Blessed Are Those Persecuted Because of Righteousness
“Why do good things happen to bad people?” she asked. “That is the biggest question that I struggle with.”
I was at a meeting with other clergy and ministry leaders from the Bronx. Prior to the start of the meeting, this question, asked by a senior church leader in the North Bronx, stirred up an intense conversation around suffering, persecution, and Christian doctrine. Very few who were present were comfortable speaking directly about persecution and suffering. As I entered into the conversation I eventually quoted one of the BeatitudesJesus speaks about: “Well, doesn’t Jesus say, ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’?” As those words exited my tongue, I realized how countercultural they sounded.
I grew up in an urban, low-income, Black and Latino community in New York City. Success, for us, was defined as leaving our current situations to go into something better, something more prestigious and luxurious. Oftentimes, the pursuit of this success dictated the decisions we made in life. The colleges we chose, the careers we pursued, the neighborhoods we moved into, the people we befriended, and the activities we got involved in all became a product of this pursuit. And though those decisions may not have been terribly unbiblical,I began to question the motives. I started to wonder if maybe I was taught that my actions and pursuit of a “better life” meant trying to create a reality where persecution (the mistreatment of a person because of their race or political/religious beliefs) was non-existent.
So when I reflect on Matthew 5:10, I notice that the biggest issue I have with persecution is the level of vulnerability it leaves me in. Being vulnerable and exposed to unmerited hostility and ill treatment is not something I want to anticipate when pursuing righteousness. It’s much easier to think persecution can be avoided if we make the right decisions and do the right things.
Thinking back on the “pursuit of success” that I was taught in my community growing up, I realize that that pursuit is actually the pursuit of privilege and the rejection of vulnerability. I think what might be underneath those motives is the desire to avoid persecution and an embracing of the lie that I actually have control over my life enough to do that.
But a full grasp on Scripture shows that persecution and suffering are actually parts of God’s plan to produce perseverance, character, and hope in us (Romans 5:3-5). Paul says there should be glory in this. But how many of our decisions in life are pursuits to avoid all possible scenarios of suffering and persecution because we’d rather not be put in situations that increase our vulnerability? My assumption would be that the areas in which we choose to avoid vulnerability are also areas in which we lack perseverance, character, and hope.
What if real submission to Jesus meant placing ourselves in situations where vulnerability is necessary, and where persecution is expected? Would we willfully choose to enter into those places, or would we rely on our cultural norms, levels of comfort, and fear of vulnerability to move us away from those places? Do we trust Scripture to be true—that if we willfully choose places where vulnerability is necessary and persecution is expected, we will be blessed?
Timothy Holmes is an InterVarsity campus staff member at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is a rapper and poet as well as an alumnus of The City College of New York, where he double-majored in media communications and English.
Images by twentyonehundred productions supervising producer Matt Kirk. Graphic by twentyonehundred productions art director Laura Li-Barbour. Thanks to all the kids who volunteered for the images, and whose expressions helped us more deeply understand the Beatitudes.
This is the eighth in a series of posts exploring the Beatitudes, pronounced by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount and then recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Check back each week for a new post in the series, and catch up on what you missed.