Suffering in the face of persecution

The situation in Myanmar is worrying with more than 700 dead as many ordinary people bravely resist the illegal military coup in Myanmar despite massacres.

Apr 17, 2021

By Anil Netto
The situation in Myanmar is worrying with more than 700 dead as many ordinary people bravely resist the illegal military coup in Myanmar despite massacres. 

These people, many of them youth, are living for an ideal. They want to live their lives to the full, free of oppressive control.

Many of them — and their families and friends — are paying a heavy price as soldiers with heavy weapons open fire on them, mowing down scores with each passing day. 

The followers of Jesus too faced persecution after the Resurrection, first in Jerusalem and later elsewhere and then in Rome. In the first few centuries in Rome, Christianity was seen as an alien superstition that had not received proper authorisation. Although the Empire and its imperial theology absorbed or co-opted other religions of the territories into its fold, Christianity was viewed differently.

It was seen as branching off Judaism and was viewed as a cult which encouraged the abandonment of the Roman imperial religion.

The Roman persecution started in 64 AD and continued, with periods of sporadic intensity, sometimes localised, until 313 AD.

It was a tough time for Christians in those early centuries. Many of them were from the urban poor (though there were middle-class Christians too). They were  viewed with suspicion, as misfits, social radicals and counter-culturals and were sometimes harshly persecuted. 

They refused to conform to Roman imperial theology, which honoured its deified emperors and sacrificed to a pantheon of gods of the empire. Because the Christians’ worship rituals were often held in private and involved terms such as “body and blood” and agape (sacrificial love), they were often suspected of secret immoral worship or even cannibalism.

Many Christians had to suffer for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. In Roman eyes, they were seen as breaking the pact between these gods and society, especially during periods when the empire was under pressure or attack from outside.

These Christians, when they refused to conform, paid with their own lives, especially in the third century and early fourth century AD.

The point is, after the euphoria of the Resurrection had subsided, it was not hunky-dory being a Christian. People suffered persecution, and many were  martyred.

The early Christians, even if they did not want martyrdom, knew they subscribed to a higher ideal, a different standard to worldly values. Many of them may have been near the bottom of the social ladder, but they knew that in God’s eyes they were special, and that He was deeply concerned about the oppressed.

Before Jesus, the prophets had spoken out strongly throughout the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for prophet is navi, which means “speaking for someone else” (ie for God). The prophets were instruments of God’s power, justice, mercy and compassion, conveying his message in the first person (“I, the Lord, your God, say this…).

The prophet’s message was one of giving a community a choice or ultimatum: there was no middle ground. The prophet’s message was either obeyed or it was rejected. In the latter case, the prophet would be resisted, persecuted or even killed.

Jesus was the incarnation of this Wisdom and continued in the prophetic tradition with his message to the world –  that they could not continue with the old ways of oppression, divide and rule, and marginalisation of so many groups.

He condemned the love of money over the love of God and spoke out against religious hypocrisy and those using religion for personal power and wealth. His message resonated with his time and earned the ire of those who felt its sting (siapa makan cili, dia rasa pedas or “if the shoe fits, wear it).

He spoke of a kingdom that would spread like a mustard seed, growing fast and wild, and of a God who loved even the poor, the oppressed and those suffering persecution for the cause of justice.

Jesus’ message was rejected by those in power, and he was executed on the cross. His suffering united him with all those around the world who suffer unjustly while others lord it over them or earn fabulous profits from the misery of the ordinary people.

But the Resurrection vindicated Jesus’ prophetic words and breathed the Spirit across a fallen world.

And so the generals in Myanmar, persecuting the ordinary people and presiding over their massacres, are on borrowed time. The people are suffering, and they speak with a prophetic voice when they call for freedom in their land and justice for their fallen ones.

Just as the Roman emperors are now a footnote in history, one day the brutal generals of Myanmar will be consigned to ignominy.

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