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Responding to Those Who Persecute


Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ then I will declare to them, ’I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:1-2, 12, 15-16, 22-23)

Persecution is a common theme for Sunday morning sermons. The New Testament is filled with encouragement for Christians undergoing persecution, beginning with Jesus who spoke about it at the end of the Beatitudes and again when he sent the disciples on missions in pairs.

In my lifetime, I’ve heard nearly one hundred sermons about Christians being persecuted. I lived through the tumultuous civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s, hearing sermons portraying segregated churches as under persecution. This can now be appreciated as a case of persecutors making claims they were the ones being persecuted.

The election of Donald Trump, according to many white evangelicals, was God’s response to end persecution. They say Christians who stood up for God’s expectations of America were being humiliated by liberal media and judges who opposed their holy efforts to: save marriage and sanctified gender relationships; save unborn human lives from mass murder; hold on to Christian values in the face of Muslim and atheist proliferation; and protect American families and jobs from invading hordes of criminal immigrants. Donald Trump, whose personal life and attitudes are not very different from the beloved King David, has been the instrument of God’s salvation.

The evangelicals who express such views are, of course, white Conservative “people of faith” who reject accusations that Trump is an immoral persecutor of the helpless and underprivileged as well as destroyer of constitutional government. However, there should be little doubt that this period, like the 60s, will be seen by future generations as a time of persecution by evangelicals who ignored the plain message of Jesus.

Church history is filled with stories of Christians as persecutors. Did Jesus anticipate his disciples would be the persecutors? Did Jesus say anything to discourage acts of persecution? The Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, is a prominent, though not the only, New Testament selection providing clear answers to these questions.

Torah Emphasis. Why use the Sermon on the Mount? Because it is a good sample of what Jesus taught his followers. It is the first of five bodies of teaching in the gospel of Matthew, clearly demonstrating the relationship between Jesus and the Torah, and containing statements nearly everyone has heard. It has an overall theme, although its structure is not at all like a sermon. The coherence of the whole is often missed because of the devotional habit of reading scripture verse by verse or in small groups of verses.

The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to demonstrate the continuity of Jesus’s teachings with Torah ethics, for Jesus’s ethical expectations improve (fulfill) Torah commandments and go beyond them. Most important for Jesus are interpersonal behaviors, to the exclusion of ritual and purity aspects of the Torah.

The Beatitudes which open chapter five establish the connection to the Torah in dramatic fashion by suggesting a comparison to the Deuteronomy account of a covenant ceremony held before Israel entered Canaan. The formal agreement announced by Moses (26:16-19; 27:1-10) was followed by a series of twelve curses as warnings (27:11-26), then blessings that result from obedience (28:1-14) that are accompanied by curses for disobedience (28:15-68). Blessings and curses became a prophetic habit that was followed in Luke’s version of sayings in the Beatitudes (6:20-26). Matthew opened his collection of sayings with only blessings, establishing similarity and difference between Jesus and Moses as law givers.

The blessings start with physical manifestations of common people in rural Galilee – poverty, sorrow, meekness, hunger, and thirst – then move inward to mercy, purity of intention, and making peace. These statements describe people whose ordinary lives reflected persecution by privileged classes through multiple forms of poverty. Jesus ends the segment by telling followers to expect even more persecution and urged them to look on it positively. As is typical in Matthew, the physical references (which Luke spoke about directly) were spiritualized to make them less direct – “poor in spirit,” and “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The specific forms of persecution mentioned were being reviled and having lies told about you – both of which are forms of bullying as opposed to physical harm.

After telling disciples to be as useful as salt and shiny as light, Jesus asserts the sanctity of both Torah and Prophets (the name for Jewish scripture at that time) but made special reference to commandments which must be kept better than was done by Pharisees and legal scholars. The examples in 5:21-48 highlighted some of the Ten Commandments, taking them to higher levels based on motives as well as behaviors.

Intentions were prominent as anger was equated with murder, lustful thoughts with adultery and divorce, and respect for God’s name was taken to the extent of forbidding oaths. The section ends with what seem like extraordinary applications of the commandments by prohibiting justified retaliation and normal hatred of enemies, replacing them with pacifist and loving behaviors.

Is there any form of bullying or persecution that could possibly be reconciled with the expectations in this chapter from Matthew? Thus far, Jesus is speaking about person to person behaviors rather than about public policy – but he was not finished.

Public and Private Actions. In chapter 6, Jesus turns to behaviors in public. Individual piety is affirmed in verses1-18 and then motives and attitudes once again become the focus in 19-34. Jesus affirms traditional piety of almsgiving, praying and fasting; but denunciations of piety for public display have the Pharisees in mind. Simplicity and privacy are emphasized. Criticisms of Pharisee behaviors, in conjunction with omission of purity standards, make a clear distinction between the religiosity of the more privileged in society and expectations of those who followed Jesus. The chapter then concludes by returning to the inner life and motives – where treasure is stored, where attention is directed, dedication to wealth, and anxiety over daily needs – as more important than public display.

The sermon concludes by turning to approved versus disapproved public behaviors as proof of discipleship. Criticizing others rather than examining oneself is denounced. Profaning holy things is forbidden. Taking positive actions – asking, searching, knocking – in confidence is urged. Treating others with consideration and staying on the narrow and hard road Jesus has described are mentioned briefly.

Finally, the important question of recognizing true followers completes the focus on public actions. Look at their “fruits,” because actions show what is inside. Some who claim to do great things will be disowned, Jesus says, as “evildoers” because their actions show them for what they are. Building a house on sand or rock, therefore, is a metaphor for those who hear and follow Jesus’s teachings versus those whose are phony disciples.

Consider how these teachings can be applied today. Is it persecution to require public acts of piety – praying, hearing scripture read, standing and pledging allegiance to a flag or country? Is it persecution to allow them in private but not in public displays calling for mass participation?

If you object to medical or sexual choices of individuals as private actions, is it persecution to impose your more righteous opinions through laws or personal boycotts of those whose choices you don’t approve?

The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t mention governmental policies or laws; however, the motives behind discriminatory laws and righteous public condemnations are laid out in often shocking clarity in this collection of sayings.

Persecutors Versus Persecuted. According to Matthew, disciples who are reviled and lied about are being persecuted. Was Jesus only concerned about whether disciples were persecuted so that it made no difference if others in society were bullied?
It takes a special kind of blindness – as extreme as overlooking a 2×4 piece of lumber in your eye while noticing a splinter in the eye of another – to overlook how Jesus opposed any form of persecution by anyone for any reason. It sounds easy to say don’t participate, but Jesus ignored the problem of social pressure in this collection.

Cheering at political rallies that stir up anger and hatred against immigrants, the press, Democrats, or anyone who wants to put limits on a Republican president violate almost all the behaviors and motivations Jesus prescribed. Doesn’t that meet the description of bad fruit and following prophets who are evildoers? Yet how difficult it also seems for those standing on stage behind the President to react with disapproval or simply walk away.

What if I simply do my job, even if it requires abhorrent treatment of asylum-seekers and their children, because I am told that law or a new policy requires it. What if I make statements to the press or in court that I know are false because superiors have ordered me to do it? What if I am near retirement and stand to lose my pension by refusing to knowingly traumatize children. Choosing to follow Jesus by refusing to participate in acts of persecution calls for extraordinary heroism in Trump’s America.

About the Author
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Dr. Simmons then became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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