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When I read the news about Archbishop André-Joseph Leonard being attacked by a group of feminist berserkers, my initial reaction was one of profound respect for the man. The picture that accompanied the article is one of those images that speak volumes: an elderly, white-haired gentleman with hands folded, head bowed, eyes closed in fervent prayer while four twenty-something women surround him. The women’s mouths are contorted in anger and the water they’re throwing on him blurs into whip-like shapes. It is a study in intensity. The women’s intensity is fueled by rage and violence, while the bishop’s speaks of an intensity rooted in love of God.
The news account says that once the women were removed by security, the archbishop picked up one of the bottles the protestors had used and looked it over. Seeing that it was the sort of container generally used for holding holy water, the plastic formed in the shape of the Virgin Mary, Leonard reverently kissed the image, as an act of reparation on behalf of the women who had just accosted him.
Years ago, when we still lived outside Memphis, my husband and I went down to Beale Street one night during “Memphis in May”, a city-wide festival that features road races, live music and a world-famous barbeque competition. As dark falls, people mill about Beale Street, drinking beer out of giant plastic cups and enjoying the performers that come out to earn some money through feats of gymnastics, magic, and music.
We were idly talking to a group of strangers who’d asked if we had any cigarettes they could bum, enjoying the atmosphere and the happy, low-key vibe of the crowd. Then the parade started.
From the banks of the Mississippi, walking up Beale Street toward the city, a dozen very large signs could be seen, giant banners floating above the crowd. As they were carried nearer, you could read them: “YOU WILL BURN IN HELL” and “GOD HATES SINNERS” and several primitive paintings of Jesus being scourged and dying on the Cross. The banner-holders were accompanied by people holding bullhorns or Chick Tracts. Next to me, one of the men we’d been talking to sighed wearily.
“Here come the Jesus freaks,” he said. I looked at the Jesus freaks, then back at the man.
“Who are they?” I asked. As a nice mid-Western girl, extreme displays of religious sentiment didn’t happen in public. Political protest, yes; religious outrage, no.
“They’re some Pentecostal church that always marches down Beale Street whenever us sinners are out in number,” the man said, and then took one last drink from his beer. He waved goodbye to us, threw his cup in the garbage, and walked off into the night, muttering about “getting out before the Jesus Freaks burn him at the stake.”
I turned my attention back to the street preachers. They’d stopped about fifty yards from where my husband and I were standing, and the ones not holding up the banners spread out among the crowd, passing out little booklets that offered grotesque cartoons about why everyone was going to go to hell.
Then, from the center of the banner-bearers stepped a middle-aged man in a hat. He put his bullhorn to his lips and began the sinner roll call: “Drunkards. Fornicators. Divorcees. Homosexuals. Communists. Catholics. Jews. Muslims. Harlots. All you will go to hell.” As he spoke, he’d point to people in the crowd, a crowd which had given the preachers wide berth, but were growing visibly irritated with the shouting.
One man peeled away from us observers. He was obviously drunk, and as he staggered over to the preacher with the bullhorn, he almost spilled the beer in his hand. Without even breaking stumbling stride, the man took a big mouthful of beer, spit it all over the preacher’s face, and then melted back into the crowd. The crowd just stared, momentarily silent. The preacher stood there, making sure everyone in the crowd could see him.
I asked my husband for the napkins he was holding, and walked over to the preacher. He was personally repellant to me, but for Pete’s sake, you can’t just leave someone like that dripping in spit and beer. I held the napkins out to him, but he shook his head in refusal.
“Take them,” I said stupidly, “for your face.” The man shook his head again, and looked past me, putting his bullhorn up to his mouth again and resuming his litany of hell’s inhabitants, a self-styled suffering servant, dripping beer for the Lord.
As I backed away from him, I couldn’t help think how very dramatic it all was, how much the preacher obviously delighted in this chance to prove that he was in the right, since “Blessed are you when people hate you”.
Seeing the picture of Archbishop Leonard brought this story back to mind because it was such a lesson in contrasts. Where the street preacher used his public humiliation to bring more attention to himself, the archbishop, by kissing the discarded image of Jesus’ mother, returned the focus to God.
I see people using the beatitude about the “blessed are the persecuted” all the time. Frequently, when someone experiences something on the “persecution spectrum” with “You’re not supporting my pet cause, that’s mean!” on the one end and “death” on the other, they use this as proof that they’re suffering for God and his cause.
This is categorically wrong. Sometimes you’re persecuted because you’re a jerk. Or perhaps you’ve simply acted like one. That unpleasant great-uncle who insists on employing racist jokes at every family reunion is not “suffering persecution for the Kingdom” when people get up and leave his company; he’s suffering persecution because he’s a jerk who’s telling jerk jokes. Likewise, your gay co-worker is not being persecuted in Jesus’ name when you inform her that you don’t support gay “marriage” and suggest that perhaps the workplace is not the best arena for discussions of that sort. If we’ve come to the point in our society where lack of approval equates “persecution”, then we all need a collective kick in the pants.
So how do you know? How can you tell if you’re experiencing genuine persecution for the sake of Christ and when you’re simply being shown that your behaviors are not acceptable?
I think the litmus test for this lies in where you put your focus. Once eyes are on you as a possible victim of persecution in the name of God, what do you do? Do you, like the Memphis street preacher, refuse help from strangers, the better to present a dramatic picture to the eyes you’re desperately hoping to fix on you? Or, like Archbishop Leonard, do you direct the focus back to God, in humility, seeking to stand in the breech for those who wronged you?