A few months ago I started reading a book entitled, The Heavenly Man, about a certain Brother Yun, who became “a great fighter and a faithful worker” for Christ under a Communist government that suppressed Christianity. I was deeply moved and inspired by his witness to the Christian faith and the hardships he endured to bring Christ to others and to live for Him daily. His zeal, fortitude, and willingness to suffer for the faith and for those he ministered to reminded me of a modern-day St. Paul. Do you recall what he wrote to the Church at Corinth regarding the “street cred” he earned from what he suffered?
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29)
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, I was in the hospital with my wife waiting for our son to be born, and I came across an essay sharing a viewpoint on what King’s legacy meant to the author as a black man living today. I cannot vouch for the website or the author, but what he wrote made an impression on me that day and offered a sharp perspective and opportunity for faithful Christians who take to heart the teachings of Jesus:
They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.
And you know what? The worst of the worst wasn’t that bad. Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?
These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail. That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep-throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.
Please let this sink in. It wasn’t marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.
When I was learning the Catholic faith, I studied the catechism, memorized prayers, and received sacramental initiation into the Body of Christ. When I was feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and visiting those in prison after graduation from college, I learned how to serve.
When I was in grad school, I studied theologians and Church history, and I acquired a lot of books and head knowledge. When I was an observer in a monastic community, I learned how to pray, how to work, how to fast, and how to read scripture.
But one lesson I have yet to be taught is how to take a beating as all Christian men must learn how to do. And this is a lesson that I think will be more necessary and invaluable for believing Christians in the coming years.
A beating can be, but isn’t always, physical. A person can endure a financial beating, a legal beating, a social beating at the hands of those trying to break him. Holding firm in the face of such oppression is not easy and requires endurance and fortitude, virtues for which we must pray. But we as Christians who desire to follow Christ to Calvary could benefit from some practical teaching on how to endure in these situations. I have no experience, and I need to learn, but thankfully, we have many teachers.
The Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, for example, by their calm witness at the time of their beheading, helped put an end to the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher held the line on marriage against state opposition and were martyred during the English Reformation. St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein died in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis. The list of those who remained faithful and endured to the end goes on.
Men of Christ
For most of us, though, the struggle comes from within rather than from outside ourselves because we struggle against the force of our own concupiscence. We succumb to our lusts rather than endure the discomfort of holding our bodies in check. We give in to our appetites rather than deny ourselves a few meals on Fridays. Men complain and roll over in bed when we know we are being called to the sometimes-arduous task of prayer. Men divorce rather than endure the hard work of marriage and reconciliation. Men refuse to persevere in even these mild sufferings. How, then, can we expect to sustain our bodies under the pummeling of fists and clubs?
Men of Christ, if you want to earn the crown of life (cf. James 1:12), you are going to have to learn mortification. If you are following Christ in this life – the same Christ who sweat blood in the Garden, was scourged at the pillar, was humiliated with a crown of thorns, was forced to carry his own cross, and died nailed to it – suffering will come. Love must be tough, and only “those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
Once you have acquired the book knowledge, learned your prayers, and mastered your theology, you would be wise to learn how to take a beating, first via mortification of the senses, and then by taking a stand: for the poor, for the vulnerable, for the persecuted, for the enslaved, for the unborn, for religious liberty, for Christ himself.
Once you learn your lessons, take the beating. Take it for your wives and your families. Take it for your faith. Take it for your brothers and sisters suffering with and for Christ across the globe. Put up your arms if you have to, protect your vital organs, but don’t back down; and do whatever it takes to endure to the end. The crown of righteousness in store for you, bestowed by the righteous Judge Himself, awaits (cf. 2 Timothy 4:8).