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Blessed are the Meek

by Fr. John Oliver

Absorb this quotation from the modern Russian saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk: “It is a fearful thing to hate whom God hath loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important,” St Tikhon continues, “do not look upon him with judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you’d never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him – do unto him as you would have him do unto you.”

This quotation came to mind when I recently read a few of St Paul’s words to his beloved Christian community in the town of Corinth, and he is describing to them what it means to live like an apostle – a way of life that will be of interest to anyone who, week after week, says that he believes “in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Specifically, St Paul writes, “…being reviled, we bless; being persecuted we suffer it; being defamed, we entreat…”

Paul seems to be saying that one area in which living like an apostle should be most obvious is in our dealings with other people – more precisely, when those dealings turn difficult and even hostile. Another translation reads “we speak kind words to those who speak against us; when people hurt us we say nothing; when people say bad things about us, we answer with kind words…” And still another paraphrase, certainly not a literal translation but helpful for getting the “feel” of the text, reads like this: “...We are the Messiah's misfits…When they call us names, we say, ‘God bless you.’ When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We are treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture's kitchen.”

St Tikhon of Zadonsk and St Paul of Tarsus suggest that the life of the apostle – a word that means “one who is sent forth” – is a life that rises above the instinct of retaliation. Among the regrettable consequences of the Fall in the Garden is our lust for blood: literal and figurative. When we are wronged, is not our instinct to wrong in return? When we are hurt, is not our instinct to hurt back? But, here is this challenging text before us: Is it calling us to a higher standard? Are we to respond to our enemies as Christ responded to His – without slander or hatred or a thirst for revenge? When reviled, He blessed; when persecuted, He endured; when insulted, He forgave. That is radical stuff; difficult, too. But, it may be the only way out of the brutality that increasingly fills our headlines and defines our world.

Recently, when preparing for a sermon at my church, I did a small exercise: I went to my local Blockbuster video store, and surveyed all the movie boxes in the aisles set aside as “Action” movies. The movies in the “Action” category are the most frequently-rented ones. In the “Action” category, I counted approximately 525 movies. And of those 525 movies, I counted 176 that had a gun displayed on the cover. Displaying either a gun or a similar instrument of aggression, and the number jumps to 200. So, about 38% of the action movies advertised displayed a gun or knife or sword wielded specifically as a weapon.

Now, this is not an essay on gun control or the Second Amendment of the Constitution. And, to be fair, a sword on display does not necessarily mean that it’s an instrument of brutality; it could be merely a symbol of leadership. Factually, though, the guns and swords and knives and clubs and fists on display in modern films are not there to lead the enemy to the bargaining table or to the local church. Instead, they are the instruments of revenge.

I wonder if it means that we are a culture increasingly built on violence – in thought, word, and deed. The pursuit of power over another person is sometimes a desire for retaliation. The soul of the pursuer is restless, unsettled – like a tornado in search of a town to flatten. The violence around us flows from the violence within us. We are a race of fallen people, with an instinctual thirst for revenge, to “settle the score” or “set things right,” even if that means rejecting the call of God upon us to “love our enemies.”

And Christians – pitiful creatures – have pulled triggers and plunged swords as often as any other people, usually on each other. I am reminded of a poster I saw once, published – if I recall rightly – by the Mennonite Central Committee. It showed two persons in an embrace, with a caption that read: “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world agree to stop killing each other.”

As we plot our strategies, here is St Paul reminding us that we who are apostles – we who are sent forth – are called to a higher standard: “…when reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when insulted, we forgive.” We are not only to absorb the blow of evil, as the cross absorbed the horror of sin, but we are to respond with love – a dynamic, proactive, conciliatory gesture. Sweat-producing, too; it’s probably why the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the problem is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; the problem is that Christianity has been found difficult, and left untried.”

To respond to villainy with blessing, to answer persecution with patience, is contra-instinctual. It is to override our instinct toward self-preservation. So, to override a powerful instinct, some power greater than ourselves is required.

“What shall I render unto the Lord?” wrote St Silouan of Mt Athos. “I am a sorry wretch, as the Lord knows, but my pleasure is to humble my soul and love my neighbor, though he may have given me offense. At all times I beseech the Lord Who is merciful to grant that I may love my enemies; and by the grace of God,” he writes, “I have experienced what the love of God is, and what it is to love my neighbor…” Then, as precious as that grace is, St Silouan reflects on how quickly it can be lost: “But if I find fault with any man, or look on him with an unkind eye, my tears dry up, and my soul sinks into despondency.”

The power to bless when reviled, to endure when persecuted, to forgive when insulted, is God’s by nature, and ours by grace. That is the lofty, dignified, non-negotiable way of the Christian; it is the difficult but necessary way of love.

Honestly, can any other way bring healing to the world?