Making the Best of a Bad Situation:
"Slaves, Submit to Your Masters"

For Sunday May 15, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Acts 2:42–47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19–25

John 10:1–10

           "Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh" (1 Peter 2:18).

           This shocking verse is where the epistle for this week should start, with the first sentence of what is obviously a new paragraph. But it doesn't. The lectionary leap frogs the submission of slaves in 2:18 and instead begins with the imitation of Christ in 2:19. How convenient. If we're honest, I suspect that we're glad for this avoidance strategy. Isn't submission to slavery an example of complicity with evil? Aren't Christians called to subvert injustice rather than submit to it?

The Whore of Babylon rides the seven-headed Beast, 18th-century Russian engraving.
The Whore of Babylon rides the seven-headed Beast,
18th-century Russian engraving.

           One way to deal with 1 Peter 2:18 is to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson. Whenever you encounter a passage that offends your own modern myths, or is hard to understand, then take your scissors and cut it out. Ignore it, or give the writer poor marks for bad theology, stupidity or gullibility. But the Jeffersonian strategy takes the easy way out. And worse, with Jefferson's strategy you end up with a Bible that's created in your own image and that reinforces rather than challenges your own cultural narratives. We're better off to follow a rule in golf: "Play it where it lies."

           Sprinkled throughout 1 Peter are important clues about that community's unique time, place, and circumstances. The author writes from Rome, but he doesn't use the word "Rome." Rather, he uses the politically provocative code word "Babylon" (5:13). It's hard to think of a more derogatory epithet than that ancient empire which conquered and subjugated the Jews way back in 586 BCE. Similarly, John disparages Rome as "the Great Babylon, the mother of whores and of the abominations of the earth who is drunk with the blood of the saints" (Revelation 17:5–6).

Thrown to the lions.
Thrown to the lions.

           The recipients of 1 Peter lived a thousand miles east of Rome, in what is now north-central Turkey. Like the author, they had "broken with the social fabric of their community" (OSB).Three times Peter refers to the believers as "strangers and aliens" to Rome's paganism. They belonged to their own peculiar "people and nation" (1:9). They didn't conform to the social conventions of the day. Their social marginalization, observes the author, earned them abuse, scorn, slander, and malicious gossip from pagan critics. Even "the name" Christian was offensive to their detractors (4:14, 16).

           For about a hundred years after Jesus, Christians remained invisible to the greater Roman empire. But across the decades, they earned a reputation as an anti-social community that lived on the fringes of society. They were considered fanatical, seditious, obstinate, and defiant. The historian Tacitus, who died in 117, called them "haters of mankind."

           The Octavius of Minucius Felix around the year 200 describes how Christians scorned long-held Roman traditions, banquets, displays and exhibitions. They undermined social cohesion with their indifference to civic affairs. They refused military service, and met for clandestine rites rumored to include cannibalism, ritual murder, and incest. The Christians, complained one critic, "do not understand their civic duty."

Hebrews 11:37: "They were sawed in two."
Hebrews 11:37: "They were sawed in two."

           Rome responded to Christian sedition and separatism with state persecution, some times sporadic and at other times by official policy. The first few sentences of the epistle describe how the believers "suffered grief in all kinds of trials" (1:6). They shouldn't be surprised by their "fiery trials" (4:12), he says, as if their persecutions were strange or unexpected. Indeed, he reminded them, "you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of suffering" (5:9).

           It's no wonder that these believers who suffered social marginalization and political persecution felt like "the end of all things is at near" (4:7). For some of them it was. The writer thus recommends a strategy of survival. Slaves should submit to their masters. Wives should submit to their husbands, and young men should submit to older men (3:1, 5:5). There was enough trouble in the world without looking for more. To make the best of a bad situation, sometimes compromise is necessary and wise.

           An exemplary life was the best response to charges of civic indifference and political sedition. In his treatise Against Celsus (VIII.73), Origen (185–254 AD) described how Christians best served society in their own peculiar way:

And as we — by our prayers —
vanquish all the demons that stir up war,
and lead to the violation of oaths,
and disturb the peace,
we in this service
are much more helpful to the kings
than those who go into the field
to fight for them.

And we do take our part in public affairs,
when along with righteous prayers,
we practice self-denying disciplines and meditations,
which teach us to despise pleasures,
and not to be lead astray by them.
And none fight better for the king
[and his role of preserving justice]
than we do.
We do not indeed fight under him,
although he demands it;
but we fight on his behalf,
forming a special army of piety
by offering our prayers to God.

In some mysterious way, enduring unjust suffering participates in the sufferings of Christ himself (4:13). And at the end of history, there will be a Great Reversal, when every angel, authority, power and human institution will be "in submission to him" (3:22).

Image credits: (1); (2) Hornbill Unleashed blog; and (3) Michael Gaddis, Maxwell School of Syracuse University.