Last week, a member of this year’s Beloved in the Desert cohort contemplated Psalm 37 in St. Philip’s Daily Bread reflection series. (I’ve shared one of my prior Daily Bread postings here before.) Maddie is converting to Judaism and connected the psalm with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” One line from their reflection really speaks to me right now: “Righteous individuals operating in a corrupt society will face setbacks, persecution, and even violence.”
I’ve tried to live Christian values and act in righteous ways throughout my life, with varying success. (It’s Lent; I’ll freely admit I’m imperfect and struggle!) Over the past couple of years, I’ve intentionally read, reflected, and written about America’s racist past and continued unequal treatment of people of color—African Americans and Native Americans, and also Asians, Latin Americans, and individuals I know personally from countries like Sri Lanka.
I’ve worked hard to become conscious of my own thoughts, behaviors, and intentions toward others, but I live in “a corrupt society” that doesn’t support the changes I’m trying to make. It’s also hard to see clearly what difference I can make when my own state legislature has introduced a bill to allow them to overturn my vote if they don’t like the outcome—and I’m powerless to stop it.
Now the new war in Ukraine has added another layer of ethnicity to our conversations, and recognition of my powerlessness. I see more clearly how bullies in power can make a living hell out of anyone’s life, anywhere in the world. It helps me imagine, at least a bit more, the living hell in which Jesus’ followers were living as Roman subjects.
Yes, I’m struggling to maintain my usual positive perspective this week. Perhaps that’s appropriate for Lent, when the church invites us to focus on the many ways we sin—and thereby separate ourselves from our loving Creator. Yes, God’s love is there—and in times of stress it can be difficult to see it, believe it, and trust it. It can be even more difficult to see that our loving actions (as opposed to the violent and persecuting actions taking place around us) can make a difference.
Jesus was pretty straightforward about the fact that he expected righteous people to suffer as a result of their actions, and of following him:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” (Matthew 5:10)
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34–35)
“An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” (John 16:2)
Yet that didn’t stop Jesus from acting with righteousness, and his example (and death) didn’t stop his disciples. If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, we need to recognize that the road won’t always be easy. Here in America, coming off an ascendant and comfortable Christianity in the second half of the twentieth century, I would say we got spiritually lazy. We forgot what it was like to be persecuted for being righteous.
Now we are being reminded. How will we respond?