Responding to Persecution

What?! Do people shame you?! Tell you how you are an abomination and that God hates you?! Treat you like a pervert and tell all your friends and family that you are going to hell?! Are YOU ever lucky!! You have an opportunity to know what it’s like to live in God’s domain. Unlike people who are swaddled in cultural approval and predefined relationships, you are tossed into a void where God may be found. Lucky you!!

Lucky? Are you kidding? How can we be lucky to be a member of a group that has no civil rights, is persecuted by some in our own faith community and ignored by others, rejected by our own family members, discriminated against in housing and employment, denied state and church affirmation of our relationships, and is likely to have our biological children removed by the courts?

We expect nurturing and comfort from both our church family and our biological family. The two communities we are accustomed to turn to for guidance, help and support in negotiating life betray us with condemnation and rejection. At best, our presence is tolerated as long as we don’t “flaunt” it. We become confused, doubt ourselves and those we love, question our experience and grieve the loss of the life our parents and teachers promised us. And in those moments of despair and dying we are invited into God’s life of grace and deliverance. Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33) We are so lucky. Deprived of two of our most cherished communities, we are invited to get honest with God and ourselves. We are in luck. From an early age, we have the opportunity to go beyond our inherited religion into an authentic, alive relationship with God. We are so lucky. We are forced to give up our idolatry of the church and worship a living God.

We may not feel lucky at times. When we are attacked, we may have a variety of feelings rush through our system. Old feelings of shame and inadequacy are triggered, fears raised, and anxiety courses through our body. We all have different ways of managing these sorts of psychological crises. Some of us become paralyzed, unable to respond to the situation. Others of us flee. Our responses may range from growing numb, launching a counterattack, reasoning, quoting scriptures, to becoming enraged. Such moments of hostile assault are painful for all of us. A slow anger may begin to build deep inside of us. Out of our hurt, shame, and pain, a bitter resentment emerges. And it is this anger and resentment that poses the biggest danger to our emotional and spiritual well being.

Responding on the inside

In the Sermon on the Mount in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives us a variety of contrasting responses to difficult situations. Concerning anger, he says:

As you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not kill’ and ‘Whoever kills will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you: those who are angry with a companion will be brought before a tribunal. And those who say to a companion, ‘You moron,’ will be subject to the sentence of the court. And whoever says, ‘You idiot,’ deserves the fires of Gehenna. So, even if you happen to be offering your gift at the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there at the altar. First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift. — Matthew 5:21-24

Many Christians interpret this scripture to demand the psychologically impossible ideal of not feeling angry. We think Jesus is telling us we shouldn’t feel angry. In an attempt to obey him, we may deny our angry feelings and adopt an attitude of self-righteousness. We transform our unacceptable anger into an injured, martyred self-righteousness. We become emotionally paralyzed as a result of the two interlocking feelings. We are blinded to our own process by our moral outrage. This attempt to “fix” our problem of anger paradoxically prevents us from moving through and resolving our feelings of anger. We assume a victim’s psychological position in relationship to the world.

If we do not adopt a self-righteous attitude, and continue to believe that Jesus demands that we don’t feel angry, we become acutely aware of our “failure” at not feeling angry. Again we are paralyzed by two interlocking feelings. First we are angry and resentful of our treatment by others. If we believe our anger is a bad response, we then feel guilty and ashamed of our feelings of anger. These feelings of inadequacy and guilt prevent us from addressing our anger and keep us stuck in a painful emotional state.

Either response to our anger, self-righteousness or guilt, keeps us paralyzed in broken relationships with both the persecutor as well as ourselves. The only way out of this paralysis is to accept our feelings for what they are, genuine and authentic responses to incidents of oppression and assault. If our anger is a genuine response to oppression, how are we to understand these words of Jesus?

Resolving our anger

Stassen (1992) suggests Jesus’ caution against anger and blaming is a description of how we human beings get trapped into a vicious cycle of either passivity or aggression. We do experience anger and rage. Those feelings are part of the human experience. We also do things, however, to maintain our anger. We wallow in our anger by reviewing the wrongs committed against us and repeating to ourselves how bad the other person has been to us. Or we might repeat to ourselves how bad we have been. Either way, we engage in self-talk that fuels and perpetuates our anger. One of the ways we fuel our anger is name-calling (i. e. “moron” or “idiot”). When we engage in this sort of “passive pouting” (Stassen, 1992, p. 233), we become stuck in a powerless position relative to the other. We also deny the pain underlying our anger.

We are less likely to become attached to our anger if we don’t engage in blaming or name-calling self-talk. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Matthew 5:44

Wow! Nothing like another impossible demand! How can we possibly go about loving our enemies? We can’t just decide to feel all warm and gooey towards our persecutors. But we can pray for them. And in praying for them, we change our self-talk about them and ourselves. Our prayers provide an environment in which we can begin to experience our persecutors and ourselves differently. Praying for our enemies “works” for several psychological reasons. The act of praying shifts our position from passive victim to proactive, powerful and concerned child of God. As a passive victim, we collude with the persecutor in devaluing ourselves. As a concerned child of God, we experience ourselves as being valued. As we learn to value ourselves, we begin to value our persecutors. And by praying for our enemies, we open ourselves to the love that liberates both oppressor and oppressed.

The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount provide us with helpful suggestions about how to manage the feelings we have in response to persecution. First, as members of an oppressed group we have an unparalleled opportunity to meet God. Second, we can escape the vicious cycle of angry passivity by changing our self-talk. Instead of calling our enemies names, which fuels our feelings of helplessness and rage, we can pray for their welfare. In praying for their welfare, we behave as valued children of God rather than victims. As we do these things, we begin to feel better about ourselves and can more readily resolve our feelings of shame and rage.

Responding on the outside

Jesus not only advises us against name-calling, he also tells us to reconcile with our friends. We are to mend broken relationships. What! Another impossible task! After all, we are the ones being sinned against. Why should we be the ones to seek reconciliation? I think there are at least two answers to that question: one theological and the other psychological. As followers of the Way, we are called to participate in God’s work of loving and mending the brokenness of the world. Certainly that work includes reconciliation. The psychological reason for initiating reconciliation is that the act towards reconciliation helps to pull us out of our feelings of anxiety, shame and inadequacy. If we want to have a different experience of a situation, we have to act in different ways (von Foerster, 1984).

Because reconciliation requires two people, we may not be successful in our efforts. All we can do is open the door to meaningful conversation. Whether or not the other person elects to respond is out of our control. However, the act of opening that door helps us to feel empowered and frees us from a victim position.

When a friend, relative or stranger attacks us, that person is establishing a persecutor/victim relationship. A more subtle, but no less toxic version of this process is when an individual, out of “concern for our welfare”, attempts to teach us the “truth” that our sexual orientation is evil. Others in our world may insist they respect and value us as children of God, although they abhor the “sin” of homosexuality. These are the overt messages in the interaction. All interactions have two messages: the overt level (what the interaction is about), and the covert level (the nature of the relationship).

These sorts of interactions assume a power differential between them and us. That is, the persecutor is assuming more power, authority etc within the interaction. The claim to this power may be the church, the Bible or even God. So the covert message in these sorts of interactions is that we are subordinate to the other, more powerful, person. Because heterosexuals are more privileged in our church and culture, this group does hold more personal and social power than we do.

On an interactional level, it is the covert message that gives us the biggest problem. As long as we “buy into” that covertly expressed definition of our relationship with the other, we are locked into one of two types of responses. As the less powerful “victim”, one response is to agree that they are correct and behave as a victim. Less obvious “victim” responses are to avoid that person, refuse eye contact or flee the encounter. A different type of response is to rebel in some way (by arguing, launching a counterattack or behaving in contemptuous or patronizing ways towards the individual). Notice that neither response addresses the problem presented by the covert message the assumption of superiority by the other.

Himself a radical egalitarian, Jesus neither accepted the role of subservient victim cast upon him as itinerant Jew, nor was he willing to step into the shoes of the long awaited “rebel” messiah. Furthermore, the people around him found themselves in a social situation similar to ours. The Jews were an occupied people, and the peasant the lowest on the hierarchy. Samaritans, tax collectors, and women were so low they weren’t even on the social hierarchy! Just as Jesus refused to adopt his culturally prescribed role of victim (passive or aggressive), his teachings suggest a very different response to oppressive interactions (Haley, 1969). Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.

If someone sues you for your coat, Give him the shirt off your back to go with it.

When anyone conscripts you for one mile, go along for two. — Matthew 5: 39-41 (Funk, 1996, p. 155)

In HONEST TO JESUS, Funk (1996) reports that using the left hand to deliver a backhanded slap to the right cheek is an act designed to humiliate the other. In Jesus’ culture, the left hand was not used in polite company. “So a backhanded slap to the right cheek was an insult delivered from a superior to an inferior. . . master to slave, husband to wife, parent to child, Roman to Jew.” (p. 155) Likewise, coats were used as collateral for loans or debts. Yet according to Deuteronomic law, coats had to be returned at night. And under the Roman system of government, any man was subject to being conscripted by a Roman soldier to carry a burden for one mile.

In each of these instances, the relationship is defined as unequal, where one person is demonstrating his superiority and power over the other. The covert message in each of these interactions is “I’m better, more powerful, have more money than you”. For the peasants in Jesus’ audience, these were familiar situations. In each of these situations, the obvious response was either subservience or rebellion. To respond to these daily incidents of oppression with subservience was to lose dignity and experience the erosion of self-worth. Yet to rebel against these oppressive acts was to risk physical assault or loss of freedom.

So, for example, if I am slapped on the right cheek, I am being told (covertly) that I am inferior to the person doing the slapping. Slapping is an act of humiliation. If my attacker wanted to physically disable me, he would more likely slug me. So too are verbal assaults on the integrity of our lives as children of God. A subservient response would be to cringe away from the other, refusing eye contact. A rebellious response would be to “slap” back. Jesus suggests an altogether different type of response. By turning the other cheek, we claim the right to define the nature of the relationship. And in claiming that right to define the nature of the relationship, we move the relationship to more egalitarian terms.

In Jesus’ culture, nudity was a punishable offense, proscribed by law. Imagine a note holder’s chagrin when his debtor sheds his clothes and thrusts them into his arms! Onlookers assume the note holder is demanding both articles of clothing, why else would the debtor expose himself and risk punishment? By giving the other both cloak and shirt, the Jewish peasant gains the upper hand in the relationship. Jesus suggests that we behave in ways that disrupt the normal power relationships of the world.

Finally, notice what Jesus tells his listener to do when conscripted by a Roman soldier. This law was legalized oppression. The soldier’s covert message is “I can tell you what to do. I want you to wait on me”, thereby establishing a relationship between a superior and an inferior. And he had all the might and power of the Romans to back up his demands! We would do well to remember this situation when we are feeling helpless in the face of oppression legalized by both government and church law.

By offering to carry the load two miles, the conscriptee seizes control of the relationship. Think about the soldier’s possible responses. He can agree to allow the other to go both miles, thereby relinquishing control of the relationship. He can abandon his demands altogether. Insisting the conscriptee only carry the load one mile instead of two miles puts him into a position of absurdity. As in the other scenarios, Jesus points to a set of responses to oppressive acts that disrupt the typical, mindless degradation of people.

A Parable

There once was a young white gay guy who worked in the computer industry. Although he had grown up in a conservative church, he felt okay about his sexual orientation. He had a good circle of friends, worked in a company with a non-discrimination policy, and talked with his parents once a month. Those conversations were okay as long as they stuck to trivial topics. One day at work, a more senior programmer discovered the young man was gay. The older programmer exhorted the young guy to change his ways. The young man filed a grievance against the older programmer. Although the company disciplined the older programmer and threatened to fire him, he persisted in his exhortations. Soon, the people in his department despised him as a bigot.

One day, the older programmer came out as gay. His church shunned him, his wife and courts took his children away from him, and his parents disowned him. Despite his troubles, the older man was so enlivened by no longer living a lie that he prepared a large feast. He invited all his friends to help him celebrate his new life. But his friends disapproved of his “lifestyle” and refused to come. So the older programmer emailed all his coworkers and invited them. He stopped by the young man’s desk and specifically invited him and his boyfriend. It was a terrific party.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture is from The Five Gospels.

Funk, R. W. (1996). Honest to Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. , Hoover, R. W. and The Jesus Seminar. (1993). The five gospels. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Haley, J. (1969). The power tactics of Jesus Christ, and other essays. New York: Grossman Publishers.
Stassen, G. (1992). Grace and deliverance in the Sermon on the Mount. Review & Expositor: The Faculty Journal of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. 89(2) 229-244.
von Foerster, H. (1984). On constructing a reality. In P. Watzlawick (Ed. ), The invented reality (pp. 41-61). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.