Jacques Maritain Center : The Range of Reason

Chapter Seventeen


"BLESSED are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The eighth beatitude confirms all the others (est firmitas quaedam omnium beatitudinum, says Thomas Aquinas){1} and corresponds to the first; the circle of the Gospel's happiness, which begins with the poor in spirit, is completed with the persecuted. They are placed under the same banner; theirs is the kingdom of heaven, ipsorum est: meaning not simply a possession to which they have a right, but something much more intimate, inward and personal -- a thing which is within me as well as belonging to me, sweet to my heart more than is my very self. In the very manner in which Christ speaks to the poor and the persecuted, there is a tenderness which already consoles them. He, the Poor and Persecuted One above all the elect of poverty and persecution, is not He, Himself, also the Kingdom of heaven? He tells them that He is their treasure.

Those who suffer persecution for justice's sake. We know fairly well, or we believe we know, what persecution is. But "for justice's sake" -- there we feel we are meeting the mystery. What is this justice for the sake of which they are persecuted?

The saints know what this justice is. They are persecuted for the sake of the justice which makes us adopted sons of God and participants in His life through grace; they are persecuted for the sake of the divine truth to which they bear witness and of that Word that was made flesh and came to dwell in the world and that "His own received not"; they are persecuted for the sake of Jesus Who is our justice. "Blessed are ye when they shall revile you and persecute you and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for My sake: be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you."

Blessed are the saints. They know wherefor they suffer. Not only do they suffer "because" of justice but "for" justice, which they know and which they love and which they will. Throughout their worst sufferings and darkest nights they are well pleased to be persecuted, they know that persecution is good for them, they desire it as an earthly paradise, they are astonished and worried when deprived of it. But never are they without it long. Saint Paul reassures them, and tells them that all those who seek to live piously in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. When they are persecuted they have that which they have wanted, they have that blessedness of the Gospel for which they have asked, they are well served.

And when they die abandoned and persecuted, the Holy Spirit, Who is called the Consoler, reminds them in the depths of their hearts of all the things which their Savior has told to those who are His, and this same Spirit places before the eyes of their souls the image of Him Who has opened the way for them and Who has loved them first, even unto giving His life for them upon that cross of redemption to the partaking of which He has now invited them.


The saints are not the only ones to be persecuted. And the inner justice of the soul is not the only justice for the sake of which men suffer persecution. All those who have sought justice within the earthly community and who have suffered for its sake imprisonment or exile or death, and who, moreover, have been looked upon as fools or bad citizens, have not been offered the promise of the eighth beatitude for such things. The immediate object of their thirst, the immediate cause of their sufferings is not to conform themselves to the Savior Who makes man just and holy in the eyes of God; it is rather the imperfect and obstructed labor whereby a little more human justice is introduced into the world. They have battled against the oppression or enslavement in which men have been held by men of another race, another nation, another caste or another class; they have battled with human means and for human ideas; they have very often had to have recourse to force against force, to appeal to the wrath of the humiliated and downtrodden. On occasion their passion for earthly justice has been fevered by hatred and violence, or else led astray by great illusions which made them dream of constructing without God the Jerusalem of peace, or else darkened by a despairing revolt against both Creator and creation. At times they have sought to be titans, at times "grand inquisitors" like the one in Dostoievsky's tale. Unhappy are those who seek for justice in this world and suffer persecution for its sake. To have done so is not sufficient to assure them of the promise of the kingdom of heaven. And the justice they seek and for the sake of which they suffer, they usually see rejected by men throughout the length of their struggle for it, and betrayed by men at the very moment when it succeeds in passing among men.

Nonetheless they also have that which they wanted. For they have labored in time and under the law of time, for a thing of the earth and an idea entrusted to history. Time will bring them their reward when they are no longer, their labor and their trouble will bear their own fruits on earth, under forms which they themselves had not foreseen, carried along as these were in the eddies of the vast stream of history. I do not mean to say that every effort on behalf of justice automatically succeeds in producing an effect in the history of mankind; I am not so optimistic. To my mind everything depends upon the depth at which the thirst after justice and the suffering on behalf of justice -- however mixed these may be -- have been brought into life within the secret substance of a heart and of a spirit. If a man's actions, before having been given outward manifestation, have thus been given birth in the very depths of the spirit, they will equally take their place in the depths of history, and there they will go their shadowy way until one day a few of the seeds they contain come to take root and bear fruit among men.

Having granted this, it is clear that if we look upon things in themselves, there is neither separateness nor conflict between thirst after the justice of God's kingdom and thirst after justice in this world. The one summons the other. The latter threatens to drive a man out of his mind unless it is accompanied by the former; the former requires and awakens and sanctifies the latter. How could men who daily ask that the will of the Father be done on earth as it is in heaven not thirst after justice on earth and within the human community? How could men who believe in the Gospel as far as eternal life is concerned not believe in it for life here below -- how could they resign themselves to men's earthly hope in the Gospel being disappointed? So long as misery and slavery and injustice exist in the lives of men and in their perishable societies, there will be no rest for the Christian. He knows that his God suffers in the persons of all those who are suffering, all those who are spurned, all those who are persecuted throughout the world.

Hence blessed is he who suffers persecution for the sake of the justice of God's kingdom and for the sake of justice on earth. He suffers abuse for Christ's sake while he is abused for the sake of his brethren. Blessed is he if he is doubly persecuted. The more unhappiness he bears in his temporal existence because of his desire for justice in temporal society and because of his undertaking to "ransom the evil of the days," the more utterly and the more surely is he persecuted; and the more may he consequently hope, if he is faithful, to have in life everlasting, which for the just begins even here below, the blessedness of the persecuted; the more can he hope that his is the kingdom of heaven.

* * *

In our own day we have seen monstrous persecutions: persecutions in which hangmen beyond number scientifically organized cruelty and assassination, bending themselves to the task of debasing man in his body and in his soul, not striking down persons condemned by reason of a faith to which at least they gave witness, but masses of men and women guilty only of the fact of their existence and wiped out like rats. And we have been able to verify the truth of the saying that next to the hangman what men detest most is his victim. Confronted by these great herds of victims left to their fate, the Christian questions his heart, and his faith.

He thinks of his Jewish brethren, of the ancient devastated olive tree onto whose branches he has been grafted. Six million Jews have been liquidated in Europe. Other masses of human beings have been deliberately exterminated, also in millions, in Poland, in Russia -- either by the Soviet Government or by the Germans in the areas they controlled for a time during the war -- in a number of unhappy countries which passed from one oppressor to another, and this in the name of "living space" or through political vengeance. But the Jews, they have been put to death because one hated them in their very quality as a people and because one had the will to wipe their race from the face of the earth. This animal hatred possessed supernatural eyes. In truth it was their very election, it was Moses and the prophets who were harried in them, it was the Savior sprung from them against whom the grudge was held. It was the dignity of Israel, into which the Catholic Church prays God to have all nations enter, which was buffeted in these despised wretches treated like the vermin of the earth. It was our God Who was slapped and scourged in His fleshly lineage, before being persecuted openly in His Church. How strangely knowing a hatred, more aware than the weak love of our own hearts: even before that day foretold by Saint Paul, when Church and Synagogue would be reconciled, and which would be for the world like life from the dead, both of these have been reunited in this devilish hatred. Just as Christianity was hated because of its Jewish origins, Israel was hated because of the belief in original sin and redemption and because of Christian pity, all of which had their source in Israel. As has been pointed out with deep truth by the Jewish writer, Maurice Samuel,{2} it was not because the Jews killed Christ but rather because they gave Christ to the world that Hitlerian anti- Semitism in its rage dragged the Jews along all the roads of Europe, through filth and blood, tore from their mothers children thenceforth not even possessed of a name, undertook to dedicate an entire race to despair.

Thus it happened that unwitting Israel has been pursued by the same hatred which also and first of all pursued Jesus Christ. Its Messiah shaped Israel to His own likeness in suffering and humiliation before shaping it, one day, to His likeness in the light. Such are the bloody first-fruits of that fulness of Israel of which Christians, if they lay it to heart, can detect the precursory signs in the sequence of abominable events whose memory will always burn in us -- and yet which are already sinking to oblivion in the hearts of those who survive. Like strange companions, Jews and Christians have together journeyed along the road to Calvary. The great mysterious fact is that the sufferings of Israel have more and more distinctly taken on the shape of the cross.

But could they have any knowledge of this, all these innocent people struck down like the accursed? Blessed are they that suffer persecution -- these words were not for them, were not yet for them, at least on our earth. They knew not that they suffered persecution for the sake of the Just Man sprung from Jesse's tree and from a daughter of Israel full of grace; they knew not of what "receiving," of what reintegration -- wherein the kingdom of heaven would be within reach of their people -- the persecution they suffered was the hidden tidings.

At least they did know that they were dying because of their people's calling and because their people's passion for justice on earth is hated by this world. At least those of them who cherished in their hearts the spirit of prayer and the religion of the Scriptures must have known that they were dying for the hope which is Israel's.

* * *

But the Christian thinks of other abandoned beings, whose lot awakens in the soul an unbearable anguish because of the unrelieved darkness of the night in which death struck them. I do not refer to those who throughout Europe lay in prisons and concentration camps, were shot down as hostages, perished under torture, because they had resolved not to bend their heads to the conqueror. Such men and women knew why they were suffering and why they were dying. They had chosen to fight and to resist, they gave their lives for freedom, for their countries, for human dignity. I am thinking rather of those poor human beings who had done nothing except their humble daily tasks, and upon whom in a flash death pounced like some wild beast. Immolated by the whims of war and of savagery -- persecuted not for the sake of justice about which they were not even thinking, but for the sake of the innocent fact of their mere existence at an unlucky point in time and space. What are, moreover, their sufferings and their death except the likeness and brief summary wherein we may read the sufferings of millions of the poor and forsaken throughout the course of the centuries, ground down without defense by the great mill of pride and greed which is as old as humanity? The conquered who have been reduced to slavery, the untouchables, the classless, the slaves of all ages, the black men sold at auction by merchants of human flesh, women and children laboring in sweatshops, the proletarians of the industrial age, all those whom misery has stripped of their human condition, all the accursed of the worldly community.

Certain events which took place during the course of the Second World War serve as terrible illustrations of what I am attempting to say. Let us remember the slaughtered people of the village of Lidice, the women and children machine-gunned and burned alive at Oradour on Corpus Christi, those peasants of the Vercors whom the SS, seeking vengeance for the fighting achievements of the underground, suddenly seized in their peaceful homes and hung head downward, encouraging dogs to tear at their faces. Let us remember others who by every artifice were induced to die in despair, for instance by hanging them just a little above the level of the ground so that they would jump continuously until their strength failed them and the hangman's rope strangled mere shreds and tatters of a human being. Let us remember those Jews overwhelmed with weariness, who, after weeks of bloody journeying, upon arriving at Büchenwald, would lay themselves of their own accord upon the steps of the crematorium; let us remember the unfortunates who were starved to death in sealed railway carriages. Where lay the consolation of these persecuted innocents? And how many others died completely forsaken. They did not give their lives, their lives were taken from them, and under the shadow of horror. They suffered without having wanted to suffer. They did not know why they died. Those who know why they die are greatly privileged people.

It all seems to take place as though the death agony of Jesus -- being so divinely vast -- must be divided into its contrasting aspects in order that some image of it might pass into His members, and that men might completely participate in this great treasure of love and of blood. The saints of their own wills enter into Christ's passion, offering themselves along with Him, in knowing the secrets of the divine life, in living in their souls their union with Him, in putting into action, in the depths of their being, the gifts they have received. In any torture of the body or of the spirit, in the abysses of utter abandonment, they are still privileged people. The beatitude of the persecuted illumines their earthly existence. The more they are abandoned, the more can they say with John of the Cross: "Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth, mine are men, the just are mine and mine are the sinners; the angels are mine and the Mother of God and all things are mine; and God Himself is mine and for me. What then, O my soul, dost thou ask and dost thou seek? All this is thine and everything is for thee. . . {3}

But those wholly and completely forsaken, the victims of the night, those who die as though they were the outcasts of earthly existence, those who are hurled into Christ's death agony without knowing it and without wanting it -- all these are making manifest another aspect of the same agony, and surely it is necessary that all be made manifest. Jesus gave His life because He willed it. But He likewise was "made sin for us";{4} He was "made a curse for us, for it is written: cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree";{5} He was abandoned by God on His cross of misery, without protection against suffering, without help against those who persecuted Him.{6} As a legacy left to His saints, He said: Into Thy hands I commend My spirit. And as a legacy left to His other flock, He said: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? The great flock of the truly destitute, of those dead without consolation -- would He not take care of those who bear this mark of His agony? How could it happen that their very forsaking itself would not serve as the signature of their belonging to the crucified Savior, and as a supreme title to His mercy? At the corner of death, in the moment when they pass to the other side of the veil, and the soul is on the verge of leaving a flesh for which the world had no use, is there not yet time enough to say to them: Thou shalt be with Me in paradise? For them there are no signs, for them hope is stripped as bare as they are themselves; for them, to the bitter end, nothing, even from the direction of God, has shone forth in men's eyes. It is in the invisible world, beyond everything earthly, that the kingdom of God is given to these persecuted ones, and that everything becomes theirs.

{1} Sum. theol. I-II, 79, 4, ad 2; cf. 3, ad 5.

{2} Cf. Maurice Samuel. The Great Hatred, Knopf, New York, 1940.

{3} St. John of the Cross, Avisos y Sentencias, Silv., IV, p. 235.

{4} II Cor., 5, 21.

{5} Gal. 3, 13-14.

{6} Sum. theol. III, 47, 3.

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