Too Harmless to Cause Trouble?
Robert Schuller, whose reading of the Beatitudes is so resolutely upbeat that he calls them the BE-HAPPY-ATTITUDES, must surely feel a challenge when he gets to the one we are looking at this morning — the final Beatitude in our series of sermons on these unexpected prescriptions for the good life. “Happy are those,” it says, “who suffer persecution for doing the right thing,” but we don’t normally see much of a marriage between persecution and happiness. Our guard may be down when we hear them linked in church but we are not eager to find out how that combination works. We like to be liked; we don’t want to be picked on. But when Jesus said these things back in the first century, there was apparently no way to avoid some opposition if people lived the way he wanted them to live, and his own life is proof. He not only spoke the Beatitudes — he lived them to perfection. And the result was that while some loved him with extraordinary devotion , others hated him with equal intensity, and slandered his name at every opportunity.
Because he was sociable, eating food and drinking wine with ordinary people, they called him a glutton and a drunkard. They said he was a blasphemer, that he was crazy, that he was in league with the devil. And when those charges were still not enough to cancel his popularity, they made a mock crown out of thorns, jammed it on his head, and hung him up on pair of crossed tree limbs. So he knew one thing from experience: if we have any real commitment to justice and compassion , there will be opposition from people whose prejudice or greed or arrogancewe threaten.
And that threat does not even have to be vocal or active. It may arise simply from a life which passes a quiet judgment on how most of us live. We meet someone whose capacity for love and generosity remind us, uncomfortably, of how much better our own lives could be. I think of that surprising friendship between Alcibiades, a brilliant but corrupt young Athenian, and his mentor, Socrates, and how at times the young man would say to his famous teacher: “Socrates, I hate you; for when I am with you, I realize what I am.” So we might read the Beatitude like this for a moment: : “Blessed are those who provoke that kind of annoyance.” I suppose the classic illustration of the hostility a quiet goodness can provoke in others is in Shakespeare’s Othello where the malevolent Iago admits why he hates an honorable lieutenant named Cassio so much that he wants to destroy his reputation and cost him his job, even his life. We’re not as malicious as Iago but we may have felt the same irrational dislike of someone whose only fault is to live so well that we are envious. For a man as corrupt as Iago, jealousy can become a consuming hatred….and if Iago has no other virtue, he is at least brutally honest when he talks to himself about how he feels, in one of Shakespeare’s many unforgettable lines: I want to ruin this man, he says, “Because he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.” I think we might be surprised how often that kind of envy turns poisonous. Some people cannot bear integrity and innocence in others when they know how little they have left of either — cannot bear in their crippled selves that others are whole and healthy — cannot bear that others sing through life when they have no music left. Strange as it may seem, if your happiness arises from a kind of unselfconscious goodness, some unhappy people will not like you.
This puzzling hostility from those we’ve done no harm, and hardly know, really does cause some of the persecution good people experience, but I think Jesus had something else in mind: what happens when moral conviction actively confronts evil, when good people go on the offensive against cruelty and injustice. He could easily guess how some of his friends would be persecuted if they continued to speak out against heartless privilege and religious hypocrisy the way He did. And it happened. For a couple of centuries, before Constantine made their religion respectable, Christians met privately and were accused of everything from cannibalism to plots against the government. Life became so bad after AD 64, when Nero blamed Christians for the great fire in Rome, that many of them renounced their faith — which is probably why this morning’s Beatitude found its way into Matthew’s gospel as a word of comfort and encouragement . Hang on, it said, to people being persecuted because of their religion. At times, over the next few generations, those who professed faith in Christ were stripped and beaten in public arenas, lowered into vats of boiling oil, blinded by having their eyes seared or pulled out, deafened by having hot coals stuck in their ears, branded by redhot irons, mauled by wild animals, dragged naked over beds of nails or sharpened sea shells, tied in bags and lowered under water until they drowned, tied at head and foot and pulled apart by horses. I read these things, and then I think ofSaturday Night Live’s prim, funny “Church Lady,” whom I miss, and how clearly those skits show the church’s transformation from being dangerous to being dull, from being hunted to being harmless, a topic for comedy skits. The man who spoke the Beatitude would be amazed at how things have changed.
Or have they? I realize that the cross, once a symbol of sacrificial commitment, has been tamed into a fashion accessory — as necklace or earrings — and I know a city not far from us which uses a cross in its official seal as if Christianity inevitably supports the government. But have we totally neutered the radical nature of that religion, so that opposition has become only a footnote from ancient history? Not really. Not where the way of Christ bucks the System. In Central America where 2% of the population hold 90% of the wealth, certain Christians tried to help coffee plantation workers win living wages and better working conditions, and the government sent soldiers to shoot some of them and order the rest back to work. When a number of priests decided in the late 60’s that God cared about the poor and that being a Christian meant opposing systems of oppression, they were branded as Marxists, arrested, defrocked, and deported. In the case of one of them, Archbishop Oscar Romaro, the remedy was more drastic: he was shot to death by agents of the government of El Salvador while serving communion in the capital city.
But it doesn’t have to be anything so overtly political. Sometimes it is just human nature to resist the structure of compassion, whether from ignorance or from fear. Some years ago when Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, famous for her book on death and dying, tried to build a hospice in Virginia for children with AIDS, persecution came from some as far as 50 miles away who worried that the wind might carry the disease and spread it. There were cross-burnings, lawsuits, letters to the editor, and carpenters who refused to work on the building. Preachers declared that AIDS is God’s judgment against homosexual people and that the hospice would only interfere with God’s divine plan to punish the guilty. (It was unfortunate, they said, whenever the divine punishment also included heterosexuals transfused with tainted blood, and the thousands of innocent children born to diseased mothers). The hospice had to be scrapped. So somepeople still get persecuted for the sake of goodness.
Those whose Christian faith convinces them they are meant to be stewards of the earth and who cry out against pollution, arguing that the preservation of creation may be as important as certain property rights, will tell you that persecution is not a thing of the past. Confess freely that labor unions, like all other entities, tend to grow corrupt with power, but that they did help create decent lives for millions of Americans, and someone will call you a communist. Stand up for the rights of women, and someone will call you a Feminazi. Suggest that society may need to work harder at slowing the production of criminals rather than just building more and more prisons, and you’ll be called a former Congressman. Dare to suggest that “Joe Camel” is a symbol of our hypocrisy about addiction, a cartoon character who deals death to children, and somebody will start a background check on you. Do any of these things as a Christian minister, and somebody will suggest that you stick to something called “preaching the gospel” which means saying the name of Jesus a lot or talking about baptism, and forgetting the crucial problems that affect the lives of your parishioners all the rest of the week.
We kid ourselves sometimes into believing that we are still as radical as the gospel when the truth is that we only attack safe targets. We quickly learn what they are. We can sit at any dinner table and condemn skinhead neo-Nazis, ethnic cleansing, door-to-door scams against the sick and elderly, and every single diner will nod approvingly. But voice an objection to how the city treats its children, its poor, its minorities….speak out against deceptive and harmful advertising….ask about ministers who put success above speaking prophetic truth and about business when its obsession with profit hurts people….and pretty soon you’ll have everybody sitting at the table as stiff as those Gene Salerno tree statues scattered around Wichita. You may not be invited back.
And what complicates this Beatitude, which gave me a lot of trouble this week, is that every person at that hypothetical dinner table may be a fellow churchmember, positive that his or her view of welfare and abortion and politics is the one Christ would sanction. Life in a city like Wichita is not a simple matter of wicked pagan against righteous Christian, which would make our debates so much easier. What we have is a complex business of differing interpretations and how to be honest with ourselves about whether those interpretations are driven by love of goodness or by self-interest. Perhaps you can see why I almost decided to give up on this sermon in the middle of the week and come this morning confessing that it was too ambiguous to deliver!
But I hate to end a series without ending it, so I kept telling myself that there have to be a few clear-cut cases where some of us can comfort ourselves with the thought that we lost the job or the election or the promotion because we refused to budge from what we knew was right. If that isn’t true — if we have never suffered any form of persecution because of personal integrity — then we are simply not the people Jesus had in mind when he sat on the mountainside that day and spoke this Beatitude. There are two possibilities, if persecution really is a thing of the past: either society has so generally accepted the way of life taught by Jesus that those in church and those out of church have the same values, or else those of us in church have accomodated ourselves so completely to the way of the world that there is no difference between us.
I doubt both of those possibilities, so I believe that the best people among us will still sometimes pay a price for their convictions. And our Beatitude says that an extraordinary kind of exhilaration may come from suffering because of goodness. Part of it, I suppose, from the sense of having entered into a vast company of gallant men and women over the ages. People with the unwavering courage of Socrates or Jesus probably seem beyond most of us but we’d like to believe that after weakness and wavering we might salvage something at last….the way Thomas Cranmer did, who for a while in the 16th century was Archbishop of Canterbury. Supporting Protestantism for a while under the young king Edward VI, Cranmer and his colleagues were imprisoned in the Tower of London when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary took the English throne. To save his life Cranmer signed six different statemens repudiating his Protestant sympathies. They were all lies, but in the end they did not save his life, and when the time came to die he found his courage again.
In St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, where I have stood on certain afternoons in the dim light and remembered Cranmer — and Cardinal Newman who once preached there — in that great old church Thomas Cranmer was brought forward to affirm his absolute loyalty to the Queen’s religion and to disavow the things he had written. But he had a surprise for the deeply moved congregation watching that day. In the elegant language of Renaissance England he told them that his only real sin was in having denied, through fear of dying, what he truly believed in his heart. He took back all the recantations he had made, and said: “And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, my hand, therefore, shall be the first punished….” His biographer says that when he was marched to the stake, and the wood was lighted, he held out that hand to the flames and “did not stir or cry till life was gone.”
You are I are not likely to find ourselves tied to any stake, but unless our convictions are so utterly tepid that they disturb no one, we shall know times of persecution. To all such people I gladly dedicate the promise of Christ, at the end of the Beatitudes, that we may find ourselves in that darkness who never once clearly saw ourselves in the light. And it may be this final discovery of our noble selves that brings such a strange and paradoxical happiness. “Blessed are those who have suffered perseuction for the cause of goodness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Trouble us this day, Eternal God, if we have never felt deeply
enough about anything to suffer gladly for it, and pity us if
we have never known the joy of those who pay a price for
what they believe. Amen.