Many of those who once looked through the barbed-wire fences at the Woomera Detention Centre (New South Wales) carry personal stories of fear of persecution.
One such story, the story of Najaf Mazari, is beautifully narrated by Najaf and Robert Hillman in their joint work, The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Najaf is an Afghani Hazara who suffered persecution and torture at the hands of the Taliban. He escaped to Australia via Indonesia and now enjoys permanent residency and the freedom to make and market rugs in his own little shop in suburban Melbourne.
Some of the first century Christian groups, including Matthew’s community, were a bit like the Afghani Hazaras, in that they were persecuted simply on account of who they were vis à vis the dominant cultural or political powers. They had every reason to fear bodily harm and even death, as did Jesus and his followers. The scene at Gethsemane suggests that Jesus himself experienced deep fear in the face of his impending suffering and political execution. Yet Jesus tells his disciples not to fear those who kill the body.
How are these words to be understood? To return to the story of Najif: the Taliban had power to destroy his body, but no power over his spirit. A man of deep faith, supported by a family who sacrificed their own comfort and placed their trust in God (Allah), he survived against the most incredible odds. Even if he had died in the effort to find freedom, his faith in the fullness of life with God and the witness of his courage would remain, in stark contrast with the bullying power of the Taliban who can kill only the body.
Trust in God is at the heart of Jesus’ response to suffering. The disciples are sent out on mission. They are to proclaim in the marketplace or from the ‘housetops’ the gospel they have received in the security of the household. They can expect rejection and humiliation. They are not to be deterred from their mission. Above all, they are not to give up the struggle or capitulate in the face of persecution. Like all God’s creatures, they are precious in God’s eyes and will not be abandoned. On the contrary, Jesus will ‘acknowledge’ them before God ‘in heaven’. Trust in the author and sustainer of life is the appropriate response to suffering endured for the sake of God’s empire. Trust in God does not take away the pain. Rather, it puts the inevitable suffering of the disciple on mission into the broader perspective of life in its fullest expression.
Veronica Lawson RSM