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Suffering and Salvation,

Submission and Subversion


GROUNDING NONVIOLENCE IN 1 PETER

Brandon D. Rhodes | May 2007

Box #679

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(All scripture citations are taken from the English Standard Version, the ESV.)

Introduction & Thesis

The First Letter of Peter can, at first blush, run against the subversive and

countercultural current of the rest of the New Testament. Where Paul builds his gospel

and theology by reworking imperial rhetoric around Jesus, by claiming that this Jesus –

not Caesar – is the world’s one true lord,1 Peter tells his readers to honor the emperor not

once, but twice! Peter tells slaves to stay in line, but doesn’t follow Paul in insisting that

masters also love their slaves. Where is the justice in this? For all his meditation on

suffering, Peter doesn’t always seem to present an explicit way to overcome it. Instead, it

can feel, the Christian is to be passive and just let bad things happen; as David Bartlett

has said, “1 Peter can be seen as profoundly unliberating.”2 Indeed: Jesus and Paul stand

up to the powers in the name of love and justice, and all Peter asks is that we not rock the

boat! The activist impulse of Christians across political, cultural, and generational lines

will saddle up along 1 Peter with no small anxiety.

It will be shown, though, that 1 Peter arrives at and advocates a dissident and

countercultural spirituality rooted in Isaiah-draped reflections on and applications of

Jesus’ suffering love and cruciform victory. By following the Messiah’s Way, suffering

Christians can overcome pagan malice with enemy-love, evil with nonviolence, and

injustice with redemptive submission.

Arguments
1
Wright, N.T. “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium,
Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl. Ed. Richard A. Horsley. (Harrisburg, PA: TPI, 2000),
160-183. Available online at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm.
2
Bartlett, David. L. “The First Letter of Peter: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections”, in The New
Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XII. (Nashville, KY: Abingdon Press, 1998), 240.

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Primer on 1 Peter

Peter is writing to the dispersed elect throughout Asia Minor, people whom he

designates several times as being in some sort of exile (1:1, 17; 2:11; 5:10). The

language of exile likely means that they are spiritual-political exiles in the similar way

that the Jews were under the four empires – “strangers in a strange land (all the more

strange because it used to be home).”3 Instead of a systematically persecuted community,

the church of Asia Minor is likelier to be facing slander as a peculiar people that do not

join their neighbors in their evil ways.4 Therefore Peter’s imagination, intentions, and

audience are more in keeping with those of Jesus than Paul. Both the Lord and Peter are

addressing a people (Israel-in-exile and the church-in-exile) who are 1) theodiceally

trying to resolve their present sufferings with their allegiance to the sovereign God, and

2) in need of teaching for how to be God’s eschatological people still under the boot of

exile. Restated, Peter and Jesus alike address two questions: ‘What is God doing with

this suffering?’ and ‘How ought we respond to this suffering?’. These are twin questions

we will trace his answers to in due time.

Commentators on 1 Peter frequently date it before Domitian’s reign (81-96 A.D.)

because, the logic goes, Peter would never have instructed the honoring of the emperor

(2:13, 17) in a time in which he is commanding blasphemous worship of himself.5 This is

granted: Peter would have been far less likely to write such a thing when the worship was

coerced. Yet since the time of Augustus Caesar, Roman emperors had been heralded as

the ‘son of God.’6 This and its corollary cultic claims were esteemed as blasphemous by
3
Ibid, 236.
4
Ibid, 234.
5
Ibid.
6
Wright 2000

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Jews and Christians since well before Domitian. That Peter and his readers are under a

blasphemous empire will be of subsequent interest to the arguments of this paper.

The outline of the letter is straightforward, and for reference later in this paper, is

worth sharing here.

I. Greetings (1:1-2)
II. Praise to God (1:3-12)
III. God’s Holy People (1:13-2:10)
A. Being Holy (1:13-25)
B. Being God’s People (2:1-10)
IV. Life in Exile (2:11-4:11)
A. Living Honorably Among the Gentiles (2:11-17)
B. Living Honorably in the Household (2:18-3:7)
C. Faithful Suffering (3:8-22)
D. Living Out Salvation (4:1-11)
V. Steadfast in Faith (4:12-5:11)
A. The Impending Crisis (4:12-19)
B. Caring for the Household of God (5:1-11)
VI. Final Greetings (5:12-14)7

Suffering and Enemy-Love

That 1 Peter was “written to a suffering church”8 begs that whenever he gives

counsel, the reality of that exilic suffering be kept at the front of the reader’s mind.

Whether putting away malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander (2:1), or abstaining

from fleshy impulses (2:11), or submission to authorities (2:13-25), or facing physical

attacks (3:8-17), that his advice is given amid suffering and exile cannot be ignored. He’s

not just concerned about in-house quarrels, but about how God’s pilgrim people when

reviled by the outside world, respond. When Peter talks about how to deal with suffering,

he is talking about how to deal with exile.

.
7
Bartlett, 243.
8
Winn, Albert Curry. Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War.
(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 167.

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The Jews, of course, had no shortage of wisdom and literature concerning how to

deal with suffering and exile. Throughout their exile, both physically in Babylon for 70

years, and spiritually in their own land for over 400 years, the Israelites thought and

wrote much about what this suffering of the righteous means amid God’s bigger

purposes.9 Their most sustained and moving musings are Isaiah 40-55, where God’s

kingdom program is brought to birth by God’s Servant10 (who is interchangeably Israel or

an individual). The climax is reached in 52:13—53:12, the fourth Servant Song, where

the sins which kept Israel in exile are atoned for by the suffering and death of the Servant,

and so brings them redemption, victory, and shalom.11 “The kingdom would come

through the suffering of the righteous,” says Bishop N.T. Wright.12

This connection between the suffering of God’s people and God’s kingdom would

have been at the fore of Peter’s mind, if we are to imagine him credibly as a first-century

Christian Jew. And indeed, that fourth Servant Song, so full of suffering and hope, is

interwoven throughout his exhortations to Christian slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-25 (esp. 2:21-

24). Bartlett says that “the passage presents themes from Isaiah’s passage to illuminate

ways in which Christ served as an example for suffering household servants and for all

suffering Christians in the communities to which 1 Peter was written.” 13 Therefore just as

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant embeds meaning to Jewish suffering, so also Jesus as that

Suffering Servant embeds meaning to Christian suffering. Thus:


9
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 589.
10
Ibid, 602.
11
Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 276-
279.
12
Wright 1996, 601.
13
Bartlett, 282.

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Israel’s suffering anticipates  Jesus’ redemptive suffering  Church’s suffering commemorates

As Winn says, there is a “mystical link between the suffering of Christians and the

suffering of Christ.”14 Indeed, the latter is both tied to final hope and present formation,

as in 4:13f. – “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also

rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Both sufferings are interwoven.

The answer to how to deal with suffering, with unjust authority, with exile, is

found in following Christ’s example. The twin questions above of ‘What is God doing

with this suffering?’ and ‘How ought we respond to this suffering?’ turn out to be bound

up together. How God dealt with suffering in Jesus is how the Christian is to continue to

deal with it. The victory of God on the cross is to be implemented and commemorated in

the lives of Christians on the same terms as it was accomplished – nonviolently and with

love. “Christ’s passion is the path Christians take”, says Bartlett of 1 Peter. 15 His passion

has “direct social consequences”16 for all who suffer, in Peter’s mind, and takes the shape

of that cross (cf. 4:1: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with

the same way of thinking…”). Richard Hays says, “1 Peter holds up the suffering of

Christ as a paradigm for Christian faithfulness”.17

Jesus taught a heart orientation by which to live this way: enemy-love, which 1

Peter picks up explicitly. In 3:8-17, the author echoes Paul18 in writing:

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to
this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For

14
Winn, 168.
15
Bartlett, 282.
16
Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 236.
17
Hays, Richard. The Moral Vision of the New Testament. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996), 332.
18
Romans 12:14-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:15.

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“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (3:9-12)

From this passage it is resoundingly clear: Christians must practice non-retaliation

as enemy-love. Yet here it is not grounded in obedience to Jesus, or to participation in his

suffering, but in hope for a future blessing. That is, Peter “orients his discussion of

enemy-love around hope.”19 Just as Jesus’ obedience to nonviolent enemy-love on the

cross were vindicated in his resurrection, so also the suffering Christian’s nonviolent

enemy-love will likewise be vindicated on the day of their own resurrection.

Additionally, “1 Peter joins loving the enemy with “seeking peace” in a degree of

explicitness not found in any other biblical writer.”20 To Peter, Christian nonviolence and

enemy-love are not only grounded in obedience to Christ’s past victorious example and

hope for Christ’s future return, but in seeking that future shalom in the present. Suddenly,

the arms of Peter’s imagination stretch in both directions to bring both past victory and

future hope together as the suffering Christian nevertheless seeks peace. Motivated by

Jesus’ nonviolent victory, assured of future blessing, the Christian’s task is to transform

the present with God-empowered enemy-love. Past, present, and future inspirations for

nonviolence in the face of suffering all burst forth from Peter’s heart.

19
Klassen, William. Love of Enemies: The Way to Peace. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), 122.
20
Ibid.

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This way of responding to suffering is deeply subversive. Instead of following

the wisdom of this age and responding to violence with violence, Peter’s solution follows

the wisdom of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. The demonic logic of hate, which

lies behind impulses of retaliation, violence, and injustice, is neutered by Peter’s flat

insistence on the power of love. To the tyrant’s chagrin, the suffering they mean for evil

is to be joy to the suffering Christian (4:13). If Christ’s suffering is victory, is

redemption, then Christian participation in that suffering by modeling his enemy-love in

the present points to God’s redefinitions of power and victory. Allegiance to power and

victory over suffering through suffering marks all human institutions of government and

power as parodies at best and blasphemies at worst. Yet the way of salvation, as we shall

see, to Peter does not permit flippant disregard for them.

Salvation Up-ending Evil

The shape of salvation in 1 Peter is one of community holiness (1:13-25),

cruciform obedience (2:18-25; 3:13-18; 4:1), and enemy-love (2:13-18; 3:8ff.). Though

these three are tightly woven, it is worth briefly summarizing each within the contexts of

salvation and this paper’s broader meditation on 1 Peter’s subversive spirituality of

nonviolence.

Community holiness as part of the way of salvation means living under a new lord

and new sense of holiness – no more living in “former ignorance” (1:14), futile ancestral

ways (1:18), flippancy to authority (2:13-17), violent retaliation (3:9), or recreational

debauchery (4:3-4). Instead they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a

people for his own possession” (2:9a); Peter’s readers, in continuity with national-ethnic

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Israel, are to live as an obscure people reflecting the holiness of God among the world for

the world. “They are to forge for themselves an identity that sets them apart without

necessarily setting them in conflict with the pagans around them.”21 Their love for one

another and their holiness, ironically, only add to their sense of exile.22 This is the kind of

salvation they have entered: into the community of “eschatological reality,” marked out

below the emperor and among the pagans by their countercultural holiness, their primacy

of love, and self-induced obscurity.23

Salvation to 1 Peter also entails cruciform obedience and enemy-love, which we

have covered earlier as being the threads which hold together suffering to God’s

sovereign solution. Salvation cannot but mean engaging in this subversive work of

nonviolent enemy-love. Indeed, as William Klassen says, salvation as eschatological

reality “takes the form of seeking peace by loving the enemy.”24 It is the spiritual milk of

the good Lord (2:1-3) that grows the Christian up to salvation. Without enemy-love, the

shape of salvation is skewered;25 it loses its subversive power to call the present age to

account, it is severed from the sufferings of Christ, and it retains the former ignorance.

First Peter’s idea of holistic salvation, then, is necessarily subversive. Its

challenge of relationally-bonded holiness draws out the consternation of surrounding

pagans; its cruciform obedience under suffering neuters the power of the unjust, the

mocker, and the tyrant; and its enemy-love looses the cords of final salvation for even the

21
Bartlett, 241.
22
Ibid, 238.
23
Klassen, 122.
24
Ibid.
25
Piper, John. “Hope as the Motivation for Love: 1 Peter 3:9-12”. NTS 26 (1980), 212-31.

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enemy (2:12, 4:12-18). Peter’s doctrine of salvation, like the resurrection, breaks out of

the hope at the horizon of the future, slams into the present and up-ends relationships and

structures of hostility and suffering.

Submission to Evil as Subverting Empire

Jesus’ solution to exile-under-empire was submission as an expression of

nonviolent enemy-love. So also Peter does not call for flippant disregard or armed

rebellion against government. Rather, the Christian response of enemy-love, honor, and

submission call those institutions to account and allegiance to the one who is truly lord:

the one whose death and resurrection have now redefined the significance of suffering.

That new definition takes concrete shape before the powers in submission. Thus Peter’s

answer to oppressive structures, be they empire or slavery, is submission (2:13ff.) held in

paradox with allegiance to the person and ways of the one true lord (3:22).

But Peter’s comments in 2:13-17 are not an approval of the emperor’s legitimacy,

his authority, his values, or his actions. No: They are couched in a broader argument that

the holy love of God extends even to the emperor, and so should the love of the holy

community. In the same breath, Peter tells his readers to honor everyone, and to honor

the emperor, as if to say “Honor everyone – yes, even the emperor!” This submission-

allegiance paradox has more to do with the Christian’s response to the Lord Jesus’ own

enemy-love than it does any merits of the emperor’s own.

The emperor, it was noted earlier, was competing in Peter’s time for the title of

‘lord of the world’ with Jesus and YHWH – a flaring blasphemy to all Jews and

Christians. Yet even this blasphemer of blasphemers deserves the love of God as

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embodied in his people. Far from a bent knee to this sort of blasphemous ruler, 1 Peter’s

insistence on honoring the emperor grows out of a love for and an allegiance to the true

Lord, thus subverting and denying any claim by Caesar to that title. It cuts to the

epistemological heart of Caesar’s claims and controls, and gives it to Christ.

The life of God’s sojourning people perplex and offend Caesar and his governors

as they give respect and limited obedience to them, while giving worship and total

obedience to the risen King. Indeed, as Peter has argued for, their respect for the former

is only in response to the latter! More threatening still: their nonviolence is not just a

benign act of compliance, but a re-enactment of God’s own victory over empire, evil,

death, and suffering. Thus, in a very upside-down way, 1 Peter’s nonviolent enemy-love

toward Caesar is in reality an act of outright sedition and subversion. This is a

submission which, in God’s economy, subverts the empire.

Conclusion

First Peter has been a book of paradoxes – salvation entails suffering, subversion

includes submission. Neither the revolutionary nor the status-quo can easily hold their

ground before its wisdom and inspired meditations on the social outworking of the

crucified God’s victory. Peter’s epistle is miles from the civically flaccid status that many

have esteemed it with, and burrows with bleeding rigor to the heart of Christian civic

duty, but re-imagined around the cross and exile.

As John Howard Yoder wisely penned, “The willingness to suffer is then not

merely a test of our patience or a dead space of waiting; it is itself a participation in the

character of God’s victorious patience with the rebellious powers of creation. We subject

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ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved

God’s victory.”26 Truly: let us continue in 1 Peter’s wisdom and God’s power to subvert

today’s empires with deep love, and receive what suffering that may come with joy as our

very salvation.

Bibliography

Bartlett, David. L. “The First Letter of Peter: Introduction, Commentary, and


Reflections”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XII. (Nashville, KY:
Abingdon Press, 1998)

Hays, Richard. The Moral Vision of the New Testament. (San Francisco, CA:
HarperCollins, 1996)

26
Yoder, 209.

12
Klassen, William. Love of Enemies: The Way to Peace. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress
Press, 1984)

Piper, John. “Hope as the Motivation for Love: 1 Peter 3:9-12”. NTS 26 (1980)

Winn, Albert Curry. Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the
Abolition of War. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993)

Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996)

-------------. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress
Press, 1992)

-------------. “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel,
Imperium, Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl. Ed. Richard A.
Horsley. (Harrisburg, PA: TPI, 2000)

Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994)

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