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Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
— Matthew 5:10
I know that the serious attempt to live righteously can attract persecution from others. I know stories of people who have been disinherited, denounced, killed for living according to their consciences. In my own life I’ve only had to deal with hostile remarks and dismissal. I also have sometimes avoided or disparaged people whose lives witnessed to a truth I did not want to face. Bill McKibben writes, “An example [of positive change] is almost as annoying as it is inspiring … for it puts the burden on us to do something about the problem.”
The experience of persecution can bring deep loneliness and discouragement, but it can also root us deeper in the Kingdom. When our cozy support systems fall apart, we are driven to rely more fully on God. When we feel the suffering caused by the hostility of others the pain can inspire compassion for other sufferers and remorse for the harm we have done by our own hostility to righteousness.
But this Beatitude, like other truths, can be misused. We may feel that our experience of persecution sets us apart and makes us special, and succumb to vanity and self-pity. This is perhaps best remedied by paying attention to the lives and struggles of our neighbors; probably many of them carry burdens heavier than our own. We may tell ourselves that when we attract hostility from others it’s a sure sign that we are behaving righteously, when in fact we may be behaving obnoxiously. We do well to remember Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:8, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”
We must remember that sometimes people feel called to take opposing stands in the name of righteousness. We must hold our lives firmly in line with our convictions, be willing to reexamine our convictions in the light of prayer and experience, and deal honestly and lovingly with those who disagree with us. If we do these things the experience of persecution is less likely to drive us into bitterness or self-righteousness and more likely to draw us further into the Kingdom of God.