“Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” he asks ingenuously. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.”
There’s little evidence that U.S. Christians are eager to take risks to do “what is right.” A 2002 Gallup poll suggests four in five Americans would rather be secure than free, and four in ten are worried terrorists will get them. About a third would be glad to allow the government to read their email or listen in on their telephone conversations if that will make them safer. Seventy percent want U.S. citizens to carry ID cards with finger prints.
Security and comfort first, Americans are telling pollsters. They may not openly object to Peter’s view – that “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” – but many are adding a silent caveat: “So long as it doesn’t involve risks.”
This obsession with security is one of the reasons people danced in the streets and sang the Star Spangled Banner when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. The elimination of the quintessential terrorist may not have made us safer, but it made us feel safer. And perhaps the only spending issue Democrats and Republicans agree on these days is national security. The proposed Homeland Security budget for 2012 is $57 billion and the Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2010 totals $670.9 billion.
But true security, like tomorrow, is promised to no one. And the world faced by Christians in the early centuries was dangerous and uncertain. When Peter advised Christians to be ready for abuse, he wasn’t talking in metaphors. All of his listeners knew about the violent hatred of Christians by the government authorities.
The date of the epistle is uncertain. Some scholars speculate it was written long after the Rock himself had died, possibly between 75 and 112 A.D., by which time the anti-Christian venom of the Roman emperors came in daily doses. The emperors would have included Caligula, whose depravity and madness were so entertainingly captured by actor John Hurt in I, Claudius, and Nero, under whose rule Peter and Paul are said to have been crucified in Rome. The official persecution of Christians lasted for 300 years and included forcing Christians to face hungry lions in the arena – the subject of many a droll cartoon today, but probably less amusing to those who faced the big cats.
The situation changed dramatically for Christians in 312 A.D. when the Emperor Constantine I, facing the battle of the Milvian Bridge, saw a cross (actually, a chi rho) in the sky and went on to kick ass. He concluded his blood letting must have been blessed by Jesus so he converted to Christianity. Where the emperor prays, the empire stays, so the once despised religion became the dogma of the day.
That didn’t necessarily mean Christians were more secure. Missionaries and desert fathers were always prey to pagan tribes as they sought to spread the gospel throughout Europe and Asia. A millennium and a half after Jesus’ resurrection, the Reformation begat the Inquisition and Christians commenced drawing, quartering, burning and beheading one another. Soon they began to encounter enemies more brutal than the lions: themselves.
The really disturbing thing is, regardless of which side of the smoldering stake they stood, Christians believed they were acting Christlike. Saint Thomas More, the man for all seasons, ordered the execution of six Lutheran reformers in England. More’s sanctimony was noted accurately (and perhaps inadvertently in the otherwise spurious but erotically entertaining Showtime series) The Tudors.
King Henry: I hear you’ve been burning heretics, Thomas.
Thomas More: Yes, Majesty, and they were well done.
One of the more vivid examples of misplaced sanctimony took place in Holland in 1569. A Mennonite preacher named Dirk Willems was so sure he was acting Christlike by rejecting the state church that he refused to back down when his Dutch Protestant neighbors jailed him for heresy. When Willems escaped from jail, his Protestant neighbors, in order to be Christlike, hotly pursued him. In the heat of the chase across a frozen pond, one Protestant fell through thin ice and was about to drown. Willems, being Christlike, stopped running and pulled the man to safety. The Protestant, being Christlike, arrested Willems immediately – and burned him at the stake. This must have been why Peter was warning us about suffering for doing good.
It’s no wonder that oppressed religious minorities hopped on the first Mayflower to the new world, where freedom from persecution seemed assured. But freedom didn’t come immediately. The Puritans – one of whom was Oliver Cromwell, infamous for his genocidal murders of Catholics in Ireland – sought religious liberty for themselves but denied it to others. In 1651, the Puritan establishment in Boston arrested and whipped the flesh off the back of Baptist Obadiah Holmes because he held an unauthorized worship service in Lynn, Mass.
Today, of course, Christians are more ecumenical, and in 2011 we find it painful to remember how much our ancestors deviated from the path of the Prince of Peace. Not that we have changed that much. “I like your Christ,” said the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi. “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
That has always been the most difficult challenge before us: acting like our Christ. Looking back on our Christian past, we see immediately that our efforts to act like Jesus brought out the worst in us. It’s not surprising that many American Christians have nestled in their beds on Sunday mornings, avoiding their uncomfortable churches and enjoying the security of the sheets. No Christian in the United States is in danger of suffering for the faith, we tell ourselves. No one who wishes to harm us could even get close to us, not in our modern society, complete with window bars, double door locks and ubiquitous security cameras. The dangers of being Christian, we adjure ourselves, are past. We are safe at last, safe at last, thank God almighty, we are safe at last.
But safety is as much an illusion in 2011 as it was in the year 11. And even the religious safety assured by the First Amendment is not entirely guaranteed. In fact, it’s a bit awkward to brag about it when so many of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world do not enjoy religious safety. A quick scan of recent press releases from the National Council of Churches reminds us how unsafe they are:
In 2005, four members of the Christian Peacemakers organization were kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq.
In January 2007, an Armenian Orthodox editor in Instanbul, Hrant Dink, was assassinated following accusations by the Turkish government that his writings about the 1915 genocide of Armenians by Turkish Muslims made Turkey look bad.
In March 2007, a delegation of Filipinos told church leaders in the U.S. that Christians in the Philippines known for their support of the poor were being accused by the Philippine government of being Communist provocateurs and harassed or imprisoned.
In September 2009, the Episcopal bishop of Lahore, Pakistan, told U.S. religious leaders that tensions between Muslims and the Christian minority in Pakistan were high and that Christians were routinely harassed and threatened by religious fanatics “who have a mindset that all Westerners and Christian and all Christians are Westerners.”
In Istanbul, Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarch – known as the “first among equals” of all Orthodox Christian patriarchs – resides in an isolated compound subject to constant threats from the surrounding community.
Last Easter, Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land were restricted from visiting Christian holy sites by the Israeli government, who considered them to be a threat to its security. The same restrictions often prevent Palestinians from visiting hospitals, grocery stores, their crops and places of employment.
In April 2010, the National Council of Churches asked the secretaries of state and defense to advocate greater security for Christians in Iraq, thousands of whom have fled their homes because of violent attacks.
Last January, New year’s eve worshippers in All Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, were bombed and many died.
Last March, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s federal cabinet, was assassinated by a Muslim group because he favored easing restrictions on Christians and other non-Muslim groups.
And the threats to Christian minorities are not unique to Muslim countries (where, it should be noted, most Muslims reject the violence of the extremists among them). In Myanmar, the Christian minority – mostly products of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society – are under constant threat from the military junta.
Nor do you have to step outside the United States to experience the violence. Barely 20 years ago, hundreds of African American churches in the south were targets of mysterious acts of arson. And millions of Christians who happen to be gays and lesbians continue to be targets of taunts and threats from other Christians who regard their behavior as Christlike.
The sad fact of life is clear: it’s dangerous to be a Christian. It’s dangerous to live. True security does not exist. There is simply no way you can step out of your house this morning with the unconditional assurance that you will return safely tonight. The odds are on your side, but life offers no warranties.
Last week, nearly a thousand Christians from around the globe attended the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, to commemorated the close of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence. Violent behavior, they concluded, is an inevitable byproduct of insecurity.
Dr. Lisa Schirch, professor of peace-building at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., told the gathering, “Governments tend to attempt to justify large-scale military action – at its worst, nuclear warfare - in the name of ‘security.’”
But Schirch called into question what security should mean for Christians.
"Jesus doesn't use the word 'security,'” she said. “The language of the church is much more about justice and peace than about security.”
When visiting Iraq in 2005, Schirch worked with Iraqis who were peace-building at a community level. "They told me this: security does not land in a helicopter; it grows from the ground up."
Even so, security founded on justice and peace doesn’t offer any guarantees, either. But perhaps the path to redemption was never intended to be secure. And the epistle writer in I Peter puts it in context:
“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil,” he writes. “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
That’s the one thing that is guaranteed.
Death, pain and suffering may be our inevitable lot. But in Christ, we are made alive – and then and only then are we surely safe.
I Peter 3:13-22 (NRSV)
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered* for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.