1 Peter 2, Exiles, Sojuners and Slaves, Oh My

The event that nobody will be able to avoid talking about this week is the death of Osama bin Laden, so we will talk about it too.  Brendan Greeley of Businessweek gives an interesting take on why bin Laden lost.  In summary he suggests that bin Laden’s death, while an important victory, was not bin Laden’s defeat, that he had already lost wide support in the Islamic world because he had no answer to the daily problems of life encountered by Islamic people.

He says that bin Laden was beaten by the fact that the United States has no agenda while bin Laden’s agenda was an emphatic, nihilistic No.  According to Greely:

The United States was not founded for the greater glory of anything, or as the necessary outcome of history, but for the freedom to collect figurines, to join a clogging troupe, to take a road trip. Yet these words, which carry no ideology whatsoever, are the ones that keep winning.

This he juxtaposes with a description of bin Laden’s purpose:

In a spectacular, bloody way, Osama bin Laden said, simply, “no.” This is not the philosophy of a new prophet in a clash of civilizations; it’s the word of a nihilist. We feared the compelling power of his ideology, but what actually resonated was his raised fist.

You don’t have to be an Arabist to see that “no” is not an idea that can outlive its youth. It’s not a governing principle, nor is it an economic strategy that could deal with jobless rates that have averaged about 12 percent in the oil-free states of the Maghreb and the Mashreq. It’s a pose.

So in the end Greeley concludes, bin Lade is a failure because he does not understand what people really want:

We humans follow base and pedestrian needs. We need narratives for our lives, and we look to the speechmakers, the prisoners of conscience, to write them for us. These narratives render our desires into abstract phrases. Freedom. Self-determination. Democracy. All of which are means to an end. For us humans, the end is almost always just a house and some quiet to raise our daughters. Some friends, and a measure of something fermented. Someone to love. Enough soap to rinse off the coal dust. A fruit stand.

And he calls us, in celebration of bin Laden’s defeat, to “Do something private and ridiculous…”.

I am delighted in the defeat of bin Laden, not just the fact he is removed, but that his ideas and ideals are being rejected.  I likewise celebrate the freedoms granted us by God and the government we have instituted among ourselves in the United States to insure those freedoms are protected.  But how are we, as Christians, to receive and respond to those freedoms?

What Peter is doing starting in 2:11, really all the way through the end of Chapter three, is responding to persecution.  If we think (which I do) that this letter was written just after Paul’s death in response to the Neronian persecution that engulfed Rome and that Peter feared might sweep the empire as a whole, the advice he about to give makes perfect sense.

The Romans were accusing Christians of attempting to break existing social order, of teaching revolt against the empire, of plotting to free slaves, of breaking up marriages, of being libertine and generally of “doing that which ought not be done”  in whatever context.  Peter addresses all these issues directly, but first he sets the overall tone that ought to guide Christain Life in the World, the mundane existence.

He says first we ought to live as if we don’t belong here.  That while we are here we should seek to live (in the NIV) as “foreigners and exiles”, people who’s home is elsewhere. Others translate the Greek words as “strangers and pilgrims”, but the idea is still the same.  We are to live like people who are only passing through, not like people who are putting down roots or who’s ultimate fate is connected to the world around them. 

He suggests that the heart of the matter, the way we live as strangers is by not giving in to our desire to sin.  He says that this sin “wage[s] war against your soul”.  The Greek here is the term that would be used not for a battle but for an entire campaign, a protracted and strategic fight not merely a tactical encounter.  Sin, he says, is always at war against us, taking its losses in stride but never forgetting its ultimate goal and ready to contest for its place in our lives every day, every hour.

But in place of this Peter urges us to live good lives to the glory of God that even non believers will acknowledge.  Do we often get so caught up in personal piety that we forget to do good?  Do we often get so caught up in grace and mercy that we forget the outcome of the grace and mercy applied to our lives by God is to manifest itself in us giving grace and mercy to others?

Then comes the practical instruction on how to live good lives to God’s Glory and first and foremost is that we (Christians) are not here to overturn civil society.  We are not here to change the world.  A lot of us have gotten caught up in this idea that Christians are here to make a difference, we are not.  We are here to live our lives to God’s Glory and reflect his love to the world.  Will that change the world?  Sure it can.  But that’s not our job, its God’s.   Just like we can’t change ourselves, we can’t change the world.  We can’t root out sin in our own lives, what makes us think we can do it in the world?

I think that’s what Peter is addressing.  Obey the laws, even the ones you don’t like as long as they do not require you to sin.  While we are indeed made free through Christ, we do not get to use our freedom as camouflage for evil we wish to do.  Peter is saying nobody can hear what you have to say if they think you are a hypocrite.  He summarizes in verse  17 by saying we are to be respectful of everyone, love other Christians, fear God and honor the state.

How about us, do we think our mission is to change the world, or are we just passing through?

Then in 18 he addresses another issue near and dear to the hearts of the Romans, slaves. Here’s a link to an article giving an overview of slavery in the Roman Empire.  By some estimates, in the first century 2 million out of 6 million people living in Italy were slaves.  They were important to the economy and had been known to rebel with disastrous results for the empire.  The most recent revolt at the writing of 1Peter would have been the revolt led by Sparticus in 71 BC. 

The Greek text in Verse 18 is oiketai which means household slaves or servants and not the general word for slaves doulos.  It must mean something, but I don’t know what.  Whatever his other intent, Peter was clear to say that while Christ made you free he was not necessarily going to free you from earthly slavery. 

Peter also makes clear he considers slavery unjust by comparing what happens in slavery to the way Christ was treated.  He urges Christian slaves to do what Christ did when faced with injustice, to commit no sin.

How do we respond when faced with injustice?  Do we fight it?  Are we to fight against injustice in our lives? (That’s a real question, not at all rhetorical.  I am certainly unsure of the answer).  He reminds us that if we are punished for doing wrong we have no reward, but if we are punished for doing right we become more like Christ.

Have we, like Christ, entrusted ourselves to “Him who judges justly”, or are we looking out for ourselves?

Peter was giving advice on how to live as free men in a society that was not as

free as ours.  So how would Peter say we ought to respond to the freedoms we enjoy as Americans?  Would he tell us to do something meaningless?  Are we to live, in freedom, to the “greater glory of nothing”?