Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (I Peter 2:11-25) transports me to a smoky gym where I climb into the ring and fight the good fight against the authority of holy writ, when that writ is on record advising the weak to submit to the authority of the strong, advising the slaves to grin and bear whatever wrongful beatings they might have to endure from cruel masters. Oh, yeah, this comes after the part advising the faithful to submit to all human authority, from the kings on down. Reading this puts me back in that adolescent, Mellencamp-like resistance mode, So I call up my preacher, I say: gimme strength for round 5, He said: you don’t need no strength, you need to grow up, son, I said: growing up leads to growing old and then to dying, And dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun. I fight authority. . .
And then I wonder, if Mellencamp is right and authority always wins, in what way could the authority of this passage possibly win the day? Who knows, let the ringside judges decide. I’ll trust your imagination to figure out the jabs and hooks I would take at the passage; I suspect most of you have some similar potshots. But I will point out some of the ways the passage punches through my defenses. First, I go back and see who the audience is for this passage; it’s addressed to “aliens and strangers.” These weren’t spiritualized terms; the first century band of Jesus-followers were for the most part resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. They were poor, oppressed, most likely to succeed at being victimized by the occupying powers that be. Peter wasn’t writing to privileged folk like me. Their version of Wayfaring Stranger would probably not have sounded pretty, like Emmylou’s or Allison Krauss’. Theirs would have been a White Stripes scream. Peter is addressing some real issues among a band of abused believers who had little hope of winning any mano a mano combat.
Second, I go back and see who’s giving the advice; it’s written by Peter, the one who defied authority and wound up in jail on more than one occasion, and who made the famous comment to the authorities: we must obey God rather than man. So I have to listen a little differently to his advice here, knowing that his practice didn’t exactly follow his preaching. His own way of honoring the authorities got him in a real fix with the fiddling emperor, Nero, who ended up crucifying the apostle upside down.
Third point: I have to consider the possibility that Peter was being strategic here, a la Martin Luther King, in advising the believers to suffer, not for the sake of suffering, but in hopes of transforming the situation. There are a couple of “so that” phrases in the passage (12, 24). Live this way “so that” people might be converted to a better way, so that they might repent and give glory to God. Jesus modeled this for us “so that” freedom might come to us. Could it be that Paul was an early proponent of nonviolent direct action, training the early converts to control their reactions to the terrors of their day, to respond in a way that would open up the possibility for hearts and minds to be won over, to break the cycles of violence? What if the verses in Peter’s epistle read something like “if you’re sitting there at a lunch counter and someone comes up and puts out a lit cigarette on your hand, don’t strike back. If they spit at you, don’t retaliate. Always respond with love, no matter how hateful.” Would that sound so different from what we see in the letter as it is?
Maybe Peter isn’t counseling passivity in the face of persecution. Maybe he’s addressing a group of alienated folk who dream of a better world, and he’s helping them figure out a way to realize that dream. He’s not telling them not to fight back; he’s just giving them a different arsenal to use in the fight. Maybe he’s encouraging them to fight for the right without question or pause, to march into hell for a heavenly cause, even into the hell of an abusive taskmaster, with the courage and hope of a new Movement whose time has come.
The fight with this authoritative scripture isn’t over. You can be the judge and score round one. Meanwhile, I’ll practice my rope-a-dope. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.