Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird, became the paragon of morality in a culture of revolution. When the book first appeared, America was in the throes of social upheaval, the civil rights movement was gaining traction, and Lee’s character, Finch, was the symbol of moral valor. His ethical code stimulated many young readers who identified with and wanted to emulate him. As with any moral character in literature, he faced a daunting dilemma—his was to defend an innocent black man, accused of assaulting a white woman in 1950s Alabama. It was a hopeless task, but to Finch it was the right thing to do. His moral character indicted most of his peers in Maycomb, Alabama and brought persecution on him and his family.
In his concluding beatitude, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10). Finch exemplifies Jesus’ concept as he was persecuted for his virtue. Jesus did not say, “Bless are those who are persecuted,” but he specified those “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Persecution comes in many forms but does not always result in the bliss indicated by the beatitude because the persecution is justified. The bully who faces a mob standing up to him is persecuted, but it is because of his abrasive behavior, not righteousness. The politician who is voted out of office by his constituents may feel persecuted, but it was his lack of representation that rallied voters against him.
As we exemplify the Kingdom Living outlined by Jesus at the outset of his Sermon, persecution will be a natural result because the world cannot abide it. Jesus warned his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). When righteousness shines in dark places, those who love the darkness try to repel the light because it exposes their wicked deeds (John 3:19-20). When Christians live the Kingdom Life of the beatitudes, it will create conflict with the world.
Consider how spiritual poverty, lament for sin, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking are intolerable to people of the world. The world embraces pride and self-promotion and cannot abide someone who is poor in spirit. The world strives toward carnal power and strength and does not understand meekness. The world is filled with conflict and war and ignores the work of the peacemaker. Lust consumes the world which is unaccustomed to righteousness and purity. Every part of Christian happiness is antithetical to the world controlled by the “rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph 6:12).
As Christians embrace the virtues of the beatitudes, they ought to brace for persecution. Paul understood this and warned young Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). While we do not seek out persecution, an absence of persecution should serve as a warning.
Associated with persecution is the promise, “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is a return to the promise of the first beatitude and serves as an inclusion, a similar phrase marking the beginning and ending of a particular section. In this case, the kingdom is the common touchstone and indicates the character outlined in the beatitudes is the character to be lived in Jesus’ Kingdom, the church. Thus, while the kingdoms of the earth may reject righteousness, it is the only lifestyle accepted in the Eternal Kingdom.