Monday, 6 May 2013

Passion and warfare: reflections on 1 Peter 2:11

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. (NRSV)

I find this verse hard to move past. Mainly because it speaks to me quite deeply. We need to think carefully about what it does and doesn't mean, but the personal force of it is impossible to sidestep.

The warning is not to read this verse in a dualistic fashion. Here's how this might look

Beloved, I urge you as those in exile on earth, waiting to go to heaven, to abstain from the desires of the body that wage war against your eternal souls, bound for heaven.

The problem with flesh versus soul is that we immediately jump to physical versus spiritual. It doesn't help if you see exile in purely spiritual terms and not in social terms as Scott McKnight does - though there is no doubt we are exiles in a world where God's kingship is not clear to all. Here's another way of looking at it

Beloved, I urge you as outsiders in an ungodly world to abstain from the desires of the unregenerate part of your humanity that wage war against you.

So apart from the sociopolitical comments (see a couple of posts ago), it isn't about things of the body versus spiritual matters, but that part of us that isn't transformed versus who we are to be. To be sure, the word for flesh is used to describe our material bits at times, but the Greek word soma is used more for that than the word sarx (of form of which is used here). In other words, it isn't the body, the physical stuff which is somehow evil, but the desires unchecked, passions at war with our true identities. Soul is most often used in the Old Testament to mean the whole person. Sometimes in the New Testament, Paul will use soulish as opposite to spiritual, but we can't always use Paul to interpret Peter.

So given that is cleared up, it is clear that our desires can war against us. There is real struggle, real angst, real frustration and often a real sense of defeat. But of course we know in Christ that while the battle rages, the war has been won. 

We are called to abstain. Now abstinence is not a popular idea in today's world - probably a topic for another time. Think about voting. If you abstain, you refuse to vote. You refuse to countenance what is being raised. In abstaining, we refuse to give credence to fleshly desires, refuse to acknowledge their validity. We step outside of that world and not take part. 

This is easier said than done when so much of this is internal, within us and not merely without. This is why it is a spiritual thing - why we need the Holy Spirit to help us discipline ourselves, hence prayer, fasting(?), bible reading, etc. Once that battle has started, we are equipped for the external factors - changing friendships, web filters, whatever can act as an external aid to avoid temptations. I feel some reflections on the full armour of God coming on, but another time.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Subversive honour: reflections on 1 Peter 2:13-17

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (NASB)

Hearing a sermon on this was kind of interesting. On the one hand, there was some excellent historical background on Nero, persecution, etc. And then there is, how the heck do we apply all of this??

The previous passage and my last post made it clear that in being Christian, one could end up doing things that were considered evil yet were really good deeds that could lead to people glorifying God. Included in this was not worshiping Caesar as divine, or any of the other Gods. This meant accusations of atheism and treason. It meant not holding offices, not serving in the army, hard to take part in the local economy, social exclusion, and so on. So clearly to be a Christian in that context was to be deeply subversive and counter cultural. Now that isn't simply a matter of dressing badly and calling each other bro.

Interestingly, Pliny as a governor was not punishing evildoers when trying people for being Christians (see his letter to Trajan and the response), not in the sense in which we'd understand evil. So is there a double play happening? Evil could be slander and not real evil in verse 12, and hence verse 14 could be ironic, whereas Peter says don't commit real evil in verse 16.

Note too that everyone is to receive honour in verse 17, but only God is to be feared or reverenced, i.e. worshiped as God. Yet Caesar demanded this too! So our honour is subversive, as I think it is in Romans 13. There is a real contrast between the kind of honour to be given to an oppressive regime and the community life in the body of Christ (Romans 12). Understand too that the language of body was also used by the Romans with Caesar at its head. Our head is Christ. We are a polis (city) on a hill, and therefore a new body politic.

Jesus made it clear that non-violence was deeply subversive of such authority while seeming to honour it. As both Walter Wink and Tom Wright have pointed out - being struck on the right cheek was done with a demeaning backhander. Turning the left said 'hit me again as an equal'. Taking a burden a second mile meant potentially getting the Roman soldier who could command such a task into trouble. You were being too helpful. Getting sued for your outer garment and then handing them your undergarment too and walking out of court naked was an outrageous thing to do. Maybe hyperbola, pointing to a way of thinking. Resist, but do so honourably and non-violently.

So given all of this, how do we honour so much that is ungodly (yet thank God not yet violent as in other parts of the world) while subverting it? How do we honour our politicians if we despise their policies? Be patriotic while not being nationalistic? Love our footy team without being fanatical? Buy and sell goods while not being materialistic or contribute overly to a system destructive of lives and creation? 

One thing I think we should avoid in this country is the kind of anti-government paranoia seen in other places like the US. Governments do good things, even if often badly. Certainly the system is broken and we don't look to better government for salvation; but a working democracy is the best of bad systems. It just seems to me that there isn't a lot of good really in view here in 1 Peter.

So then, I think that our rhetoric and our behaviour must be honouring and affirming yet critical where need be. Pulpits can be respectful while prophetic. Respectful disagreement must mark us out - sometimes vocal and sometimes passively in our workplaces, in the public sphere, in our relationships. Whether we are really free or under some real compulsion (one can have a bad boss but not actually be a slave), we are to honour all, even self-deluded leaders. Love of the agape kind is for our brothers and sisters who are part of the City on a Hill (not just the church of the name but all believers), and fear is only to be of God.

Ok, so the quick tips:

  1. If you end up having to do something above and beyond the call of duty at work, or are being taken advantage of in a relationship, you might want to say so in not so many words, and let them know as a Christian you are doing this.
  2. You have to pay taxes, even if they go to somethings you don't agree with. For example, overseas aid money is being diverted to offshore processing. I find this abhorrent myself, so I pay my taxes but join various forms of protest about this.
  3. When you are being punished as an evildoer simply for being a Christian, you may have opportunity to protest. Take it, but do so honourably. Paul is a good example of this during his persecution which eventually led him to Rome (and probably release the first time). If a colleague has a complaint, you still need to honour them while trying to resolve the issue.
You get the idea. Expect problems. Don't welcome them for themselves, or bring them upon yourself for genuine sins. But when they come for being faithful, in an odd sort of way it's a comforting thing.