First Peter doesn’t show up too often in our lectionary. There’s not that much of it to start with. And it kind of falls from view behind all the letters of Paul. Tradition holds that Saint Peter wrote this letter during his tenure as the Bishop of Rome, aka Pope number 1. But scholars doubt that. It’s likely pseudonymous, written by someone else and signed as Peter to give it credibility. Not an uncommon strategy in those times.
The letter is addressed to a group of congregations in Asia Minor, who are being persecuted. The author of the letter urges them to remain faithful in the face of injustice, using Jesus as a model. I want to spend a little time thinking today about the way these people were encouraged to suffer with dignity.
“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”
This is nonviolence in one of its primordial moments. And nonviolence is a very serious endeavor. It is not, as it often appears, a passivity. Neither Jesus nor his disciples nor any of the leaders of nonviolent movements who find inspiration in Jesus is engaged in something passive. Jesus, we know, carried anger. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and remarked on his exasperation with the world as he found it.
The moments we might point to as passive, the “turn the other cheek” moments, actually subvert the power dynamics of the situation. The nonviolence Jesus practiced and taught was a very intentional strategy. It didn’t come from a lack of concern, or from relativising everything to the point that no particular thing matters. Rather, it came from a deep commitment to the values Jesus taught. The man who healed the sick and the poor, and who washed his disciples feet and taught that every person is loved could not, with any integrity, employ violence. You cannot, for example, go about claiming that every life is sacred and every person beloved while also designating some people’s lives as less valuable than your ideas. Killing in the name of God’s love just doesn’t compute. There is no moral high ground to claim once you’ve turned violent. Your enemies will use your violence as a reason to commit violence against you, just like you did to them, and no one wins..
“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.” Jesus’ nonviolence does not warrant our violence. It serves as an example. Jesus broke the cycle of violence repaid with violence, and the cycle must be broken again and again. This is the Christian calling. The violence of the Roman Empire attempted to snuff out the movement of Jesus, and the resurrection means it didn’t work.
“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. 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.” The only way that Jesus’ dying for my sins makes sense to me is if it frees me. In particular, it frees me to continue breaking the cycles of violence in the world. It does that not through some bit of magic, but by showing that the rewards of violence are not the rewards I want. Secular power and prestige are awfully tempting, but a life closer to God is the bigger prize. And that is what I am freed to by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The author of First Peter is calling these Christians in Asia Minor, who live in a very precarious situation, to the radical reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The futility of trying to stop killings by enacting more killings can stop. The sacred value of each and every person can be honored.
But we cannot wait for some law to make it so. We cannot wait until we have the governing majority—which Christians have had every minute of this country’s existence—and then turn society into a place of peace. Change does not happen like that. The world becomes peaceful in a granular way, through discrete disruptions of the cycle of violence. Jesus did not make the world a non-violent place. People can still choose violence, and they do every day.
The choice of non-violence is not naive, then. The person who chooses nonviolence knows that their individual choice will not bring human violence to an end. But that person knows that their choice matters. We make choices based on our beliefs, on our truths, and we keep doing it, because a peaceful future can only be realized through peaceful actions. So your decision to refrain from violence is your way of making the world more peaceful. It is what you can do. It is how you can show your faith that a world motivated by love is altogether better than a world motivated by fear.
“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” First Peter frames this choice of nonviolence as a return to God. Humans are constantly choosing the bloody way forward, pursuing their goals through the threat of suffering, and through inflicting pain and death on others. This, in no uncertain terms, is straying from God. It is straying from everything that is good and sacred about human beings. Our good shepherd guards our souls by freeing us from the momentum of violence, and giving us the opportunity to begin, in our place and time, to live peacefully.
This is what an ethic of life looks like. It is easy to choose nonviolence when you are not threatened. It is hard, and crucial (literally, cross-shaped) to forgo violence in the face of violence. This hard path is where we as Christians are led. It is where we follow our good shepherd. And it is the way home.