"Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
When I was a seminary student in Washington, DC I once had the privilege of hosting a couple of guests of the seminary who were visiting from Nicaragua. Tranquilino and Juan community leaders in a small mountain village called San Juan de Limay I had visited the previous year. Tranquilino was the leader of the Christian base community and Juan was the town mayor. Both men were very poor. They came from the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere. And yet, because of their faith, both of them were some of the most loving and joy-filled people I have ever met. Tranqilino, in particular, was an exceptional man of God. Three of his sons had been murdered by the Contra. And yet, he held no bitterness. He was one of the most peace-filled, Christ-like men I've ever met.
During their visit to Washington, DC I was assigned to be their tour guide for a day. They wanted to see all the usual sites in DC: the capitol, the White House, Washington Monument, etc. And they wanted to visit Georgetown. I'm not sure why they wanted to see Georgetown. Perhaps they had heard that it was the part of town where many of the most powerful people in the world live. So, I took Tranquilino and Juan for a walking tour of Georgetown.
After walking past many swanky restaurants, posh shops, and fancy townhouses, we started back to my car. During that walk back to my car, Tranquilino said something to me I'll never forget: "Esteban, after seeing all you have showed us today, I now know it must be very difficult to be a Christian in America. You, and your brothers and sisters, will be in our prayers."
This from a man who had been persecuted, whose sons had been kidnapped and killed (with bullets paid for by the US government), all because he insisted upon remaining true to Christ and to seek his way of love and peace. And he told me that it must be hard to be a Christian in America!
Of course Tranqelino is very wise. If being a Christian means following the way of Christ who called the poor, those who mourn, those who are hungry, and those who are persecuted "blessed." It's hard to follow Jesus and his way of radical obedience to the way of covenant love in a land that celebrates wealth, domination, violence, and self-centered individualism. Jesus' way of self-giving, cross-bearing love is regarded as weakness and foolishness in such a culture as ours.
There are many in America who are admirers of Jesus. His words and message of love and good news are pleasing to them. They see him as their "personal savior", good buddy, and friend. But, as admirers of Jesus, they see no need to actually obey his commandments and teachings to "Deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him." and "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with alll your mind, and with all your strength. ... Love your neighbor as yourself."
Admirers of Jesus see no problem with 20% of the nation holding and controlling 80% of the nation's wealth. Over 40% of the people have no health insurance. The rich getting richer while the middle class and poor get poorer. All the while sending their young men and women to fight a futile, unjust, and illegal war. For admirers of Jesus, their admiration of him stops at the church building door. After all, it's only between them and Jesus anyway.
Tranqilino understood being a Christian as obedience to all the teachings of Jesus Christ, summarized by him as "Loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." He also believed, with Jesus, that loving God means loving your neighbor as yourself. And your neighbor is anyone, anywhere in the world, who is hungry, thirsty, mourning, sick, a prisoner, oppressed or persecuted. Tranquilino believed that Jesus was serious when he said "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). He understood that the cross Jesus calls his followers to take up is that of obedience to his commandments to love God and love neighbors.
Tranquilino was right. In a culture that teaches that self-denial is anathama and self-centered love is celebrated it is very hard to be a Christian.