This week, Faith in Real Life took on a challenging passage from 1 Peter. The challenge comes both from a question of how we interpret scripture and connect it to how we live today, and how we respond to criticism. How do we take a passage of scripture with a history of being used by man to justify oppression and abuse and read it in search of God’s truth? And, if we apply this passage more broadly to minor forms of oppression, like unjust criticism, what lessons might this passage hold?
1 Peter 2:19-25
19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
There are many passages in the bible that can lead us into a swamp. This is one of them. The omitted 18th verse introduces this passage as advice to slaves—”Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” The words seems clear and the implication for behavior equally clear. Slavery is part of life and if you happen to be a slave, your Christian duty is to endure and to suffer as Jesus did.
I can only imagine the omission of this introductory verse is an attempt to allow us to focus upon the general pastoral implications rather than the political and ethical dilemma of ‘right’ behavior for a slave. But omitted or not, the injunction to submit—even to harsh masters—is just as biblical as ‘love one another deeply from the heart’. So before we discuss how the passage might apply to our privileged lives (as opposed to reality of slavery), I want to address the general problems of authority, protest and how we interpret scripture.
All of us have an interpretive lens through which we read the bible. If you primarily think of God as a just Father, you will read differently from the person who primarily thinks of God as an abiding presence. Similarly, if you think of your faith primarily in terms of your relationship with God, you will read differently from the person who thinks of their faith as justice for the least of these. These are not mutually exclusive but we cannot help lean in a particular direction. We read through our own history and point of view. And, since many passages in the bible contradict one another, our ‘interpretive lens’ is our principal tool to sort out the contradictions. So when we read a passage like 1 Peter 2:13, ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority…, our first reaction to the text will begin to reveal our individual points of view.
There is a long history of this passage being used to defend the secular status quo—which includes slavery, spousal abuse and even genocide. It can easily be read that it doesn’t matter if the institutions are just or unjust, the good Christian submits. What matters is relationship to God—not what happens in the secular world. Quotes like, ‘Wives, be obedient’ or ‘slaves, submit’ must be dealt with. In this view, obedience and submission are not only required they are viewed as commendable imitations of Christ. The downside of course, is that the secular status quo is maintained no matter who is diminished, beaten or killed. Resistance or moves to change are frowned upon—holocaust victims should accept their fate, slaves should accept their fate, and abused spouses should stay and endure. This is not a bad philosophy if you happen to be in power.
Personally, I find such interpretations unacceptable to how I know God. The God I know loves all of his children and is appalled when any of them are mistreated. The God I know is a ‘here and now’ God is always on the side of the oppressed. When I read the passages about submission through my interpretive lens, I read the same words differently.
Acknowledging that my interpretations can be viewed as linguistic manipulation of the Word of God in order to avoid what the bible plainly says, here is another viewpoint. In the first century, the disenfranchised literally faced death if they protested the institutions of their world. Valuing of self as a child of God meant staying alive. It usually doesn’t do much good to do right if you are dead.
The good news was and is that a slave, a woman or a child are persons of worth. That fundamental assertion is salvic. It was and is counter cultural. It confronts and challenges the status quo. But in real life, first century Christians were on the short end of secular power. They might have discovered new life with God. They may have come to believe in their status as children of God. But by secular standards, they were viewed as outcasts and criminals. The predicament of the first century Christian was just plain dangerous. But though their secular standing did not effect their status as God’s children, it did effect how they lived out their new reality with God.
The oppressed must carefully pick their battles and sometimes that means keeping your head down and saying ‘yes sir’ and others it means forcefully asserting yourself. This same passage in 1 Peter can be read as a survival manual as easily as it can be read as a defense of oppression. It is a statement about reliance upon God.
We do not live with such dire consequences and to generalize from the first century to the present is risky at best. Thankfully, most of us are not subject to systemic oppression—systemic prejudice perhaps, but our physical welfare is not at risk.
The much more ordinary way we looked at this passage was our response to unjust criticism. Most of us are reflexively defensive when criticized unfairly. Our response can range from personal counter attack to depressed silence. But the more intense our response, the more we reveal we are shackled to another’s opinion of us. When someone diminishes us, we must ‘protect’ ourselves. In the extreme case we react as if our identity was at stake. But, in real life we can not arbitrate how others view us.
It takes a great deal of faith to realize that people have every right to think ill of us—no matter how ‘good’ we are. That was the way Jesus lived. He never tried to coerce a response. Nothing he did was so convincing that all who saw believed. When he was accused, he did not fight or even argue. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” That is the third way Jesus offers. He held faith to his belief that God alone determines worth. Even as the world rejected him, he did not hold our sins against us. No matter what happened to him, he was a child of God—and so were his oppressors. He never faltered in his obedient reliance.
Peter reminds us to follow him. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” There is always a third way. It is contrary to human values. It is the way that honors all of God’s children and the way that promises the shepherd will be the guardian of our souls. We need that guidance and safety when we are challenged and attacked. That safety gives us a way to listen and a way to speak we cannot have if we are in either fight or flight modes. Though it certainly does not always work, it is the way to reconciliation and love. It is what Jesus died for.
The goal is reconciliation not suffering. But suffering will occur. Stand fast and look for God’s new way. Let be so.