Persecution – not a 21st-century aberration

Keith Anderson, 18 August 2019

Hebrews 11: 29–12: 2; Luke 12: 49–56

I remember them from about 1948. My mother thought he was over 90 years old. Mrs Peake was perhaps a couple of years younger. I know little of their history; they were East European Jews. There were many of them in Westcliffe-on-Sea where we lived. Along the sea front you could hear these Jews chattering away in Yiddish. I understand it was originally a German dialect with words from Hebrew and several modern languages mixed in. I don’t remember the Peakes speaking in Yiddish, but they maintained the same unique accent when they conversed in English.

My brother and I still refer to that Essex town not as Westcliffe, but ‘Vestacleef’. My abiding memory of them, though, is listening to their private musical duet through the dividing wall between our houses. One played the piano, the other the violin. I say ‘play’ in inverted commas; the sound coming through our wall would have made Eric Morecambe’s famous piano skit with André Previn sound like an excerpt from the Proms.

They probably arrived in Westcliffe at a similar time to us, having been bombed out of London’s East End. If my mother was correct in her estimate Mr Peake would have been born sometime before 1860. As a child he would have known people who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

But more pertinently, he would have known of the pogroms in Tsarist Russia during which thousands of his fellow Jews had been slaughtered. The beginnings of the Zionist movement. The emigration of Jews from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine in the 1880s. The rise of Nazism and the brown shirts of Mosely in the 1930s. And finally, the Holocaust and the great migration to the Holy Land.

In Luke’s gospel we read of Jesus’ warnings. He was talking to Jews. There is doubt as to whether Jesus said these words in the context Luke placed them, because some scholars think that this gospel was written around the time Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the Temple desecrated. Jesus’ words can be interpreted as a prophecy of the destruction of the Jewish nation between AD 70 and 135. At the time of Christ there was unrest in Israel over the Roman occupation of that land.

Some 40 years after Christ’s crucifixion a failed revolt in Judea led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And while some resistance continued after that time, by AD 135 it had been crushed, the Jewish leader Simon bar Kokhba was dead and the great dispersal of Jews into the second exile which only ended in the 20th century had begun.

The question remains, were Jesus’ prophetic thoughts just restricted to the first 100 years from the time of his pronouncements or did they cover the Jewish experience of my Mr Peake and beyond? Similarly, a case can be made for the Christian experience from that time.

Were Jesus’ prophetic thoughts just restricted to the first 100 years from the time of his pronouncements?

What our experience and Jesus’ words make clear is that the religious life is not protected from the ills of this world. We may be looking for a peaceful existence, as my early neighbours Mr and Mrs Peake had found in the last years of their lives. But it is not some kind of aberration that in this century Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.

It may be just what Jesus expected.