More and more often (it seems) our news reports are filled with tragic deaths.
An inner-city gang shooting leaves an 8 year old dead
The abuse of power by someone in law enforcement results in the death of a teenager
A military strike with poor intelligence results in significant civilian casualties
A distracted, sleep-deprived, or negligent parent forgets their infant in the car
When death is senseless, we tend to have one of two primary responses. It can leave us reeling in shock. Or it can kindle a furious anger within us.
We want meaning. We want purpose. We want order and predictability. We want life to make sense.
But too often—when we look around us and reflect on the circumstances of our lives—we cannot find meaning. We cannot find purpose or order or predictability. In our daily lives, we experience things that we cannot make sense of.
And so we struggle to fit together the pieces of life and faith—of experience and belief.
This was certainly the case for many that Peter was addressing in our scripture lesson this morning.
As I have stressed in the past weeks, there was an increasing amount of persecution taking place against the Christian communities to which Peter writes. But today’s reading also gives us insight into the daily suffering that some experienced—not on account of their faith, but because of their ethnicity and social standing. The verse immediately before our reading addresses these verses to “slaves” who serve not only masters “who are good and considerate, but also…those who are harsh” (1Peter 2:18 NIV).
The word used here refers to slaves or servants who worked within the house. Because of the ambiguity of the Greek terms, we cannot say for sure whether these slaves had much power over their own lives. There have been some convincing arguments made that claim Peter is using this word for “slave” to refer to all Christians, given (in part) the expression “slaves of God” in 1Peter 2:16 (though the word used there is a synonym).
But this generalizing is not the way we have read these texts over the last 200-300 years. One thing we can say for sure is that these verses were used to support slavery for a very long time. Theologian and activist Walter Wink has written: “One hundred and fifty years ago, when the debate over slavery was raging, the Bible seemed to be clearly on the slaveholders‘ side. Abolitionists were hard-pressed to justify their opposition to slavery on biblical grounds” (Homosexuality and Christian Faith, 47). This particular text in 1Peter was a hobby horse text for slaveholders.
The Challenges to Avoid Valorizing
This history of interpretation presents us with some real challenges—both for understanding this text and applying it. And unfortunately, we’ve not done a great job at either over the last century or more.
As I just mentioned, these verses were used to affirm slavery. And even more damaging, that eighteenth verse was used to argue that a slaveowner had a God-given right even to abuse their slaves. As the argument continued, if it was their right to abuse slaves, it must mean those slaves do not bear God’s image, and thus they are not human.
But even among those of us not suffering overt slavery, these verses have led us to develop unhealthy images of God’s sovereignty. When we—or more often others—suffer, we [air quotes] “encourage” each other by saying: “It was God’s will.” As Adam Hamilton argues in his book Half Truths, we often deal with the apparent senselessness of suffering by blaming it on God and whitewashing it with denial.
But yet another challenge that emerges is that verses like these have led some dimensions of Christianity to develop a martyr complex. When this happens, we think we’re supposed to be suffering all the time, so we either create conflict in which we will suffer or we become doormats, never standing up for ourselves or others.
Now, there is a strong tradition within Christian history that celebrates martyrs. But it is important to realize that we celebrate martyrs for their steadfast faith amidst terrible violence; we do not celebrate the violence done to them.
This, I think, is an important distinction in 1Peter as well. Whether or not we are talking about actual slaves without basic human rights, Peter is writing to people who are already and consistently experiencing oppression. They are not seeking the violence being done to them. They are not presenting themselves as the doormats of society, unwilling to even recognize their own humanity. They are people for whom suffering (in various degrees) is a part of life. They are people without the power or authority to remove suffering and oppression from their daily existence. And the persecution they face is not the product of their own actions, but of the cruelty of the “powers and principalities” of this world, as well as a slew of unjust masters.
Senseless suffering is their norm.
What Peter aims to give his original hearers—and we modern readers—is a way to discover meaning amid the senselessness of our lives.
Peter, like Jesus before him, wants to help us see things differently. The way the Kingdom of God works is not the way things seem to work in the world around us. We need a reorientation of our vision and understanding. We need a recalibration of our ethic.
And one of the places most in need of transformation is our dualistic thinking—this refers to the way we categorize everything in terms of opposites:
white or black
yes or no
right or wrong
chaos or order
Republican or Democrat
The list goes on and on.
In this way of thinking, it’s one or the other—with no gray areas in between. One New Testament professor calls this “binary thinking,” using the imagery of computer programming. She says:
We see evidence of binary thinking across the spectrum of life.
On the streets one gang member’s slight becomes another’s death warrant.
In the boardroom, one failed contract becomes the automatic justification for downsizing.
In the schoolroom, one quirky learner quickly becomes labeled as a problem.
In the family, one disappointment in a relationship becomes the foundation for divorce.
In the church, one year of decline means the church is dead.
By and large, we work under the constraint of this mind-set all the time.
(Joy Douglas Strome, in Feasting, p.438)
In his book The Naked Now, Christian author Richard Rohr connects this mindset to ancient heresies such as Gnosticism, but also to many of the current challenges of the church and our world. He says:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that “us-and-them” seeing, and the dualistic thinking that results, is the foundation of almost all discontent and violence in the world.
Things that appear senseless often appear so because our way of thinking is limited to yes-or-no, us-or-them, sinner-or-saint dualism. Such it is for the “slaves” among Peter’s hearers too. If a master is being “harsh” with you, what can you do? Stand up for yourself and be beaten unjustly, or suffer undeservedly in silence.
What we find “embedded in our 1Peter text, however, is the subtle message that there are always more than two choices. [To contemporize it:]
One can be abused and not become a serial abuser.
One can suffer ridicule or physical harm and not fall into a cycle of never-ending violent behavior.
Jesus’ experience on the cross teaches us that God always has options—life-giving options, options that expand possibilities and trigger in us instincts that only God can touch… As an antidote to all the ways life is frightening and dangerous, God offers a way” (Strome, Feasting, 438).
St. Clare’s Mirror
Hundreds of years ago, St. Clare of Assisi talked about learning to see ourselves in the mirror of Christ. It’s an image that is probably at least a little familiar to you, even if you never knew of the woman who first imagined it in those terms. Considering her image in light of these verses from 1Peter, St. Clare’s “mirror of Christ” helps us see that “we understand our suffering only in the light of Christ’s suffering, and that we grasp the sense of this suffering only as we realize its redemptive purpose” (Stephen Edmondson, in Feasting, p.438).
This is very much the way Peter presents his picture of suffering and Jesus in our scripture lesson, starting in v.22. He draws heavily off of the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, weaving that thread with threads from the life of Jesus and those who will read this letter. In doing so, he gives an example of how looking in the mirror of Christ can help us discover the hope of meaning in the midst of trying circumstances. To accomplish that, Peter points out these reflections of Christ (adapted from Joel Green, in Feasting, p.441):
The audience’s suffering is like that of Jesus Christ.
Christ does not retaliate in the face of suffering, and this is a model for his followers.
Whereas Peter described God as the “Father” who judges impartially back in the first chapter (1:17), he now observes that Jesus entrusted himself to the just Judge, and he will go on to urge his audience to entrust themselves to a faithful Creator—in spite of unjust suffering.
Peter refers to Jesus’ having been executed “on the tree” (v.24), drawing attention to the disgrace of Jesus’ death. Rather than deny the shame of Jesus’ execution, Peter seems actually to embrace it, since the cross is the signature of the God whose purpose is realized through the atoning death of Christ.
Just as Peter directs his audience to “do good” rather than “sin” (v.20), so he notes that Jesus was without sin. Moreover, because he “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” believers, having died to sins, can live to righteousness.
What all this is trying to say is that it is that they need to be shaped by the reality of Jesus Christ. Or perhaps—returning back to St. Clare’s imagery—We make sense of our lives when we find reflections of Christ’s life in our own.
In doing so, we too will find our experiences of bondage and suffering transformed from senseless violence to purposed witness: Here is how to be like Christ.
This is how we are saved from senselessness. This is how we discover the hope of meaning.