be it done to me according to your word.” She is quietly present at every step along the way and with the apostles after Pentecost. At the marriage feast at Cana, after drawing her Son’s attention to the fact that there was no more wine, she instructed the servants of the feast, “Do whatever he tells you.” This is her advice to all who follow her son. Whenever we defer our will to the will of God, we open ourselves to God’s transforming power, just as she did.
The Foot of the Cross
Now we have to pretend we have climbed the next six rungs and have at last reached the foot of the Cross, the high point of poverty of spirit: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”
Far from winning applause and peace prizes, those who try to live the gospel are often punished, sometimes severely, as many prophets were, as Christ was. The last century was a century of unparalleled martyrdom. We do not yet even have a reasonably accurate estimate of how many millions of Christians died in Russia as Lenin, Stalin, and others sought to create a God-free society. A few years ago I visited a forest near Minsk where for years trucks full of people arrived every day year after year. Every single person was shot in the back of the head or neck and thrown into the pit that happened to be receiving bodies at the time. I don’t recall how many pits there were in all. There were many. The process of state-sanctioned murder only ended in 1940, when fighting Hitler’s armies became the national priority and the war against the Church was put on hold.
As you enter this forest where so many were murdered, you find a large cross erected by the local Orthodox church. The main symbol of Christianity is not the star of Bethlehem or the empty tomb but the cross. For the ancient Romans, it could hardly be imagined that the cross might one day become a religious symbol. The cross in the Roman Empire was what the electric chair, guillotine, and hangman’s noose are in our world, except that the cross was an especially slow, painful, and humiliating form of capital punishment. The condemned man was stripped of all his clothing. The usual cause of death was not loss of blood but hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and heart failure. Until its abolition by the Emperor Constantine in the year 337, crucifixion was used within the Roman Empire to kill slaves, rebels, and those condemned for especially abhorrent crimes. In areas like Judea, crucifixion was intended to deter resistance to Roman occupation. After the Roman siege of Jerusalem, many Jews were scourged, tortured, and then crucified opposite the city walls. Josephus says the soldiers “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different positions.”
But what had been a symbol of Caesar’s ruthlessness became for Christians the sign of Christ’s victory over death—“the holy and life-giving Cross,” as Orthodox Christians call it, though the cross didn’t look either holy or life-giving at the time of the crucifixion. Only after the Resurrection was it seen in a transfigured light, to the extent that St. Paul could declare, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).
“We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote St. John Chrysostom, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained. . . . Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”4
In the same vein, St. John of Damascus wrote:
Every action . . . and performance of miracles by Christ is most great and divine and marvelous, but the most marvelous of all is his precious cross. For no other thing has subdued death, expiated the sin of the first parent, despoiled Hades, bestowed the resurrection, granted the power to us of disdaining the present and even death itself, prepared the return to our former blessedness, opened the gates of Paradise, given our nature a seat at the right hand of God, and made us the children and heirs of God, save the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.5
The Early Martyrs
Roman civilization, in general remarkable for its ability to absorb all sorts of peoples, cultures, and religions, found Christianity indigestible and did its best to destroy its adherents. Those baptized in the first three centuries of the Christian era knew that their conversion would not ease their life in this world. The numerous saints of the early Church were all martyrs—from the Greek word, martus, meaning “witness.”
The early Christians frequently gathered at the graves of martyrs to remember their witness and be strengthened by it. The blood of the martyrs, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the Church.6
Some martyrs had been found out as Christians by such actions as refusal to offer incense to Caesar. Others, like St. George, openly proclaimed their belief in times of persecution: The dragon we see George lancing in the familiar icon represents the beast of fear. It is an icon of spiritual warfare.
In the ancient world Christians were persecuted primarily because they were seen as undermining the social order—this despite the fact that in most respects Christians were models of civil obedience and good behavior. St. Peter called upon followers of Jesus to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him. . . . Be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but to the overbearing.” St. Paul wrote on similar lines: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God.” Yet it must be noted that Paul was himself in prison at the time. He was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. It was not the view of those who ordered his execution that Paul was a model citizen.
The problem with devout Christians always has been that we hold ourselves obedient first of all to Christ rather than to the emperor, king, prime minister, or president. As the martyr St. Euphemia said: “Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven. If they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted.” Following torture, Euphemia was killed by a bear in A.D. 303, during the reign of Diocletian. It was the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century.
People like St. Euphemia and the Great Martyr George were not law breakers in the sense the phrase is usually understood today, though anyone who grew up in the former Soviet Union will understand perfectly well what it is like to live in a society in which not only behavior but also beliefs are imposed and in which punishment may be more severe for those whose ideas are off-track than for those who steal or commit acts of violence.
Christians resisted the cult of the deified emperor, would not sacrifice to the gods their neighbors venerated, and were notable for their objection to war or bloodshed in any form. In a text written by the pagan scholar Celsus in A.D. 173, Christians were condemned for what today would be called conscientious objection. “If all men were to do as you do,” he wrote, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”
It was a reasonable objection, but for the Church, the example of Christ was paramount. If God wished the Roman Empire to survive, it could better be defended by Christian faithfulness than by disobedience to Christ. The Savior had killed no one, had never blessed any killings, and had said, “Whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). St. Justin Martyr explains an attitude characteristic of the early Church: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war . . . swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.”7 Elsewhere he writes, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ.”8
The Worst Horrors
It is easy to imagine that a community that lived by such values was regarded as a threat by the Roman government. In fact, Christians who live this way today face persecution in many countries. Christianity tends to be tolerated to the extent that it acclimates itself to the society in which it finds itself.
With the Emperor Constantine’s publication of the Edict of Milan in 313, the first age of martyrdom came to an end. In the decades that followed, what had been the least favored religion quickly became the most favored. Those who had once been threatened with torture and execution were instead threatened with all the material blessings of this world. The emperor’s conversion was both a relief and a danger. As St. Jerome noted, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”
Yet virtue remains. We are not altogether an untroubling presence in the world. I doubt that there has been a single day in recent years in which Christians haven’t died mainly for the crime of being Christians. On the list of places of contemporary martyrdom are China, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, Laos, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia.
Some of the worst horrors have been in Sudan. A civil war between the Arab, Muslim north and the black (Christian and animist) south has been on and off in that country since its independence in 1956. The north has been working toward the Islamization of the country—it imposed Islamic law in the south in 1983. More than one and a half million people have died in Sudan over the past decade—most as a result of government-imposed famines, warfare, and the displacement of millions from their homes. Food and medicine are denied to those who refuse to convert to Islam. Men and even children have been crucified. Many women have been raped. Many have been enslaved.
In China, Christians have been beaten to death. They are frequently tortured and imprisoned for many years. Heavy fines and confiscation of property are also frequently employed.
Here in the United States, there is little likelihood that any of us will become food for lions in the near future, though it must be noted that there is less and less tolerance for the display of religious texts and symbols in public places. In many academic settings, your career will not be furthered by being a believing Christian and openly professing your faith. We see more and more signs of impatience and irritation with Christians. But we are not being made into martyrs.
Fear & Surrender
Does this mean that the eighth Beatitude was only for our ancestors or those living in countries where persecution continues?
Perhaps the real question is: To what extent are we really living the gospel ourselves? Are we living a timid rather than a meek Christianity? What would happen if we lived our faith with the wholeheartedness and courage that characterized Christians of the first four centuries?
What is it that makes us such timid, half-hearted followers of Christ that the last thing we need to worry about is being persecuted on his account?
Part of the answer is that we tend to shape our lives, activities, and vocabularies according to what is more or less “normal” where we happen to live. Social creatures that we are, we unconsciously adjust our practice of Christianity to fit within the limits imposed by the society we live in, with further adjustments geared to our social and working lives. I am made aware of the tension of being a Christian in a secular society through the embarrassment I have to overcome every time I start to read the Bible or a clearly religious book in a public place.
In many ways we human beings swim in schools no less than fish do. It is for this reason that perfectly ordinary and decent people living in Germany in the thirties and early forties found themselves cheering Hitler, obediently playing their part in invasions of neighboring countries, killing people they had no personal grudge against, and assisting the Holocaust. Among Christians in Germany and Austria, there was relatively little resistance to nazism, though it was a period not without saints who risked and often obtained a martyr’s death.
One crucial aspect of what makes so many of us carefully avoid the Beatitude of persecution is fear.
Not only war and social injustice but also any failure in moral life, private or collective, has something to do with fear. On the one hand, there is fear of social rejection with all its potentially dire consequences. On the other hand, there is also fear of God. Truly, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Certainly in America most people believe in God, at least as a principle of creation. It is unlikely that any of us holds creation responsible for creating itself. We have at least an intellectual sense of God’s existence, even if we see God as a force as impersonal as gravity. One can believe in gravity without feeling the slightest obligation to love gravity or to respond to gravity with prayer. Intellectual belief is one thing, devotion is another. Love is an attitude at the core of being. To love and not be willing to sacrifice for those one loves is a contradiction in terms. Love is always a willing surrender of autonomy. It is as Christ observed: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Each of the Beatitudes has to do with dying to self. Accepting persecution as a blessing is the final act of death to self—a poverty of spirit that allows us to cope with condemnation and rejection without bitterness and hatred.
It is all these surrenderings of self to God, most often in very tiny actions, invisible to others, that make up the ladder of the Beatitudes.
Following Christ is not the choice to make if your goal in life is security. You had better buy a tank. The windows are tiny and there is no guest room, but it will probably keep out thieves. You will have the well-guarded if lonely feeling of being inside a bank vault.
A Great Reward
The main word in the Beatitudes is blessed. Truly they are blessed who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who hunger for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure of heart, who make peace, who are as willing as the prophets to risk punishment for the sake of God’s kingdom.
But there is another word in the Beatitudes that lights up the text: rejoice. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so they persecuted the prophets before you” (Matt. 5:12).
If there is no God or God has no interest in activities of creatures that happen to exist on particular planets, it hardly matters who we are, what we do, or what we believe. We are on our way to the dustbin where the dust of Stalin is indistinguishable from the dust of John the Baptist and no life has meaning.
But if the gospel is true, if the truest thing we can say is “God is love,” if following Christ is the sanest and wisest thing we can do in our lives because each step forward brings us closer to the kingdom of God, then we have much to rejoice in. We hear that rejoicing in a canticle-like vision of Bridget of Kildare, one of the great saints and mystics of Ireland:
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.
Those who climb the ladder of the Beatitudes are in the best of company: the prophets, the martyrs, and the saints—the great cloud of witnesses.
1. Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 41–42.
2. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translation and introduction by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M. (Ramsey, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 152.
3. Leo the Great, Homily XCV, “On the Beatitudes.”
4. John Chrysostom, “Sermons on Matthew,” LIV, p. 7.
5. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 4, chapter 9, “Concerning faith and baptism.”
6. Robert Ellsberg, All Saints (New York: Crossroad, 1997), p. 1.
7. Justin, Trypho, CX.
8. Justin, I Apol., XXXIX.
Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its publication, “In Communion.” He is the author of many books, including The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons, and Living with Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (all published by Orbis books). He lectures widely and leads retreats at centers in both the United States and England. He and his wife Nancy have six children and make their home in Alkmaar, Holland. This article is adapted from a lecture given by Mr. Forest at All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, on November 14, 2000.