A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wisdom from Peter, Part Two

In a previous post, I argued that 1 Peter 3:15-16 is frequently used to support a number of situations outside of its original context, particularly with regard to apologetics. In general, I wasn't trying to make claims about what apologetics practices are appropriate and which ones aren't. Rather, I was simply trying to indicate some situations for which people might, in my opinion, incorrectly cite 1 Peter 3:15-16 as support. You may very well have wondered something like "so what? Why does this matter?" After all, we can and do sometimes apply Biblical passages to situations outside of their original context. In fact, we have to do so if we are to use the Bible as a guide for our lives.

Well, in this entry, I hope to show why it matters. It matters because what 1 Peter 3:15-16 actually entails is something which may be much harder than what we think it is. (Credit goes to Leopoldtulip for some of these insights.)

Let's start in what might seem to be an odd place: 1 Peter 2:9-17:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10: Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. 11: Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. 12: Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13: Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14: or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15: For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16: Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.
17: Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (RSV)

This passage is aimed at the holy people of God, who are living in the midst of an unholy, pagan society. Peter's intent here is to advise his audience how to behave in relation to a sometimes hostile non-Christian culture. Keeping that in mind, let's look at those highlighted verses. They enjoin good conduct among the Gentiles as a means of silencing ignorant gossip (v.15) about Christianity. Volumes could be written about that, especially in the wake of various clerical scandals, but what's more to the point today is that this chapter argues that we are to behave rightly among non-Christians so that they will see our good behavior and give glory to God.

Now let's move on to verses 19-21:

19: For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. 20: For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. 21: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

These verses connect our unjust suffering to Christ's redemptive suffering. Peter will go on to briefly state the message of the Atonement, that Christ's suffering and death has won healing and life for us. Here, though, he is advising his audience to patiently endure unjust suffering, while clearly distinguishing unjust suffering from just suffering. Servants earn no "credit" for suffering beatings when they have disobeyed their masters, but if they are punished for doing rightly, their suffering earns God's approval, inasmuch as Christians are called to suffer in imitation of Christ.

This material on servants (or, in some translations, "slaves") is part of a houshold code which is continued in chapter 3, which describes right behavior of husbands and wives. Furthermore, starting back in 1 Peter 2:9, can be seen as a continued discussion of how Christians are to relate to the surrounding non-Christian culture. This is apparent even in the section concerning husband and wives, where Peter states:

Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. (1 Peter 3:1-2)

While Peter may be more generally interested in imparting wisdom about relationships, even here he is particularly concerned with relationships between believers and unbelievers. Wives may serve as evangelists to their husbands without speaking a word, if their behavior is right. In other words, right behavior means more than just a "credit" to us, though it certainly does include that. Right behavior is also a means of witnessing or evangelizing. It may even be the case that witnessing through behavior rather than speech is the preferred method of evangelization, at least between husbands and wives.

From this household code section, the chapter broadens out to describe a wider range of relationships:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. 9: Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10: For "He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; 11: let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12: For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil." 13: Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? 14: But even if you do suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15: but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; 16: and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17: For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God's will, than for doing wrong. 18: For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit . . . .

Note that I've highlighted those famous "apologetics" verses. But look at where they occur. What's Peter talking about? Once again, he's talking about enduring unjust suffering. At a time when Christians faced wide-spread prejudice and dislike, if not official government persecution, Peter tells his audience not to be afraid. In other words, Peter is addressing a situation in which Christians are suffering unjustly for their faith. The Christians are, however, filled with hope rather than fear. Because they reverence Christ as Lord, they aren't troubled. In fact, they are so full of hope that other people notice this, and ask them about it, thus creating a chance for the Christians to share their "reasons," that is, their reverencing of Christ as Lord. And the mention of "hope" is followed up by yet another injunction to behave rightly, which again leads into theological discussion about the Atonement and salvation.

Peter seems to be a little obsessed with this issue of suffering for doing right versus suffering for doing wrong, doesn't he? That's the heart of this extended passage. The message is that we are to behave well, even when we are being punished unjustly. We are to avoid fear and troubled minds and hearts by reverencing God. And if we endure unjust suffering with great hope, other people will notice.

It's that "other people will notice" part that amazes me. I don't know about you, but I find that I have a hard time being hopeful in times of suffering at all, let alone being so hopeful that other people will notice. And yet, it is in that context that are we are supposed to evangelize. We are to be such good citiziens that our behavior is above approach, and we are to be so hopeful that other people notice. These two injunctions are not in addition to our work as apologists or evangelists. They are conditions of our work as apologists or evangelists. If we follow the model Peter offers, we will not go around explaining the Christian faith to unbelievers until we are first so good at living it that they notice and ask us about it. And we are supposed to be such hope-filled people that other people will wonder about the source of our hope.

This does not, of course, mean that we have to be perfect citizens and perfect Chrisitans before we can answer non-believers' questions about Christianity. If it meant that, there'd be no room for Christian apologetics, because no one would be good enough to get past that first step. But, to me at least, this does suggest that the frequent impulse of converts and reverts to leap immediately into apologetics (because they, rightly, want to share the wonderful thing they've found with everyone else) may be misguided. If we follow the Petrine model, we will first get our own houses in order, then wait for other people to notice how different we are and open a conversation about why.

There are, of course, times when other people will engage us in conversation about our religion for other reasons. And of course, we do then want to be ready to give reasons for our faith. I'm not saying that our patient endurance of suffering is the only reason people will ever have for discussing religous with us, and I'm pretty sure that's not what Peter is saying, either. But consider the practical implications of this model for those who wish to share their faith. Take the example of Jill Catholic, who is on fire about her faith and wants everyone to know about it. At present, her tactic may be to bring religion up whenever possible when talking to her coworkers, friends, or family. In doing so, she may run the risk of alienating, offending, or discomforting people who are not yet ready to talk about religion, or who are simply not interested. The Petrine model suggests that instead, she should concentrate on embodying the Catholic life so well that her friends, co-workers, and family members actually become curious about it and invite conversation.

"But," says Jill Catholic, "How am I supposed to evangelize if I don't ever bring up religion? You're making this too hard. You're too worried about being polite, and not worried enough about spreading the truth of Catholic faith."

Well, that's possible. But it's also possible that the reason people don't ask Jill about her religion is that she does not make it look attractive enough! If she's following the Petrine model, she should be demonstrating patience and hope in the midst of suffering. Does she do that? When she is sick, does she demonstrate patience? When things go badly at work, does she complain, grumble, and curse in the same way that her co-workers do? When life gets difficult and confusing, does she demonstrate hope and trust in God? Does she model good citizenship? Does she honor all men, including the people she doesn't like? Or is she rude, critical, or disrespectful of people she doesn't like? Does she, in short, live differently because she is Catholic? If not, how could she reasonably expect people to be interested in Catholicism?

This is a hard teaching, isn't it? I certainly cannot claim that I follow it very well. I can't claim that I live differently from my non-Christian or non-Catholic colleagues. But I really believe that this is how God wants us to spread the good news: not through obnoxious, in-your-face, argumentative proselytism, but through a noticeable change in behavior. If we live as Peter advises, people should want to know our "secret." And that's when our arguments in favor of Christianity come into play.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that's what I think, too.

9:58 PM  
Blogger La Mama Loca said...

You rock, Teresa.

You'll notice that I did not go lie down. Now, that I have finished reading your blog, I will.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Bob the Baker said...

Buncha poo 'fya ask me.

11:17 PM  

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