I remember when I was in fourth grade as a re-run of The Twilight Zone was interrupted by a news bulletin announcing that somebody named “Martin Luther King” had been shot. I had not the foggiest idea who that might be, but I could tell from my Mom’s worried face that he must be somebody important.
The next day, at the beginning of school, Mr. Vaughn asked us how many people had heard that Martin Luther King was killed last night. Well more than half the kids in the class cheered. I still had no clue who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, but something inside me said that it was wrong to cheer when somebody gets shot and killed.
It was my first experience with martyrdom for righteousness’ sake. And, as with many an onlooker, my response was at the most basic level of simple perception of injustice. Looking at the circumstances of King’s death I concluded, “Surely this was an innocent man.” As a fourth grader, I had no grand theory of race relations in the US, no knowledge of our tortured history, not the slightest idea of who King was, what he stood for, who killed him, or why. I just knew that he was, by all accounts, a decent sort who was gunned down for the crime of taking the evening air on a motel balcony—and that quite a number of my schoolmates, obviously echoing whatever was the opinion at home, had cheered—something my Mom and Dad had raised me to think was, well, discourteous, even if the victim had been John Dillinger. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
I mention this incident because it seems to me that much of the appeal of the gospel to the human conscience begins precisely at such primal roots. Jesus, in this Beatitude, pronounces a blessing on those who are persecuted, not for the gospel’s sake, but merely for righteousness’ sake. For being decent sorts, for doing the right thing in sticking up for the kid being bullied, for being Jefferson Smith, not St. Lawrence or St. Maximilien Kolbe. It’s directed toward every Jack and Jill who ever felt outgunned by city hall, to every loser in a noble but lost cause, to everybody who ever went down swinging for the right side—even if that right side was just your little brother, wrongly accused of raiding the cookie jar.
The point of the Beatitude is that such people are still connected to Heaven, even when they may not realize it. And indeed, they bear witness to Ultimate Matters like Truth, Justice and Love even when they are fighting for what many an onlooker may regard as light years from such “religious” stuff as the “kingdom of heaven”. Indeed, Jesus himself is taken by many an onlooker, not as a spiritual figure, but merely as a decent bloke who got the short end of the stick. Long before all the details are worked out, the full biographical details learned, the background filled in, and the gigantic implications are seen in full, there is, in the persecution of Christ the simple, elemental awareness that a great wrong has been done and a recognition that, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47). It is the inescapable conclusion, not just of the pagan Roman tasked with carrying out the crucifixion, but with the swelling numbers of new converts in the ancient Rome who were driven to conviction that, whatever else may be going on, these people are innocent and did not deserve the insane cruelties being meted out to them by the mob. Indeed, the peculiar combination of the martyrs’ noble courage and the bizarre hatred from their persecutors had the galvanizing effect of filling onlookers with shame, repentance, and newfound faith, first in the goodness of their victims and then in the goodness of the Christ for whom they gave their lives.
We see this juxtaposition in a sort of chemical purity in some of the moments of the Passion. The sheer gratuitous cruelty of the crowning with thorns, for instance, has always struck me in the way it evokes both pity for Jesus and a sort of embarrassed disgust, not just with the thugs who conceive and execute such a satanic parody of human creativity and whimsy, but with our whole race. I sometimes fancy that in the Grand Assizes at the end of the world, there will be a vast tribunal composed of all the angels and archangels, as well as of all the unfallen races that may dot the planets orbiting the night sky: the hrossa, ETs, Oyarsa, and sundry other creatures God may, in his wisdom, have made and quarantined from us by the immense distances of space. When we all meet up at the inauguration of the New Heaven and the New Earth, they will be excited to meet at last the inhabitants of the Silent Planet called Earth, the one it is rumored was favored by a visit from God himself long ago. The excitement will be palpable. Who, they will ask, are these blessed creatures of Earth and what beautiful tale will they tell of the festal celebration they gave the Beautiful One when he descended to be among them?
Imagine the burning shame of having to tell that story to perfect childlike innocence. “What did you do to welcome Him?” they will ask in expectant wonder. And we, God help us, will have to tell them the whole appalling story that, in addition to running him through a kangaroo court, subjecting him to horsewhipping, jeers from a mob of boobs and morons, and the typical dull meat cleaver justice of a bureaucracy, we paused before spiking him naked to a cross—just for one exquisite moment—to focus our hatred into a sort of sharp crystalline needle of special attentiveness by fashioning a sadistic little crown of thorns to press down on the head of a man trembling with shock and blood loss. It’s the special vindictiveness, the attention to detail, the pure malice of the thing that removes from our race forever the ability to say, “I just never realized. Had I but known. Just following orders…” We shall have to look the choirs of Heaven in the eye and say, “We come of the species that does that—and does it to perfect innocence.”
The crucifixion, in short, is itself the demonstration of why God had to make recourse to such a desperate sacrifice to save us. It shows us what our species is capable of—and the mercy of God that is even greater. Of course, we always try to muffle such an awful reality by shrouding it in time. We assure ourselves that people did this because they were barbarians living a long time ago. Those of us with small imagination genuinely believe that the mere fact it is the year 2009 means that, unlike their ancestors, they would not hate, persecute and kill saints. We always imagine that we are 2000 years smarter and better than the people who put Jesus to death, just as Jesus’ hearers imagined that they would not have killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29-30). We think ourselves wiser than the people who despised Paul, or Thomas Aquinas, or Joan of Arc. But the reality is that saying “But this is 2009!” is exactly the same as saying, “But this is Tuesday July 7!” It’s nonsense and it completely overlooks the fact that we have done it again and again and again and again to his followers and to the weakest and most vulnerable among us as if in insane spite of his identification with “the least of these”. We did it to the black man, we did it to the red man, we did it to the Jew—we do it in unimaginable numbers to babies—and we’ll do it to a saint in a heartbeat.
That’s because saints still come to us in very repulsive forms, challenging our deepest and most cherished loves—and bigotries. They are antidotes to the popular lies of the age. And, as Chesterton noted, because they are antidotes they are often mistaken for poison. Jesus endured just such hatred. He and His followers were assured by all the leading authorities that His lot was with the wicked and that anyone who followed Him would share His fate among the “accursed” who hung from the tree of the Cross.
But God has an altogether different opinion—and He always has the last word. He called Jesus His Beloved Son and gave Him kingship, not only over heaven, but over the whole universe as well. The promise of the Beatitude is that anybody who attempts righteousness and sticks with it while the whole world calls him fool, blasphemer, fetus fetishist, peacenik, self-righteous and all the other names pride assigns to attempted virtue—these shall share in his kingdom. And the paradoxical sign of our share in that kingship will be our share in His sufferings and the hatred of the enemies we are called to love and forgive. For in the end, even such hate cannot touch our union with Him and we are graced to pray for those who despitefully use us—as He did. That is true union with Him, and it is toward union with him that all the Beatitudes are ordered.