Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. 17 Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king. 18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. (I Peter 2: 16-23, NET)
On Thursday of this week, the president signed an executive order releasing the Internal Revenue Service from enforcing the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment is a statute of the federal government that has, for sixty years, meant that churches, and pastors from the pulpit, cannot endorse, espouse and even raise money for political parties, political campaigns and candidates, and still expect to keep their tax exempt status. Relaxing the Johnson Amendment is being hailed as a victory for religious freedom. Speaking personally, I have never not felt free in this pulpit to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, representing Jesus and the gospel is the greatest joy and satisfaction of this part of my ministry. It’s what you called me to do, and I am grateful for that privilege and opportunity. For me, any similarity between the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God, and any political party, platform, campaign or candidate, of the left or the right, is only partial, passing, momentary and misleading, at best. So I’ve personally never lost any sleep, tears or sweat over the Johnson Amendment.
But when it comes to freedom, I have lost tears, sweat and sleep over things like what Don, Kelly and I experienced and observed the week before last during the Tour of the US/Mexico Border, sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee. When people in Mexico and Central America work long, hard hours just to survive, in conditions of exploitation, vulnerability and fear, yet without meeting all their daily needs, what kind of freedom is that? How does that differ from slavery in anything other than name? And should they flee such bondage to cross the border, and survive the trip, and labor sometimes again under conditions of low pay and no worker protections, vulnerable to the abuse of people who aren’t afraid to exploit their legal status, again, how does that differ from slavery? When migrant workers have approached me needing help, because they weren’t paid for work they had just done, and their employer dared them to seek legal redress, with the threat of reporting them if they raised a stink, how is that not a form of slavery? Add to that the human trafficking for cheap labor and the sex trade around the world and across our borders, and slavery is every bit as much an issue today as it was before our Civil War. We are facing a worldwide crisis of human bondage in forms and scope never seen before.
There are other concerns about freedom that I carry, from a pastoral perspective: even if we are not slaves of any other person, all of us face times when life restricts our freedom to very few choices, and seemingly, only one or two very bad ones. When the bottom dropped out of the auto economy 40 years ago in my old home town of Toledo, Ohio, and bumper stickers said, “Last one leaving Toledo, please turn out the lights,” it seemed that the only two stark, terrible, choices many people had were either to stay poor and unemployed near beloved family and friends in the Rust Belt, or to leave everything and everyone beloved to them and take their chances with the unknown in the Sun Belt. Not only was that choice wrenching and frightening, having it thrust upon you by circumstances and powers beyond your control was wrenching and frightening, too.
It’s the same thing when the doctor delivers the dreaded diagnosis, or your spouse or children make shocking, terrible and destructive choices. All illusion of our own freedom, power, choice and control go out the window leaving us with only two or a few tough options. In such moments of life we can’t be expected to feel like the free and the brave. More like the bound and the scared.
St. Peter speaks in today’s text about freedom alright, but a kind of freedom that no party, no political office holder, no law nor executive order, and finally, no situation in life can either give us nor take away. Bear in mind that Peter wrote these words about this freedom to people who had much less political or personal freedom than most of us currently have, even under the limits of the Johnson Amendment. In verse 18, Peter addresses that part of his audience who are slaves. Some of your translations may say “servants,” or even “employees.” Peter’s words would apply to domestic servants and employees, too. But let’s not soft peddle the power of the word which is often translated as “slave.” It is, after all, the same word applied to Jesus, in that famous passage of Philippians 2, where we read that Jesus “emptied himself, and took on the form of a slave.” The posture that Jesus took, when washing his disciples’ feet in that upper room before his arrest, was also, physically, “the form of a slave.”
But first, let’s understand what Peter is not saying. Over the centuries, passages like this one, about slaves and slavery, have been twisted to try to justify enslaving other people, like Native Americans or Africans. Preaching from this passage, some would say to slaves, “Your enslavement to me and my kind is God’s will, so do your best with it to please God, like Jesus did.” But as I hope to show, Peter’s words are more subversive than that; they advocate a kind of freedom and resistance that is available to all of us, which no mortal can take from us, whatever our station, or our situation, in life.
If Peter were speaking as a slave owner with a whip in his hand, or if he were speaking on behalf of masters holding whips in their hands, that would make a lie out of every word he wrote. But Peter writes in solidarity with those who often felt the lash of the master’s whip. As a Jew in the Roman Empire, Peter actually had less status and security than many Gentile slaves, like the ones who taught the master’s children, or who kept track of his accounts. Good, secure work if you can get it, a better lot than what many free people had.
What’s more, the Bible does not command Christians to enslave other people, certainly not for the color of their skin, nor their descendants in perpetuity, because of their ancestors’ skin color. It tells all people, masters and slaves, that God has entered our world at the level of the slaves, as a slave, on behalf of all slaves, to liberate all slaves, especially all slaves of sin, which means everybody, masters, slaves and everyone in between. The cross of Jesus Christ tells us that whenever anyone mistreats and enslaves and brutalizes anyone else who is less powerful and more vulnerable than himself, he is effectively doing that to his or her own Master, Maker and Redeemer. That was the Master of the Universe who was nailed to a slave’s cross. Such abuse will not be without consequences, like those which befell Pharaoh’s Egypt. Those were among the reasons that some Quakers and Mennonites together wrote and published the first public pamphlet against slavery in North America, in the Germantown Mennonite meeting house, in Pennsylvania, in 1688.
Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy was this: “Just as I would not be anyone’s slave, nor would I be anyone’s master. Anything other than this,” Lincoln said, “is no democracy.” Lincoln could also have said the same thing about the kingdom of God, that in Christ there are no masters, but we are each other’s servants, or slaves, if you like. We all start out equally as slaves of sin, who are being liberated to become equally the slaves of God, and servants of each other. In service and submission to God, we find our truest freedom.
And that is Peter’s definition of freedom: being slaves of God rather than slaves of sin. For Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light. And we are being adopted from sin’s slavery into God’s family, to be joint heirs with Jesus. Our Master has already done infinitely more to humble himself, exalt us and serve us than we can ever do to serve our Master.
This kind of freedom we can live anywhere, anytime, in any situation, in any station of life, high or low, bound or free. But we are never free to live such freedom without risk, cost nor consequence. Peter warns his disciples about the risks, costs and consequences that “You may have to endure… when suffering unjustly,” at the hands of mortal masters who are “perverse,” or “crooked.” Some of your translations say, “harsh,” or “cruel,” but the best translations are more along the line of “bent” or crooked,” or “perverse.”
That may reflect a difficulty that many Christian slaves in Peter’s time and beyond have had to face: whenever their masters demanded of them things that were contrary to their values, beliefs and ethics. We have martyr stories from the earliest centuries of the church, about Christian slaves who were persecuted, even executed, or sent to face wild beasts and gladiators in the arena, not because they stole their masters’ money or silverware. They did not. Nor because they were lazy or disrespectful. They were not. It was because they were respectful and industrious and cooperative until they were commanded to participate in their masters’ ceremonies and sacrifices to their gods, or to their ancestors, or to the emperor. Then they respectfully but unwaveringly refused. Or perhaps they refused the demands of their masters or mistresses to perform illegal or immoral acts, or even to provide sexual services to them. Roman law gave masters full rights to demand all such things of their slaves, on the pain of death for disobedience.
Peter is effectively telling his slave audience that, if you are stuck in the condition of slavery, by no choice of your own, then use it to the best of your ability to serve the Master who is also the master of your human master, do good to all regardless of their status or station, and so witness to everybody’s master in character, conduct and word. But if you are pressured to do something evil, resist and desist, like a free person. If then you must suffer unjustly for your refusal, then you will thereby imitate and testify to the One who is your master and everyone else’s.
Roman society took note of the effect of the dignifying, liberating effect of gospel on their slaves, and did not like it. One of the earliest criticisms levelled against the Church was that, “the Christians are teaching the slaves to think for themselves.” There were even bishops of the early church who were slaves in a non-Christian home, while exercising spiritual authority and responsibility over free people in the church. One of them was named Onesimus, perhaps the same Onesimus mentioned as a slave in Paul’s letter to Philemon.
And that’s how Peter’s advice is actually pretty subversive, without being lawless or unloving. It reminds me of the story about the American author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was so opposed to the US war against Mexico in 1846 that he refused to pay his extra share of taxes for it. Taxes for roads, schools, police and other services he willingly paid, out of love for his neighbors and respect for law and order. But he was not going to support a war that would take 40% of Mexico. For that Thoreau went willingly to jail, because he understood that living together under the rule of law only gives us two choices: do this or accept that as a consequence. So Thoreau willingly, respectfully submitted to the alternative to paying that tax: a short time in jail.
While in prison, Thoreau’s friend, the author and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to visit him. Emerson was also against the war with Mexico. The story goes that Emerson asked Thoreau, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” And Thoreau is said to have replied, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”
So, what do we do with Peter’s idea of freedom? What does it look like, and how can even bond slaves live it out? Peter says, “Don’t use your freedom as a cover for evil.” So, freedom doesn’t mean just doing whatever we want to do, regardless of its value or its consequences. For Peter, real freedom is the freedom to do right by God, oneself and others. “Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king,” he says. That’s rather subversive, too. Peter uses the same verb for how we are to value both king and commoner, slave or free, citizen or subject, native-born or foreigner, abled or disabled: we are to “honor all people,” equally, as persons made in God’s image. Otherwise, what part of “honor all people,” don’t we understand?
But that’s not what kings, governors, or masters of Peter’s day and time wanted. They wanted blind obedience and worship, uniquely to themselves. Yes, Peter says, “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence.” But “be subject” only means, “recognize their authority and responsibility.” It does not mean, “worship them as gods,” nor “fear them with holy, reverent awe,” nor “obey their every whim without question.” Such worship, fear, obedience and reverent awe Peter reserves for God alone.
As for the church, Peter calls it “the family of believers.” Which also puts Peter at odds with the masters who wanted the slaves to think of their household and estate as their first and foremost family. And with Caesar, who wanted his subjects to be loyal to the empire first and foremost. But the church, Peter says, regardless of borders, they are to love, with the most strenuous word for love that the Bible uses, “agape,” the strenuous, sacrificial, un-self-interested kind of love for love’s sake alone.
This advice proved costly for the church as it grew in both the Roman and the Persian Empires in its first few centuries. Both empires were constantly at war with each other, even while Christians supported each other, so Christians suffered suspicion and persecution on both sides. The Persians didn’t like that the Christians among them identified so warmly with the Christians in the Roman Empire. The same happened on the Roman side of the battle lines. Christians were therefore considered of dubious loyalty in both empires, and suffered for it.
I thought about that history as we went back and forth across the US/Mexico border last month, and were hosted so wonderfully on both sides by a ministry that straddles both borders and unites Christians on both sides, Fronteras de Cristo, or Borders of Christ. Partners with this ministry on both sides of the border love their own countries and respect the rule of law. But they also know which king and whose kingdom will outlast and replace all countries and dissolve all borders. And so they live and serve God’s kingdom and each other.
So there’s no comfort for slave masters, human traffickers, or dictators in Peter’s words today. Peter was saying, “In whatever condition or station you find yourself, good or bad, even if by no choice of your own, you are still and always free to stand up for everyone’s Master, for God and for truth, if you are willing to pay the cost in a Christ-like way.” Do so in such ways as to honor everyone, from king to commoner, and to submit to authority even while we stand up for God. Whatever our station in life, whatever the situation we face, we always have at least that kind of freedom, Freedom for God, for love, truth, virtue, peace and confidence before God, in short, the freedom to become what God intends for us to be, the freedom to do God’s will in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. Just as we need no master, no king, no constitution, no country, and no executive order to have and to exercise such freedom, nor can any master, or king, or country or constitution or executive order prevail against God nor us to take such freedom away.