Thursday, October 17, 2013

Subversive Submission: A Non-Violent Response to Power

A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.
Luke 22:24-26 (NIV)
Our house church is currently studying the New Testament book of I Peter, a letter written to scattered and persecuted congregations around the year 64.

Peter, one of Jesus' closest friends and followers, is often associated with cowardice and denial, but he was actually the only disciple of Jesus prepared to defend him with force. When Jesus reproved him for doing so, Peter withdrew in a state of confusion and bewilderment, broken hearted at having his hopes for a triumphal, messianic outcome dashed.

Caravaggio's "Crucifixion of Peter"
According to Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost Peter emerges as the primary spokesperson and courageous leader of the non-violent Christian movement. And in the end, tradition has it that he was crucified upside down, as he didn't feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord.

In chapters 2 and 3 of his first letter to persecuted and scattered believers, Peter describes how the crucified, self-sacrificing Jesus is the basis for a radically non-violent response to those in positions of power. He fully reflects the radical teaching of Jesus that in the new, heaven-headquartered reign of God, those who would be the greatest must become servants of all. The first are last and the last first in this upside-down kingdom, with all of its citizens on a level playing field.

Here are his major points:

Subjects are to live as free men and women (2:16). Peter exhorts believers to submit to rulers, but not because they are inferior to them, but because they are subject to a far higher authority than any of the temporary powers God has ordained (2:13-14). Christians are also to show "honor" to heads of state (even to Nero, the current Caesar), but they are to show that same kind of respect to everyone (2:17-18).

Without a doubt, a rapidly growing number of Christians practicing this kind of "subversive submission" (declaring "Jesus is Lord!" rather than the obligatory pledge of "Caesar is Lord") undoubtedly contributed to the eventual fall of the empire.

Slaves who suffer unjustly are rewarded by God for doing so (2:18-21). Here again they are not defined by, or limited to, their temporary servant status, but are to behave honorably by choice, as a demonstration of their calling to imitate the suffering Prince of Peace. Peter goes to great length to describe how Christ willingly offered himself up for us as an expression of God's unconditional love for all (2:22-25).

"In the same way..." Peter then goes on to say,

Wives' submission to husbands is no longer based on their having inferior status. It would have never occurred to most people in the first century that women should have to be taught to submit to their husband's authority. They were, after all, considered property up to this time, and had virtually no power or say in their homes or communities, period. But here they are asked to voluntarily live in such an honorable and empowered way as to "win over" even their unbelieving husbands. And they were to do this without a trace of fear or intimidation (3:1-6).

"In the same way..." Peter repeats,

Christian husbands are to honor their wives as they are to honor everyone, including the emperor. A form of the same Greek word for honor (τιμᾶτε) is used in each case, which means that husbands are to respect their wives as "co-heirs with them of the grace of life" (3:7). To fail to do so is to risk having God turn a deaf ear to their prayers.

To me, all of this is truly revolutionary, and far, far ahead of its time.
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