Last update: 2021-02-25 11:15:20
“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to your children’s children.” (Deut. 4:9)
These were the words Moses spoke to the Israelites in the wilderness after defeating Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. They accurately summarise the legacy of my family and that of so many Christian families who have recently returned to their liberated villages and towns in the North of Iraq and Nineveh plain. But what is it that God is asking from the Israelites and what legacy are we referring to?
“Assemble the people for me and I will let them hear my words so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on earth, and may teach to children to do so.” (Deut. 4:10)
At first glance the answer might surprise us, as speaking about the fear of God in the time of persecution might look less palatable given the circumstances. Is not ‘fear’ precisely what we are encouraged to avoid when faced with suffering? In this paradox the principle of Pope Benedict’s ‘hermeneutics of continuity’ may, by analogy, help us see something meaningful and in harmony with the Christian behaviour and response to persecution.
Only in emphasising the continuity of Christian response to suffering and persecution, does it become clear that the fear of God has always been the antidote to hatred and despair. The most striking thing about living in the fear of God in the time of persecution is that it spurs us to remember his past goodness and trust in his providence. The fear of God is nothing more than a cry for wisdom and understanding and a prayer not to lose the sense of sin and our vulnerability.
That is why when the wave of persecution ebbs, the survivors face three existential questions: how to make sense of the tragic past, how to deal with a daunting present marked by loss and uncertainty, and finally what future do we want to guarantee for our children and children’s children. Such questions enable us to focus our attention on three key words that capture the essence of the Christian response to persecution over time: memory, hope and forgiveness.
The persecuted are mostly targeted in their livelihood and suffer material loss, displacement and humiliation. Not seldom do they pay the ultimate sacrifice. It is a matter of justice and charity to alleviate the immediate material needs of our brothers and sisters. However, we cannot succumb to the temptation of turning aid into the main response, the sine qua non for the survival of the persecuted Church. The persecuted have spiritual needs which have to be attended to with equal zeal and fervour. To care spiritually for the persecuted is not a duty but a privilege. We still need to see a proper pastoral care developed specifically for the persecuted during and in the post-persecution period.
The pastoral care of the persecuted in the reconstruction period should be based on keeping the Christian memory alive. Persecuted communities have a great sense of resilience and trust in the divine providence. They do not delve into their memories to revive the past but to relive their personal experience of God’s goodness in a time of trial and darkness. Thanks to their memory of God’s past faithfulness, they can “find strength and be able to continue walking forward.” Our persecuted families never indulged in the past to lament the hardships experienced but to remind us in the words of Pope Francis that “Christian memory is always an encounter with Jesus Christ,” and that only by remembering God’s faithfulness, is there hope for a future.
Hope is not an innate trait of an optimistic mind but an attitude of spiritual attentiveness and anticipation. It means standing with both feet on the solid ground of faith while lifting up our heads in the certainty that our waiting will find a response, not in better circumstances but ultimately in a Person. The memory of the crucified Jesus is the legacy that has helped the persecuted church to see the hand of God behind the events. My grandmother used to tell us that if a door is shut in our face, God in his mercy is capable of opening another nine. It is a moving image that mirrors another moving biblical image from the prophet Hosea (Hos. 2:15) who reminds us of God’s power and will to “transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope.”
Thanks to the culture of memory and continuity, the following words of St Paul to the Romans have never been a dead letter to me: “Consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8: 19-21)
It is worth dwelling a bit on a co-panellist’s reaction to my family’s experience during a conference last year. While explaining how my family was displaced four times in less than 100 years and lost their property and livelihood at least twice within a period of 25 years, I emphasised the centrality and continuity of forgiveness in my family’s response to persecution. The co-panellist retorted in a reasonable and well-intentioned manner, “That is very noble, but perpetrators have to be brought to justice.”
In any well-ordered society based on the rule of law, the appropriate and just response is for the offenders to be prosecuted and punished. However, in the face of systematically recurring waves of persecution, our parents and grandparents choose the path of forgiveness. As Christians we are called to set others free and seek restorative, not punitive justice.
My family and so many courageous Christian families all over the Middle East have always embraced forgiveness, not because they were traumatised or lost faith in the justice of appropriate punishment. They were fully aware that to achieve reconciliation, they, and only they, were capable of setting themselves and others free from the vicious cycle of hatred and revenge. Accepting our share in suffering with Christ, forgiving our enemies and blessing those who persecute us is the only way we can give back to creation its freedom.
Forgiveness is not about redefining good and evil. Rather, it is about how to treat others by remembering their dignity as an image of God, no matter how wounded or distorted that image may be. Our families have always chosen the path of restorative justice, because it is the biblical option par excellence and the Christian highway. They taught their children and children’s children that both the offended and the offender need forgiveness, the former to live up to their Christian dignity and imitate their crucified Redeemer, and the latter to be set free from the paralysing bondage of evil. Forgiveness and justice go hand in hand, no one is capable of forgiving without bringing about justice and righteousness, rescue the disadvantaged and not tolerate oppression or violence (cf. Jer. 22:3).
We need to remember that persecution has never brought down a Church or a Christian community to their knees. The contrary has always been true for the martyrs are the seeds of life. Christian joy is rooted in the act of remembering the goodness of God, trusting in him and fearing him. It is a joy that is rooted in the cross that “unlocks more mysteries than it creates.”
It is fitting to finish this piece with words from the letter to the Hebrews which remind us to look upon Christ “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Heb. 12:2)