To Lose is to Win

If the world order is, in fact, a closed system ruled by scarcity, then it is imbecility to live the Christian life.

So it is with attitudes ranging from sophisticated bemusement to raw hostility that Christians are regarded by those who do not believe in Christ’s divine suffering on humanity’s behalf.

Of course, there are many of us Christians who aren’t good Christians—Pharisees, who denounce the world but, given the suffering human being right in front of us, are cold as ice. The world is right to judge this. It is deepest evil, and requires more mercy than is needed by non-Christians, for this is worldliness masquerading as Christianity.

But that is not what I want to discuss. It is the strange figure cut by the earnest Christian that should be explored.

Such Christians takes Christianity seriously enough to incarnate it in their everyday lives, in a life of prayer, liturgy, asceticism, longsuffering, charity, humility, and, of course, mercy.

The earnest Christian is always a loser. The game the world plays is one in which acquiring status means beating one’s neighbor whenever one can. Gossip is a common weapon in this arena. If I am to increase, you must decrease. If you mess up, I will pin you to that. That’s the way of the world, which is also, again, the way in too much of church life. This assumption of scarcity is most devastating when it comes to the status games of dominance hierarchies, but it also, of course, ramifies into the pursuit of wealth and pleasure.

The first matins readings during Easter Week come from the magnificent first letter of Saint Peter, who meditates on the hope, despite suffering, made possible by the apocalyptic interruption and transformation of history wrought by the sacrifice of Jesus.

Praying yesterday’s reading, it came to me that I had been taking a certain passage, in particular, too vaguely:

“The point, the telos, [is this]: all of you, be of one mind, empathetic, loving towards one another, tender-hearted, humble-minded. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called, that you might inherit a blessing.” (I Peter 3:8-9)

Let’s pay attention to this riff on Jesus' command to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-29), which varies it enough to wake us up to the revolutionary implications of words that may have become too familiar to some of us: if we are cursed, we cannot curse in return; we must bless. (“A benediction say upon a curse,” to quote my own poem “Amor Fati.”)

A lot of cursing goes on in this world. Again, we are so fearful that the balance of forces is zero sum. We think enjoying a place in the sun means having to put someone else in the shade.

Thus success is often purchased at the cost of parasitism: feeding off the immiseration of others. That is a question we must each confront in our examination of conscience: in what way does my comfort, such as it is, depend on my taking someone else down—even if it’s “just a peg”? In general, how does my comfort depend on the forgotten sacrifices of the dead and the legions of the unfavored classes?

Saint Peter is addressing those who are suffering unjustly, those who have been cursed by another so that that other might maintain dominance. He speaks to the victims: Christians savaged by imperial persecution, as well as slaves. And he speaks to husbands and wives to forestall marriage becoming a blood sport.

The point Peter is making in his letter is this: the Christian must break the predatory cycle of human interaction, so that true communion may appear in the world. Given the instructions he has just given, Peter is making clear that the “Kingdom law” (as Saint James calls it) of loving one another must extend beyond the bounds of the Christian community. Somehow, we must, in our asymmetrical love vis-à-vis every human, “be of one mind, empathetic, loving towards one another, tender-hearted, humbled-minded.”

But this depends on resisting that most primal, and understandable, of impulses: to defend ourselves in the savage game. How easy it is to retaliate, even if one is impotent. If you’ve had everything taken from you, and you regard your tormentors, is it not to be expected that one say, “I wish them ill”? Well, that would be a curse. And that would mean you have come to have the same mind as that behind the adversarial process, which is what took everything from you in the first place!

Saint Peter is emphatic: to give blessing, precisely in the face of a curse, is the point of our having been called to Christianity.

The blessing of being a Christian can only be received if we meet every assault with blessing. Again, Christianity is not a private salvation machine. The whole point, the whole telos, of being called to follow Christ, is to share the blessing of doing so. We have become Esau to the Christian patrimony if we treat Christian blessing as something to be hoarded. That turns the entire enterprise of Christianity into a mess of pottage. We are blessed by blessing.

Bless those who curse you. That does not mean we don’t fight for the sake of victims. But we must always do so with blessing in our hearts. For THIS we were called, to interrupt the zero-sum game of the world with the good news that the Father’s goodness is greater than our assumptions of scarcity. Living from the fullness of divine love as found in Jesus, we can be serene enough to let the Father take care of our vindication. This is what Peter goes on to say, beginning with a quote from Psalm 34:

“‘Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them 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.’ 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 troubled, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” (I Peter 3:10-15)

Again, I was reading this too vaguely before. We have to understand this “evil” we’re being warned off of, in the first place, as the detraction and calumny and cursing (wishing ill upon our enemy) we engage in so as to protect ourselves. We don’t need to protect ourselves, if we have faith. Believe me, I know this sounds crazy. But that’s the whole point: by a worldly calculus, it is indeed crazy. Yet, “who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” Or, as Peter goes on to clarify: okay, yes, you will suffer for living the Christian life, but just cling to Jesus. Everything will be alright. Seek peace. Don't escalate the evil.

If Jesus is our Lord, our center of gravity has been shifted out of the world and into the Father’s Kingdom. And that Kingdom is all blessing.

This argument leads to that grand injunction, which serves as the basis for all apologetics and evangelization—indicating how crucial is this point about returning blessing for curse: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (I Peter 3:15-16)

The great Christian apologia is to suffer patiently, in gentleness and piety towards the other. That is still (still!) a hard pill for me to swallow. But its difficulty does not make it any less true. Longsuffering points to the reality of that in which we have placed our hope: the Father's economy of gratuity, transcending all economies of scarcity. If we live it, people will ask us why we live so differently.

We can be stripped of everything, dispossessed, without crying out in rage, without cursing in return, because we follow the Crucified One, the Just One who dies for the unjust. Jesus must be all our life.

Jesus could absorb all of our cursing because He is the Son of the infinitely merciful, infinitely bountiful, infinitely gentle Father. IF the Kingdom is real, then we can follow the Christ, Who “when He was abused, did not return abuse; when He suffered, did not retaliate; Who entrusted Himself to the One Who judges justly.” (I Peter 2:23)

If you die to the world, you are, by that fact, alive in the Father’s Kingdom.