Blessed Are They Which Are Persecuted for Righteousness' Sake
Sermon Nine on the Beatitudes, from Delight in the Law of God
by Father James Thornton
Persecution is properly the lot of Christians. That is so since Christians, if they are true to the teachings of Christ and live the Orthodox way of life, stand athwart the ways of the world, which, inevitably, are centered on the earthly, the worldly, and the fleshly. Thus, Christ promises, in the Eighth Beatitude, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Saint Theophylaktos of Ohrid writes, in his Gospel commentary: “It is not only the martyrs who are persecuted; many others are persecuted as well, for helping those who have been wronged, and simply for every virtue which they possess. For ‘righteousness’ means virtue.”
St. John of Kronstadt declares: “By righteousness, we mean the Christian faith, of life according to Christ’s commandments. Thus, blessed are those who are persecuted for faith and piety, for good deeds, for constancy and steadfastness in the faith.”
It is clear, then, that the persecution to which Christ Jesus refers is that which one suffers for the sake of virtue, goodness, and truth.
Persecution comes in many forms. The early Christians stepped forth into the world of the pagan Roman Empire, which, immersed in sin, corruption, and extreme materialism, could not have been more hostile to the teachings of Christ. For their quiet resolve to stand with Christ and against the world, they were crucified, burned alive, fed to wild beasts, beheaded, and otherwise martyred in many different ways. Some were sent to forced labor, where they quickly perished from the harshness of conditions. The situation just described was repeated during the occupation of Christian lands by the Turks, beginning in the seventh century and continuing into the twentieth, and again after the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians in these historical epochs were of a magnitude that can only be described as gargantuan. The courage of these martyrs, legendary and celebrated, amazes each successive generation of Christians, filling them with inspiration and zeal. That is why it has been said that, “the blood of Christians is [the] seed [of the Church].” Now, let us consider more subtle forms of persecution.
During the later Soviet period, it was official government policy to deny higher education and employment to persons who were seen regularly visiting Churches, who showed interest in religion, or who, for example, requested religious instruction and Baptism. Priests were required, during that time, to report such events to the atheistic authorities, with a threat of grave consequences should they fail to follow these requirements. For all Christian believers, labor camps or psychiatric prisons were among the primary threats during the final years of Soviet rule and huge numbers suffered.
We who live in what used to be called “the Free World” should not nurse complacency and imagine that the persecution of the righteous takes place only in foreign lands. In the contemporary United States and Western Europe, while religious freedom ostensibly prevails, the secularizing tendency of government authorities during the last sixty years and the associated decline in religious belief, along with the overwhelming domination of the mass media (periodicals, radio, television, and movies) and government schools by anti-Christian ideologues, has lead to persecutions, some affecting educational opportunities and some the ability of men and women to support themselves and their families. The future promises persecution growing out of the increasingly pagan schemata of establishment officialdom, and will likely be centered on the enforcement of “political correctness.” Government may demand compliance in changing the emphasis in religion from spiritual and moral matters to socio-political ones. It could, for example, mean demands that all churches allow same-sex marriages or end all objection to abortion, to mention only two of the aims of militant “progressives.” The darkening clouds of evil thus gather over us with ever greater menace.
There is yet another, more stealthy form of persecution that we will now address. Protopresbyter Georges Vasilievich Florovsky, is his renowned essay, “St. John Chrysostom: The Prophet of Charity,” writes of the period just after the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century as follows: “Prosperity was for… [St. John] a danger, the worst kind of persecution, worse than an open persecution. Nobody sees dangers. Prosperity breeds carelessness. Men fall asleep, and the devil kills the sleepy.” Here is a form of persecution, a silent kind of persecution, that does not readily present itself to our minds and so is almost never contemplated. It is a form of persecution about which only a small handful of Orthodox Christians are even vaguely aware: material prosperity. This is not a persecution launched directly by other men, but a clever device of the Evil One. We are accustomed to think of persecution as something that causes physical or emotional pain, or both. But the persecution to which Father Florovsky refers is one that achieves its ends through the opposite of pain, through seemingly agreeable conditions. Yet this is a pleasantness akin to that produced by certain drugs. The euphoria produced by material wealth, as with the euphoria produced by certain drugs, is accompanied by distinct dangers. In the case of drugs, the danger is that of death, whereas, in the case of material prosperity, the danger is of spiritual death.
Affluence, if it is allowed to dominate the life of a Christian, paralyzes the conscience, strangles spiritual life, and, as Father Florovsky says, induces sleep insofar as awareness of eternity is concerned. This last kind of persecution attacks the soul directly and so is the most dangerous, the one to which the majority of us is exposed. One prays for the peace and prosperity of one’s nation or family, and there is nothing wrong in that. However, this is both a question of degree and a question of one’s attitude of mind. Material prosperity, if it comes as the result of injustice or if it results in the selfish pursuit of an opulent way of life divorced from all other considerations, such as charity, most particularly will, with utter certainty, kill the soul.
St. John of Kronstadt asks in one of his homilies, “But why does the world persecute the true faith, piety, and righteousness which are so salutary for people, introducing as they do unity, mutual love, good morals, peace, quiet, and order into fragmented human societies?” He answers his question in these words: “Because the whole world lieth in wickedness, people love evil more than good, and the prince of this world, the devil …, despises righteousness with infernal loathing and persecutes it because it denounces injustice. Evil, debauched people have always hated the righteous and persecuted them, and they will go on hating and persecuting them.”
So we see, then, that persecution can take many forms and that it is an instrument of the Evil One in his war against God and against humanity, directed towards separating man from God.
How, we may ask, does the Christian react to persecution? The Christian strives, first of all, for righteousness, that is, for a life filled with virtue. Doing that, the Christian will be worthy of persecution. If one is nominally a Christian, but never experiences any sort of persecution, not even petty persecution, for the sake of righteousness, then one must ask if he is really striving for virtue, or if his Christianity is all simply a matter of empty, external observances. Next, the Christian will develop within his heart a complete trust in God and a deep love for God’s truth. He will be resolute in his faith and thus never yield to error or compromise with evil, threats notwithstanding. His hope will be focused on God, regardless of the suffering he may have to endure. Finally, he will face the future courageously, knowing that, when all is said and done, God will shield his soul and bring him to safe harbor. In the early centuries of Christianity, and during the Ottoman Yoke and the Communist Yoke, all ages and classes of people, including “both young men and maidens; old men and children,” faced unspeakable horrors without flinching, with the calm bravery of the best combat soldiers. We must be prepared to do precisely the same, whatever form the persecution inflicted upon us might take.
Let us end today with the words of one of the great Holy Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa, from his homily on the Eighth Beatitude. The Saint tells us that persecution steadfastly borne, whether it be torture, threat of death, deprivation of livelihood, separation from loved ones, or whatever, purifies our souls, turning them to God. Hence the promise that those persecuted for the sake of righteousness will possess “the Kingdom of Heaven.” St Gregory explains: “But when the living Word … penetrates into a man who has truly received the faith, it cuts through the things that have badly grown together, and disrupts the fetters of habit. Then he will throw off the worldly pleasures bound to his soul, like a runner casts a burden from his shoulders, and will run light and nimble through the fighting ring, since he is guided in his course by the President of the contest Himself. For he looks not to the things he has left behind, but to those that come hereafter, and so he does not turn back his eyes to the pleasures that are past, but he goes forward to the Good that lies before him.”
 St. Matthew 5:10.
 The Explanation By Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria, of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, trans. Father Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO.: Chrysostom Press, 1994), p. 46.
 St. John of Kronstadt, Ten Homilies on the Beatitudes, trans. N. Kizenko-Frugier (Albany, NY: La Pierre Angulaire, 2003), p. 88.
 Tertullian, “Apology,” trans, Rev. S. Thelwall, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: 1, Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical, arr. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), p. 55.
 The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky , Vol IV, Aspects of Church History , (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Co., 1975), p. 80.
 St John of Kronstadt, Ten Homilies on the Beatitudes, p. 88.
 1 St. John 5:19
 Psalm 51:5.
 St. John 12:31. 14:30, 16:11.
 St John of Kronstadt, Ten Homilies on the Beatitudes, p. 88.
 Psalm 148:12.
 St. Matthew 5:10.
 Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, ed. Johannes Quasten, S.T.D., and Joseph C Plumpe, No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer/The Beatitudes, trans. Hilda C. Graej (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1954), p. 171.
From the highly edifying new book Delight in the Law of God, by the Rev. Dr. James Thornton, pastor of Holy Trinity Eastern Orthodox Church in Oxnard, California. Posted on Nov. 18, 2009.