Sunday, June 14, 2015
Last time, discussing Romans 13 and state violence, I stated that Romans 13 is not a model for what Christian political influence should look like. Proposing some sort of Christian model of government was not even on Paul’s radar at the time. It would have been inconceivable for Paul to imagine that his little band of Jesus-followers would be able to tell the Roman Empire how to run things.
The fact is, the NT does not tell us at all what it would look like to run a society based on the values of Jesus. It was just not something that was on their radar. That does not necessarily mean we should not pursue this in our time some 2000 years later, finding ourselves in a very different political situation. I think we should. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is crucial that we are engaged in working for justice in our world.
The answers, however, will not be found by flipping open the Bible to a verse or chapter that tells us the formula for how a Jesus-shaped society should look. There is no blueprint or proof-text. That’s because the New Testament writers did not even begin to think about this.
We see in the NT the first steps in a new direction, the direction of Jesus. These are ground-breaking, earth-shattering first steps, but they can’t be the last steps. We need to keep moving forward. That entails deeply understanding the values of Jesus so that we can work to creatively apply these values in our world.
The key here is creative freedom. Jesus shows a tremendous amount of creative freedom in how he approaches Scripture. We need to learn to do that, too. That means moving away from reading the Bible in the unquestioning way that is so characteristic of conservative Evangelicalism—blindly following it without any thought or moral reflection. But it means more than this. It also means being able to question the NT authors—or to state it differently, to be able to engage with them in a moral dialog.
For example, let's focus on a subject that the NT does address, which is how a suffering and mistreated minority should respond to unjust treatment by those in power. In a passage very similar to Romans 13, Peter writes,
“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.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Note that, as in Romans 13, we have here the same description of state violence having the God-given purpose of “punishing those who do wrong.”
Peter then moves from state violence to slavery, again calling for submission. Note how he goes from speaking of state violence in one sentence (which we still believe in today) to speaking of slavery in the next (which we no longer believe in),
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. 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.” (1 Peter 2:17-18)
It does not work to maintain that one thing (state violence) is a God-given order, and another (slavery) is a bad thing. The fact is, both of these were equally part of the unquestioned reality at the time. Just as we today likely cannot imagine a world without state violence, they could not imagine a world without slavery.
Many have made the assertion that the form of slavery that the Bible condones was not as inhumane as the sort of slavery that was practiced in the American South. That is profoundly wrong, not to mention naive. Slavery, as it was practiced in Rome, was inhumane and brutal. Note that Peter speaks of slave masters “who are harsh” here. Just in case there was any doubt as to what Peter means, he clarifies this in the next sentence,
“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?” (1 Peter 2:19-20)
This was a time where beating slaves was considered par for the course, and Peter does not question it as wrong. He does not question the institution of slavery, nor does he demand that one cannot hold slaves as a follower of Jesus (can you imagine a pastor saying today that it was okay for someone in their congregation to be involved in human trafficking?), nor does Peter say that it is immoral to beat someone if they have “done wrong.” In fact he says the opposite, reflecting the moral assumptions of his day. Slaves were beaten for disobedience. If you want to know how slaves were beaten in Rome, the Gospel accounts of how Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers can give you a pretty good idea. It was brutal and bloody and ugly. Let's not kid ourselves about that.
Peter then goes on to speak of women submitting to their husbands,
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1)
Note the phrase “in the same way” here. That is, in the same way as slaves should submit to their masters beating them, wives should submit to their husbands. This is not an unfair parallel. It was common for husbands to beat their wives at the time. After all, wives were considered property just as slaves were (as a side note, if you want to uphold the idea of "biblical marriage" you might want to reconsider that one). We might forget that this was the reality, living in the West some 2000 years later where domestic violence is considered a crime, but that was the reality in biblical times.
Now, in all of this Peter is speaking to oppressed minorities. He is himself part of that group. He sees them as a people who are suffering and mistreated. He does not think this situation is good or okay or right, but he counsels them nevertheless to endure suffering for the sake of Christ, and to return good for evil,
“All of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)
Note that, in addition to using words throughout like “mistreat” and “suffer,” Peter calls what they are enduring here “evil”. The violence of the state they endured was evil. Slavery is evil. Domestic abuse is evil. It would be a profound misreading to think that Peter is here saying that state violence, or beating slaves, or submission of women, was God’s will for all time that we should regard as good and right.
However, I think we can legitimately question whether Peter’s advice here is even good advice for those in a situation of oppression. Should those who are oppressed and mistreated simply passively submit? Is that really the best expression of what being faithful to Jesus means? Is our only choice between either violent action or passive inaction? Does this mean that women should remain in abusive marriages “for Christ”? Does this mean that people of color should not protest police brutality and abuse, and instead just keep quiet?
If we want to apply what Peter is saying, then the answer to all of the above questions would be yes. I would instead maintain that following the way of Jesus must involve actively working towards an end to suffering and injustice. However, we will only find seeds of that in the New Testament. We need to learn how to take those seeds and make them grow, and to do that we need to look to people like Gandhi and MLK who have taken the way of Jesus further than the New Testament was able to.
It’s important to recognize that they are going further than the NT goes. Often progressive Christians will act as if this is not happening, as if one should be able to just pick up the NT and arrive at what Martin Luther King did straight out of the box. But this does both him and us a disservice, because it acts as if moral creativity and innovation in our reading of Scripture is not necessary, and an on-the-page reading of the Bible is all we need. That simply isn’t true. We need to be able to take the ideas of Jesus and really make them fly. This approach to Scripture is captured quite well in this quote by Jürgen Moltmann,
“I noticed how critical and free I have become towards [the biblical writings]. Of course I want to know what they intend to say, but I do not feel bound to take only want they say, and repeat it, and interpret it.... In other words, I take Scripture as a stimulus to my own theological thinking, not as an authoritative blueprint and confining boundary...
[God’s Word] is not bound to a patriarchal culture and the disparagement of women, or to a slave-owning society... even though all this is the context in which the biblical writings were framed. Only what goes beyond the times in which the texts were written and points into our future is relevant—God’s history of promise, and the history of [God’s] future.
This ‘matter of Scripture’ gives us creative liberty towards the utterances of Scripture which are subject to their time. It is along these lines, I believe, that I developed my use of the Bible” Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, p. xxii.
Moltmann is able to do such groundbreaking theology because he allows the Bible to give wings to his creative thinking, rather than having it become a tether to keep us earth-bound. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, I see Jesus as an example of exactly this kind of morally innovative approach to Scripture. If we want to read Scripture like Jesus, then we need to exercise that same kind of freedom.
That involves learning to not be afraid to think and question in the name of compassion, even if we need to question the NT to do that. So, yes, I am saying that Peter was wrong about this. It’s okay to say this. Paul told Peter he was wrong, too (Galatians 2:11), so I even have biblical precedent here! But kidding aside, I would think that Peter would actually rejoice to see how the way of Jesus could be applied in a way that leads to an end to suffering and the furthering of love.