I Peter 2:18-25
I preach on the lectionary, the three-year cycle of biblical readings established by a number of scholars. It offers me structure; a through line, a diversity of topics; it challenges me to wrestle with texts that I might otherwise disregard. I have a confession to make in this regard: This week I tampered with the lectionary; I added the verse just before the passage that the scholars who created the common lectionary had meant us to begin with. It reads, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”The lectionary text that follows is addressed to slaves! How differently, then, do we? I have Peter’s admonition to suffer unjust punishment without retribution. Is he advocating passive acceptance to unjust structures and institutions? Is he advising slaves - or all of us - not to make waves? That was never the message or intention of Jesus! On the contrary.
Peter’s words compel me this morning to consider suffering - and not just of those who are human chattel. And not just any kind of suffering, but suffering that is undeserved, suffering that is not answered with retribution, even suffering that is, unlike slavery, chosen. We all suffer; we suffer in many ways and sometimes terribly. I will not speak of the suffering that comes with illness or death, with tragedy, disappointment, lost love, depression, substance abuse, war. There are certainly many causes of suffering and many issues surrounding all of it - why suffering in a world with a loving God? Why me? Why the innocent?
I want to speak of the particular kind of suffering that happens at the hands of another person, suffering that may be made to stop through certain action, suffering that offers the possibility of response or retribution. This is the kind of suffering to which Peter refers.
And it is a difficult concept for many. Peter tells us that our example is Jesus: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten…” Christianity is rejected by numerous people who see in passages like this a call to be sweet, foolish, kind doormats. How often is the teaching to “turn the other cheek” used as evidence of naiveté or stupidity from Christianity’s detractors, or as a tool of conformity or subjugation by some of its supposed adherents? I had a conversation with a student who was upset that a friend of hers continues to take abuse from her boyfriend; every time the abuse happens the young woman claims (as does the boyfriend) that she must turn the other cheek, it’s the Christian thing to do. Jesus, of course, meant his teaching as an example of nonviolent resistance to abuse from someone more powerful as a way of forcing the victimizer to acknowledge the equal value of the one he or she was beating on, by forcing that abuser either to smack with the other hand (and therefore to hit him or her as a social equal), or to stop smacking at all. This is not the right opportunity to exegete fully that teaching, but suffice it to say that in every instance Jesus counseled responses to such suffering that would acknowledge the humanity of the abuser, lift up the worth and dignity of the abused, and make of the incident a practical step towards justice, towards a brand new way of relating to one another, towards the in-breaking realm of God.
In teaching after teaching, Jesus makes clear: we must never return evil for evil. If we do, we are no better than the one who strikes us first. If we hurl insults at someone who first does it to us, we are culpable of the same disrespect. If we spread counter-lies, we are still spreading lies. We throw punches back and we sink to the very level of violence we claim to abhor. We are brought down to the moral level of the one who first sinned; we join them in sinning rather than rising above sin. We perpetuate the cycle of evil, of violence. If we refuse to participate, we break the cycle. The abuse might not stop. It might continue a long time. It might continue until death. Jesus did not insult or strike back at those who taunted him, hit him, interrogated him. Peter writes, “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.”
That is certainly a challenge for me, when I am treated meanly, or am punished without deserving it. I remember that God is the judge of us all, but it can be cold comfort in the face of continuing abusive behavior. Yet God judges not just the behavior of the one who is cruel but of the one who is mistreated. If we resort to cruelty as well, we will be judged alike. “She started it.” is no legitimate excuse, even if it is an accurate explanation. The delayed gratification of knowing that one’s abuser does have a judge to answer to in the end is also more than some of us can stand. I think of Psalm 73: “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment…They set their mouths against heaven and their tongues range over the earth… [But] If I had said, “I will talk on this way,’ I would have been untrue to your circle of children.” Untrue indeed! The circle of cruelty would not be unbroken, but the circle of faithful people would. God judges. We do not. But patience and restraint can be so hard.
Dr. King understood this kind of patience and restraint. And keeping Christ as his model, he knew that to return meanness meant to lose the moral high ground. It is, in effect, to be beaten, to fully lose. As King once said to those friends who were targets of the worst violence, “If they make you hate them, they’ve beaten you.” In the dining room of the church-run community center (the MLK Center, in fact!) where a group of students will stay with me in Cuba next month, there hangs a banner. It quotes the great poet and father of modern Cuba, who died fighting for independence from Spain, José Marti: “And for the cruel oppressor who tears out my heart, my life, I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle but the white rose.” Marti and King are witnesses together that we must all resist the urge to hate that can come with being treated brutally, lest we become what we are fighting against.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this kind of suffering was distinguishable between other, more “general” suffering. He regarded the kind of suffering of which I’ve been speaking as “Christian suffering.” No one, as we all know, escapes general suffering, and it certainly does not visit certain persons according to any scale of merit. Christian suffering is the suffering of Christ’s followers with God and for others in the midst of earthly life. Bonhoeffer described it as having three main qualities: “it is voluntary”, it is to bear the burdens of others; and it is done for the sake of Christ. This is the kind of suffering one bears because she or he loves - neighbor, child, justice, God. It is voluntary because the actor has sought to join an effort for justice, knowing the consequences; it is voluntary because, no matter what the origin, it is endured rather than answered with similar violence or with flight. This is not particularly heroic action - to suffer so that others might have life more abundantly, so that justice might prevail. It is simple – costly - discipleship - the bearing of another’s burden, as Christ bore our own, as God continues to bear our own pain and anguish in every age. Christ lives on in us when we live this way. The realm of God is constructed piece by piece with the love offerings of simple folk such as ourselves.
We are never victimized in our suffering when we have such meaning in it, when it - or its continuation - is voluntarily endured. We are no doormat but a cornerstone, a witness to another way of being present to Christ in this world, present to all the forgotten ones he loved, present to our belief that love is stronger than hate, even though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. I also am thinking this moment of people who do not claim to be Christian, and whose work and suffering are an example to me - you probably have such friends too. Let’s remember that in the Beatitudes, Jesus embraced and conferred his blessing upon anyone who suffers for righteousness’ sake. And let us do the same.
Jesus Christ lived the life of a servant and he died the death of a slave, for crucifixion was a kind of capital punishment reserved especially for slaves). God incarnate lived the life of a servant and died the death of a slave. In his time of profoundest suffering, Jesus placed his trust in God. He knew that God knows and judges every motive of every abuser and abused.
This fact was well remembered by an unknown inmate in the Ravensbruck concentration camp (as you may know, Bonhoeffer himself died in another of them). This inmate wrote a prayer on a scrap of paper and left it by the body of a dead child. It read,
“0 Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us: remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering - our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment let all the fruits which we have borne buy their forgiveness.”
The author of this prayer left by a child she or he may or may not have known, experienced a suffering and dehumanization I do not believe I have matched, much as I don’t believe in comparing pain. It is a Christ-like sentiment, this desire to have one’s own compassion be remembered in place of the victimizer’s sin. Redemptive suffering. It is a perspective that I hope to be strong enough in faith, in time, to have.
In whatever suffering it is that we must endure, let us look to Christ for our example - of how to suffer, of how to continue with an offering of compassion in return for abusiveness. Love is stronger than hate - if we believe in God we believe in that. “God is love.” is the biblical writers’ only definition for the Holy One. When God speaks in answer to the question “Who are you?”, it is simply to say, “I AM.” God is. Let us be with God in our suffering; let us be with God and Christ as companions in others’ suffering. When it comes to us - and it always does, we need not seek it out! - when suffering for or with others for the sake of Christ is our inheritance, let us persevere and not flee. Let us summon from God the faith and courage we need to be witnesses to a new realm, to a new way of relating to lovers and haters, a new way to face the one judge of heaven and earth, to face God with integrity and no shame, because we have not returned hate for hate, but embodied Christ’s ethic of love. May we cultivate for any oppressor neither thistle nor nettle but the white rose.
May God give us faith and strength so to do.