“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” 1 Peter 2:11-15 NIV
During my final semester at UMass Amherst this spring, I was taking two course, Public Anthropology and Historical Archaeology, that involved social justice as a central theme. We looked at how whole systems of injustice and oppression arise and develop, and how most people unknowingly contribute to oppression. Many of the readings about the systematic injustice perpetrated every day throughout the world left me saddened and angered. I started thinking of how these ideas relate to 1 Peter, where Peter demonstrates what a life changed by Christ looks like, and realized that one of the foremost ways, perhaps THE foremost way, of demonstrating how Christ has transformed my is to care for and pursue justice for the oppressed. These thoughts all started to coalesce one day as I was working in the Franklin Dining Hall kitchen, and I came to the conclusion that it is impossible to be a Christian.
Let’s look again at the Scripture that I quoted in the opening of this article: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:11-15)
To me, this seems a very clear but very challenging command – stay pure and avoid evil. And beyond that, obey the laws of the place you live in and live such good lives that others cannot stand it and will falsely accuse you of evil. And even then, submit to your accusers, obey them, so that others will see the injustice of it all and realize that God is the one who gives us the power to live rightly. But Peter doesn’t stop there. He goes on:
“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. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” (1 Peter 2:18-20)
Let that first verse sink in: “Submit to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” As someone living in the US today, this side of slavery and the civil rights era, that is a shocking statement. That if you are a Christian who’s a slave you should submit to your master even if they abuse and beat you seems unthinkable, but that’s what Peter commands. Now, Paul does say to slaves that if they have a chance to free themselves, to do so. But Peter’s point isn’t that slaves should run away, or to justify cruelty to slaves. Rather, he saying that by submitting to a cruel master, a slave reveals just how evil their master is.
Peter goes on to describe further examples of loving submission and respect: Wives, submit to your husbands and respect them. Husbands, in the same way, love your wives and respect them. Now, these passages, particularly the section on wives, are often misused to justify oppression and violence, but, just like the passage written to slaves, that is just the opposite of what these passages are trying to convey. Peter is advocating liberation and selflessness, not oppression and brutality. (Due to space constraints, I cannot do adequate justice to the issues of slavery and domestic violence here. If you want to elaborate further, please comment, and I will compose a separate article on the subject.)
The message just builds and builds and builds: We are to care for the oppressed, pursue justice, stay pure in thought and action. And when we face persecution and injustice, submit to your accusers and respect them. Peter isn’t alone in this message. James says “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27) And Jesus preached: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)
And why? Because that is how we demonstrate the power of God. Peter explains, in chapter 3 verses 15-17: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” What this means is, because we live right, because we want justice for the downtrodden and try our utmost to avoid evil, we will face bitter persecution and injustice. And when we, instead of fighting back, submit to our accusers and pray for them, it will bring our persecutors to shame.
Let me cite a historical example of this, and also a sad example where Christians had an opportunity to follow Peter’s command, but didn’t, with tragic consequences (credit for this example goes to Ron “Spud” Sanders, Stanford University faculty and Cru staff member). First example: Alexandria, Egypt, mid-3rd century. Christians living under Decius face intense, brutal persecution, including torture and murder. A few years later, a plague strikes Alexandria, and most of the wealthy inhabitants abandon the city. But many of the Christians, led by Pope Dionysius of Alexandria, stayed in the city and cared for the sick and dying, at risk of succumbing to infection themselves. After the plague, persecution did continue, but it gradually subsided. More importantly, it provided unbelieving inhabitants of Alexandria an example of the selfless love and devotion that Christ showed when he lived on earth.
Second example: San Francisco, United States, 1980s. An epidemic caused by a new, little-known disease called AIDS rages through the city. Research finds that the two hardest hit demographics are homosexual men and drug users. How do most Christians respond? “Oh, they must be facing God’s judgement because of their lifestyle.” Today San Francisco, by and large, is very hostile to Christians and the Gospel. How would things be different if most Christians, instead of abandoning those AIDS victims because they viewed them as rightly suffering because of their life choices, cared for those victims, loved them, and shared the Gospel. Jesus willingly visited, ate with, and even cared for sinners, to the ire and condemnation of the religious elite, because of his concern for their eternal salvation. Are we willing to do the same? To live pure yet love sinners?
That to me sounds impossible to live out. How are we to love other Christians, love the oppressed and speak up for them even when no one else will, love our enemies, and stay holy and pure? It’s impossible to be a Christian! But that’s the unlimited, unimaginable beauty of what it means to be a Christian. We can never, ever do it on our own. Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.“ And in Philippians, he says that no matter what is material situation, rich or poor, hungry or full, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) So, let us Christians not rely on ourselves, but draw from the infinite reserves of God’s grace in order to live boldly and without fear, standing up for all that’s right and just, even if it means giving up our earthly lives. Jesus poured out his very life for us on the cross – why should we expect to do any less?