A Theology of Play and the Persecuted

Blessed are you when they reproach you and do all evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because your reward is great in heaven: for they did the same thing to the prophets before you. -Matthew 5:11-12

Theology of play
A year or so ago, I started to go through the Sermon on the Mount to see if Jesus was really as playful and imaginative as Jurgen Moltmann told me he was in the theologian’s overlooked Theology of Play. I was a bit skeptical, even though I was in love with the premise. How would today’s transition from the beatitudes to the rest of Jesus’ quintessential teachings fit in a theology of play?

Before he encountered any resistance from the religious elite, Jesus does more than warn his listeners that they will face persecution. He assumes it. He is preparing his closest twelve for the fire into which they are about to be plunged. And to anybody in the growing crowd of hearers, there would be no mistake from the start that this new kingdom would be off to a rough start.

How then, would this kingdom, which is rife with resistance, the need for vigilance, and the assumption of persecution- an assumption that is still proving true all over the world- be characterized by the childlike movement of play? How can Moltmann write boldly about the playfulness of God, when to be invited into his presence demands so much of our security?

If a theology of play breaks down in Jesus’ first address, perhaps we are on the wrong track. If, however, it is possible- and even imperative- that a playful response be given to malicious speech and action on Jesus’ behalf, perhaps there is something to the centrality of play in the kingdom of God.

As he wrapped up his introduction, Jesus pulls his hearers back with a personal address. Here he exchanges pronouns from third person to second person. While we may find ourselves, more or less, in each of the beatitudes, it is a certainty that we will find ourselves in the category of the persecuted, of the maligned, of the recipients of evil words and deeds. Persecution is a universal reality in the kingdom of God.

Lately, the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become a mantra for many and an unavoidable eyesore on the internet for the rest of us. We might expect Jesus to give out this type of advice to us when we are experiencing a heightened form of persecution. We would expect him, like a good parent, to assure us that we are ok, that we are loved, that it’s not all as bad as it seems.

But then Jesus surprises us yet again. He commands his hearers to rejoice and be glad.

Think how these words would have been heard in his day. The listeners had been raised on a steady diet of God’s justice and coming wrath on the nations. When the people sat, weeping beside the waters of Babylon, they found comfort in the coming destruction of their captors’ children. Now Jesus blows straight past “Keep Calm…” which would have certainly grabbed some attention, and instructs his followers to be demonstrably happy.

Jesus is, once again, acknowledging what is and playing with what could be. He is not teaching his followers to ignore the injustice that they would share with the prophets that had gone before them. Instead, he is expanding for them, and for us, a new way to be fully present in the world.

In Moltmann’s words, “Only those who are capable of joy can feel pain at their own and other people’s suffering. A man who can laugh can also weep. A man who has hope is able to endure the world and to mourn.”

Is it possible to be realistic and playful? Are we able to step into freedom even in the midst of persecution?

Jesus seems to think so.

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