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Following Jesus

Living the Beatitudes: Confronted by Truth

September 13, 2017 by

Continuing her series on the Beatitudes, Rebekah Domer begins to discuss the last beatitude today. Catch up on the rest of her posts here.
Alice von Hildebrand
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand

Who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake in America these days? I found myself wondering as I pondered the final Beatitude of Christ which states, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). For me, persecution evokes images of early Christian martyrs facing lions in the arenas, and Reformation-era dissidents burning at the stake for their belief in adult baptism.

While persecution continues in today’s world, it is for the most part confined to areas under direct threat of ISIS militants and anti-Christian regimes. Granted, terroristic violence might erupt anywhere these days, but for most Western Christians like myself, persecution remains more a remote possibility than a daily prospect.

I have experienced opposition to my Christian faith, I’ll admit, and in the most unlikely of places. Auditing religion courses at a liberal Mennonite college in the Midwest, I never expected to be challenged for professing faith in Jesus as the Son of God – or for believing in the Virgin Birth and the miracles of Christ, for that matter. However, early in the semester I found myself locked in debate with the department head over Christian fundamentals which, I believed, were non-negotiable truths. It was unpleasant and frustrating. But I was only taking courses for my own edification, not earning my living under duress like Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, now-retired professor and lecturer, whom I recently visited at her home in New Rochelle, New York.

Fleeing Nazi occupation of her native Belgium in 1940, Alice arrived on American shores as a seventeen-year-old refugee, accompanied only by her sister. Taken in by an aunt and uncle, Alice began working to pay her way toward an undergraduate degree at Manhattanville College.

Inspired by a talk she attended at the house of her future husband, the philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice decided to pursue a degree in Philosophy from Fordham University where von Hildebrand taught. Before she was able to complete her PhD, however, she ran out of money and was again forced to seek employment. Catholic colleges rejected Alice – a devout Catholic – because they did not want to hire a woman to teach Philosophy. She finally found employment as a Philosophy professor at Hunter College, a secular university in New York. Thus began a thirty-seven year teaching career in which, Alice says, she “experienced much darkness.”

In her book, Memoirs of a Happy Failure, she writes, “I had never taught in my life. Moreover, with my European background which presumed respectful, receptive students, I knew I was ill-equipped to face assertive (and often arrogant) students who came from a totally secular background.”

Musing over her experiences at Hunter, she writes, “I thank [God] for not having revealed to me how arduous my task would be: to hold high the flag in defense of the objectivity of truth in a fortress of relativism.” As I chatted with the retired professor at her home, she recalled, “I had the amazing experience of persecution at Hunter from day one. The word truth is a challenge because people know full well that if they admit there is an objective truth, they have to bow and obey.” In her memoirs, Alice remembers a student announcing to the class, “The worst thing that could happen to me would be to find out that I have an immortal soul; then my actions would have consequences for me.”

Because Hunter’s Philosophy department was largely staffed by progressives advocating the relativity and subjectivity of truth and wisdom, she soon found herself at loggerheads with colleagues who resented her insistence on one ultimate, universal Truth. She never mentioned God, Alice told me. “But if someone finds the truth, he automatically finds God, because God is the truth. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I have the truth.’ He said, ‘I am the truth’”(John 14:6).

“Persecution made me realize that without God’s help I could not do it.”
—Alice von Hildebrand

Despite the opposition of her colleagues, Alice attracted more students to her classes than other professors in the department. More than one of her students came to faith, impressed by the love they encountered in her classroom. Her popularity was soon envied. Malicious rumors spread among faculty that she was recruiting converts to Catholicism and that she was anti-Semitic – both blatantly unfounded claims. Barred from teaching day classes, where the pay was good, Alice was relegated to the evening session and received no medical benefits or pay for overtime. Although she was given the highest student-approval rating, with 25,000 students evaluating seven hundred professors, she had to wait ten years to become an instructor, and that at the lowest possible salary.

Alice is convinced these persecutions were a blessing in her life. “Persecution made me realize that without God’s help I could not do it.” As she lives out the final years of her life, she urges: “Rejoice when you can’t do it on your own, for when we turn to God for help, joyfully acknowledging defeat, we defeat the defeat.”

Christian victory, says Alice, is to defeat a defeat by demonstrating God’s might when confronted by our own powerlessness.

Seen through the lens of human wisdom, the crucifixion of Christ was the greatest defeat in world history. But it was through this very defeat that death was conquered. Trusting in God’s ultimate victory, Christ surrendered to the greatest pain and ignominy. By entering hell itself he overcame its power, winning for us the hope of eternal life.

Anyone who lives according to the spirit of God, whether or not he or she professes Christianity, will encounter opposition. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” 2 Timothy 3:12 says. Commenting on this in his reflections on the Beatitudes, John Piper suggests that this conflict stems from the discrepancy between the fallen nature of humans and the transformation we receive when we place our faith and hope in Christ. Forgiven and restored, we no longer conform to this world but reflect the glory of God. Placing our hope in what is eternal we, by extension, oppose the governmental, military and often even the religious structures of this world that seek to control and to amass wealth at others’ expense.

The Beatitudes call us to humility, poverty, and peace, which radically oppose the values of this world. Therefore, anyone who truly embodies Christ’s teachings will be persecuted. But we must not lose heart, for Jesus offers great reward in heaven to all who suffer for his sake (Matt. 5:12).

Check back in three weeks for my next post in this series. Comments

About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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  • I feel that persecution continues in our society in various ways. Look at the way certain parts of the society are oppressed by the police, by teachers, by parents, by clergy, etc. I believe that in any case persons might perceive persecution. In my experience, clericalism has been persecuting those not in the clergy for a long time. It has gotten worst these days. Point of fact, I was denied the ability to do supervisory training without an endorsement of the local ordinary. I did feel persecuted by this requirement and wonder often how the disciples would have responded if Jesus invited them with such caveats. The main reason that I was denied was because I was not clergy. Now, as I am nearing my time to retire, I am open to what the Lord has in store for me. I do not have a specific plan of what to do next. I feel that the Lord has a plan for me and by following it I will no longer be a victim of persecution over the lack of ordination. I can empathize with Alice who said she “had the amazing experience of persecution at Hunter from day one”. I feel that I have had similar experiences being a member of the laity who has been working to build the ‘kindom’ of God amongst all of God’s people. This is what God is calling me to I am sure.

    Tom Rowan
  • thank you

    mary noon
  • This article points out 2 things for me. (1) Christians who truly stand for their faith are persecuted. Maybe not with death, but in other ways. We have to be prepared for that. But we also have to resist. Paul resisted persecution at times, so there is nothing wrong with that. (2) Even in the post-modern world people need and sometimes want absolute standards of truth. I've seen a lot about how to minister in the post-modern world and most of those things involve not discussing objective truth. We should NOT apologize for saying there is truth and gently but firmly helping people understand what that truth is. I refuse to change the message, though I may adjust my methodology. The world needs to know there is an objective truth and we need to boldly proclaim it. CM

    Cindy Martin
  • Very interested in N. Y. Fox Hill community.

    Carol Marlin
  • I love it, just love it. You said it all by acknowledging defeat on our own and trusting in God he defeats our defeats . God Bless

    kelly smith
  • So true God knows that I have also accepted defeat and it is very tough when one goes through it Hopefully God will also bless me as I truly do believe in him