Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake

Nigel Smith
Sunday, 27 July 2014

Nigel Smith. Sunday 27 July 2014.

Okay well I had a great deal of fun with this and for me it was partly a chance to have an external deadline to meet to motivate me to do something new and it was a good process, so thank you very much for that opportunity Brenda, it was great.

I had no real preference for which verse I took either and so I just let everyone else choose and this was the only one that wasn’t wanted, which was really nice in terms of saying ‘let’s see what comes’, and ‘lets see what emerges out of that’.

I put the King James version up there just because the Bible software I used to explore the Greek uses the King James with the Greek, so that’s why it’s a start point. It’s interesting to note that the King James version is pretty similar to some more modern translations in terms of how the verse is rendered. This is where I started off in my brainstorming. There’s the NIV, pretty similar. I thought I’d look at the Amplified but its so useless for artistic inspiration!:

“Blessed and happy and [t]enviably fortunate and [u]spiritually prosperous [v](in the state in which the born-again child of God enjoys and finds satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of his outward conditions) are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (for being and doing right), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!”

There are a couple of more modern translations that put a much more active tone into the verse. The New Living does this with ‘God blesses those who are persecuted’ rather than just ‘they are blessed – in a state of blessedness’ – its an act of God doing something. And similarly, the Contemporary English Version does that as well, although nice straightforward English: ‘God blesses those people who are treated badly for doing right’. I’m not sure that’s quite the full guts of it, but its clean. 

And then The Message does this which is quite interesting. I liked the commitment ideas in here. ‘You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution’. That to me was an interesting thing that I picked up on. And then this little known translation from the late 1800s picks up on an idea that I’ll talk more about later: That righteousness – the Greek word – has more to do with justice than holiness. I’ll talk more about that next.

Just because this was the process I went through, we’re going to look at some Greek. The word under ‘blessed’ is ‘makarios’, and the only thing I want to note about it is that it’s a prolonged sense, it’s a longer word than the basic word ‘to bless’. It has the sense of a long term blessedness, not just in response to one event. That’s the key thing I’d like to note about that. I also note that this is one of the two beatitudes which phrased the part at the end in the stative: not something that shall be given, or shall be done, or shall be experienced, but that the kingdom of heaven is theirs. So this is one of those two beatitudes. I took from the statement that it’s more general, it’s not intended to be a sort of transactional recipe where ‘if you do this, this happens to you’. It’s more a general statement, or an aspirational statement of how things are, or should be.

If we move on to looking at the word ‘persecuted’, again the word used there is a longer form than the basic word. It implies a state of affairs that’s longer lasting. But the main thing that I’d like to really note, and this was the start point of the process that got me to the image I ended up with, was that underneath the idea of being persecuted is the idea of having to flee. In fact the persecution is such because you’re being pursued. You are being chased. And it’s a persistent fleeing that’s a hardship. So that fleeing idea was quite important in where I ended up getting to.

Looking at the ‘righteousness’ sake’ part of the verse, the first thing that struck me was hilarious, that the causal word there is ‘heineken’. I just thought that would be fantastic; to have a causal link between righteousness and blessing, caused by beer. Just magnificent. But I couldn’t do anything beyond humour with that, and I thought it was probably a little bit flippant, given I do think its coincidental. When I looked at the origins of the Heineken beer brand, they relate to some families in Holland, they’re not tied up with Greek at all, so we’ll leave that alone.

But the underlying sense of equity is really important. I mentioned this briefly before. In the New Testament when the word holiness is used, it’s an entirely different word, it’s ‘eusebia’. And ‘dikaiosune’ is about an act or character of someone that is committed to fairness. And I hadn’t thought about that. When I read ‘righteousness’ in the text, it’s always been about ‘holiness’ and purity. That’s what I’ve associated with righteousness. And so to discover that underneath the text, that’s not really the primary meaning actually, it’s primarily about equity and fairness and justice, was quite important.

So my sense of what we had was that there’s a blessing, there’s a blessedness, and the people who are persecuted are fleeing, because they are committed to fairness and justice. And what came to my mind immediately was this fellow. I thought we probably don’t want a picture of Edward Snowden on the wall of the church for years and years, but at the time that I was working through the art work, I couldn’t think of anyone who symbolised a commitment to fairness that had caused them to be persecuted, and to have to flee, more explicitly than Edward Snowden. This is where the main metaphor for my art came; the idea of a whistleblower. Somebody who stands up for fairness, and is persecuted because of it. There’s a number of other examples that we could draw on from all countries, from industrial relations, from all sorts of places, where people stand up for fairness and are persecuted. So that’s where the main metaphor of having someone blowing a whistle came from.

Then the question was how do I convey the sense of blessing, so this is something I’ve really learned from being part of the Cityside community. In the tradition of Christian art, the hand of blessing has been used for hundreds of years to convey God's blessing on people. I wanted to try and represent that.

It was hilarious to try and actually figure out how to make my hand do that, not being practised at giving ‘the blessing’ to people in the medieval sense. There’s a bunch of different versions of the hand of blessing too. Some of them have different symbolisms. The one that I tried to portray was the one that references Jesus Christ the first and the last. It does that by representing the Greek letters that are at the beginning and end of ‘Jesus’ – ‘Iesus’ (Is that the right word?) and Christos. So we have the ‘I’ and the ‘C’ for the first and last letters of ‘Jesus’ (in Greek), and the ‘X’ and the ‘C’ for the first and last letters of ‘Christ’. They are meant to be represented by the ways that the fingers cross. Now it actually gets quite mind bending to see all of that in the one hand symbol, and at various times I’ve thought ‘Oh yeah, I think I can see how they all are viewed’. I looked it up to see, you know, how do you do this, and there was all sorts of incomprehensible descriptions about how you had to view the hand from certain angles to see all the letters correctly. I thought. ‘let’s just have a go at this’. 

So that’s the sense that the picture has. We’ve got the hand of blessing, we’ve got a whistleblower, and that whistleblowers are blessed.

Two other things: I didn’t feel I needed to represent ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ differently from the idea of being blessed. I really felt that saying ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ was the same as saying that they are blessed; that is the nature of the blessing.

And there were a couple of things that happened in the artistic process of creating the photo. Most of the work was done thinking, like this, and I thought ‘I knew what the image was that I wanted’, I thought ‘I just have to go and capture this’. I tried having somebody else be the person in the picture and I just wasn’t quite satisfied, it was just a frustrating experience trying to convey what I wanted. So I ended up getting Tessa to take the photo. I had it all set up on the tripod so I just had to be in the right frame for the picture. We took a lot of pictures. Because we were using the autofocus there was some difference between some of the pictures. Some of them focused on the background, which is Auckland City, buts its intentionally so fudged that its not part of the meaning. There’s a small difference in focus between the face and the whistle, and the hand. In my initial conception I had wanted the whistle to be in crystal focus, because of the way that the light plays on that. But the image that I ended up going with has the hand in crystal focus, and there is a slight fuzziness to the whistle. I thought ‘that’s actually appropriate’ because what we’re focusing on with this is the blessing. We’re not focusing on the persecuted specific, we’re focusing on the blessing of God.

I think that’s probably about me.