In his letter to the congregation in Smyrna, Jesus tells poor people they are rich. Jesus tells the persecuted that they need not fear. Jesus tells people doomed to die that he will give them “the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10) Such promises amount either to escapist opium or to ultimate reality.
The testimonies of poor, persecuted martyrs help me believe that Jesus overcomes evil with good and has defeated death with resurrection life. Among these witnesses, I find Etty Hillesum particularly fascinating and illuminating.
Having grown up in a troubled home in the Netherlands, Etty Hillesum endured Nazi occupation until suffering arrest and deportation to Auschwitz, where she died in November 1943. As anti-Jewish measures increased in the Netherlands, Etty’s reading of the Bible, Augustine, Christian mystics, and Dostoyevsky, led her to stand in solidarity with her fellow Jews. For her, spiritual reading was not a merely academic exercise; it was a means to commune with God, and her communion with God intensified as conditions around her deteriorated. Without in any way denying the extreme evil all around her, Etty found peace and even joy in the Lord.
Etty also opposed evil by nurturing the goodness of God within herself. In one of her diaries, she writes, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”
As we in Toronto search for how to respond to the shooting last Sunday night, and as Christians around the globe seek to do justice and share love in our polarized and hurting world, we can gain wisdom from Etty’s call to nurture peace within ourselves so that it radiates toward those around us. And we can gain power for that peace from the Spirit of Jesus, “who died and came to life.” (Revelation 2:8) We can fight injustice as we seek to embody the love that led Jesus to the cross and empty tomb.
In our passage for Sunday, Revelation 2:8-11, Jesus commands, “Be faithful to death.” Such faithfulness will not often look like moral heroism. It comes mostly in the shadows of obscurity. It also spreads peace now and prepares us to wear the “crown of life” Jesus desires to give us.