One cannot read the New Testament and a great many patristic texts and not discover that a common denominator to all who followed Christ was the experience of suffering; whether in the forms of rejection, hatred, deprivation, or some sort of persecution. Beginning with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10), the imperatives for a blessed life offer us a self-portrait of Jesus, who is himself the Blessed One. This portrait shows an identification with poverty, gentleness, grief, hunger, and thirst for uprightness, mercy, purity of heart, a desire to make peace, and the signs of persecution. At the same time, Jesus promises, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22). What is the disciple’s response? “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (or hurt you), so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”
From the gospel accounts to Acts to the earliest records of Christian executions, the church was born into a tradition of persecution and martyrdom that formed its identity. The faith of the “chosen people” was essentially a religion of suffering and martyrdom. The twin aspects, suffering and bearing witness went hand in glove.
Thus far, surveys of retrieval theologies make no mention of this issue, which is a serious omission, since there is a superfluity of literary evidence to show that suffering for and with the Christ who suffered through persecution was a central part of the early church. This facet of Christian experience is just as much a part of the theological inheritance as any other theology. In all the presentations and dialogues on theological retrieval taking place, westerners who rarely suffer on account of their faith, are in danger of forgetting this elementary feature of the church’s distinctiveness. But what is meant by such a retrieval unless we are in the midst of a church enduring some form of persecution?
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