Suffering Makes Us Light: The Political Theology of I Peter

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that at the time just right, He may exalt you. Cast all your brokenness on Him, for He cares about you. …After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, Who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be dominion into the ages. Amen” (I Peter 5:6-7, 10-11).

Allow me to backtrack a little. As I noted several days ago, the vast majority of the first matins readings for Eastertide come from the Johannine corpus. The exception (other than the office for Easter Sunday, a selection from Colossians on the Second Sunday of Easter, and a reading from Ephesians on Ascension) is that most of Easter week is given over to the first letter of Saint Peter.

My post on First Peter (“To Lose is to Win”) was well received, and I wanted to write a follow-up. But I couldn’t manage it until now. There was so much I wanted to say. It probably should be a book. Another reason for the delay is that I wanted to grapple with the issue of Holy Saturday, Christ’s descent into hell. That article of the creed is directly attested in Scripture only in this epistle.

But the context for that investigation must be: what is the first papal encyclical all about? It’s about suffering in the time between the Paschal Mystery and the Parousia with the appropriate apocalyptic sensibility and what it means to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9). That is, it is a political theology. Peter explores what kind of person, or subject, we must be as Christians if we are to carry out the mission entrusted to us, to preach a Gospel meant to permeate every society and to reach back even to the dead (synchronic and diachronic universality).

What strikes me most about this letter is its thematic universalizing of Christian brotherhood, briefly noted in my previous post, the unqualified radicality of Christian solidarity. Christianity has always been the truth of authentic fraternity and egalitarianism, for we are the people of, and in, the man for all, Jesus Christ.

Existence in the world, in time, means passing through fiery trials. There is no way around them. If Christians are in the vanguard of that suffering, then it is as it should be. Christ came to suffer for all, to suffer in all. Where the Master is, there will His servant be. “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? …Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good” (4:17, 19).

There is a hermeneutical principle here: whenever judging is to be done, it must be of ourselves first. The sifting must always begin with me, and with the household of faith. The point is NOT that we look at non-Christians and say, “Those unbelievers sure have it coming. How lucky I am to be a Christian.” That would be a diabolically inverted misreading of the whole letter and of the substance of Christianity. The point is this: if it is hard for us to undergo the fiery trial of human existence, how much more urgently must we do the good work of evangelizing those who do not have the faith and hope we have been given in Christ. Chosenness is always and only for mission. A holy nation amongst the nations exists to share Jesus with the nations. Period.

When Saint Peter alludes to the levitical holiness code in 1:14-16, he is not regressing into pharisaism. It’s all about love, as the Johannine corpus emphasizes: “Now that your souls have been purified by obedience to the truth resulting in unhypocritical brotherly love (philadelphia), love one another fervently, from the heart” (1:22-23).

This love alone eludes the futility that mocks human life. And that love fruits in a certain ethical bearing: “Therefore, having put away all malice and all guile and hypocrisies and envies and all evil speakings [katalalias], as newborn babes, desire the pure rational (logikon) milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation…” (2:1-2).

What should make us different from the world? We leave behind sins against communion. We are a people chosen to build up communal love. Unnuanced translations obscure this. The constitution of the people of God (“called out of darkness into His marvelous light”—2:9) is not in the first place deliverance from sexual sin. A typical translation of 2:11: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that war against the soul.” The vexed question here, as in Saint Paul and Saint John, is, “what is sarx/flesh?” Does the “flesh” mean simply our corporeality? No, that is obviously incorrect. “Flesh” means the ensemble of human powers as misaligned according to futile and self-destructive desire.

I maintain that the central “organ” of the “flesh” is our spiritual appetite, that is, our will. That is, “flesh” is, above all, perverse spiritedness (thumos). In the fallen human condition, our fundamental loves are disordered, and in the first place that means we desire to dominate others (what Saint Augustine calls the libido dominandi), and maintain our worldly status, by slander and rash judgment. My neighbor must decrease, that I might increase. The worst sins are the sins of the Pharisee.

Yes, the libido dominandi perverts sexual desire, in often spectacularly cruel ways. But it is a perversion of the will before it is a perversion of sense appetite.

The Spirit of Christian love breaks into history through the lives of Christians. The ethics that Saint Peter goes on to present in chapters 2 and 3, an ethics of Christian absorption of evil through all the ranks and orders of society, is an apocalyptic ethics, the only way those secular orders become transformed into the holy order of hierarchy, which is simply the transmission of God’s gracious goodness.

The chosen people are to display their love in the face of cursing, and this love is not something simply in-house, as if philadelphia is parochial: “fervent love, from the heart” is the fire the Christian progressively becomes, for all the world, precisely by undergoing suffering patiently. “Conduct yourselves in a beautiful way among the Gentiles, so that, though they speak evilly [katalalousin] against you as evildoers, they may see your beautiful deeds and so glorify God in the day of visitation” (2:12). Obviously, the Christian remit is to bring every one of the world’s nations to the mercy of God.

When Saint Peter rounds off his instructions about everyone’s patient submission to the (murderous and mad) emperor (the one who would have him crucified upside down), the submission of slaves to masters, and the relations of husband and wife, with a return to the theme of love, this must be understood as an exhortation to love that goes beyond loving fellow Christians: “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” (3:8-9).

We have been called out of darkness (2:9). What was that darkness? It was the darkness of the “flesh,” of having the dynamisms of our soul impelled by a stygian and blind impulsivity, a perverse spiritedness (epithumia): “Therefore, Christ having suffered in the flesh (sarki), arm yourselves also with the same way of thinking, because whoever has suffered in the flesh (sarki) has ceased from sin, so as no longer to live the time remaining in the flesh (sarki) in the enthusiasms (epithumiai) of men, but in the will of God” (4:1-2).

These infernal enthusiasms or addictions lead us to curse one another to get ahead in the world and to satisfy our libido dominandi. There are dark gods at work here (one need only think of abortion or violent pornography or the sex trade).

Saint Peter gets to the root. It’s not sensuality as such that’s a problem. It’s the libido dominandi, which he hints arises from a kind of Dionysian orgiastic cultic context: “For you have already spent enough time participating in the counsels of the Gentiles, having proceeded in brutal wantonness, enthusiasms (epithumiai), drunkenness, ecstatic revels [definite Bacchic/Dionysian overtones in komois], carousing, and unconventional idolatry, wherein they, blaspheming, think it strange that you are not running with them into the same overflow of accursedness” (4:3-4).

That is, our idolatries, our pursuits of wealth, pleasure, honor, power, easily assume the cast of religious and cultic fervor. Think Bataille’s “accursed share,” which in its lack of differentiation, mixes the dark and bloody gratuity of the pagan sacrificial system with the true gratuity of festival and art, the care of children and giving more gifts than one receives, of life itself and the liturgy of adorning public spaces. There are two fundamental religious stances to take in the world: the Dionysian pagan, who would offer up victims; and the Christian, who offers himself up for victims. And it needs to be pointed out, there are many non-Christians who are less pagan than many Christians. The sacrifice of a person by defaming him has become something of a solemn communal ritual (the scapegoat mechanism) among many Christian clerics, laymen, and religious.

But here at the depth of pagan darkness, is the second mention of Christ’s descent into hell by Saint Peter (we’ll circle around to his first discussion), in 4:5-6: “[These Gentiles] will give an account [logos] to the One Who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this reason indeed was the good news preached to the dead that they might be judged indeed as men in the flesh (sarki), but live as God does, in the Spirit (pneumati).”

All of our works of the flesh will be judged, but Christ is sent even to those in the most hellish stances, set against all that is innocent, in order that they might be saved. This is remarkable. Truly, Jesus seeks the lost. The most chthonic thumos is to be purified and elevated by the Holy Spirit of the total self-sacrificial love of Christ.

It always comes back to divine love growing in us: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be prudent and vigilant for your prayers. Above all, hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins” (4:7-8). Reconciling love. Love that brings the sinner out of darkness into the Father’s marvelous light.

The whole teaching on Holy Saturday, on Christ’s descent into hell, in its scriptural and papal origins, is presented to demonstrate the radicality and totality of the reconciling love of God. Jesus is the Just Who dies for the unjust. This radical solidarity with all humans, while yet enemies, is the subjective position any Christian is supposed to assume precisely in assuming a life in Christ.

Not only should we not curse our current persecutors; we should not curse the dead, that is, wish them to be in hell. Of course. Cursing is the business of the Adversary, and him alone.

We finally turn to Saint Peter’s introduction of the theme of the descent. We note that he says something much like that soaring affirmation of moral realism Socrates insists upon in Plato’s Gorgias: it is better to suffer evil than to do evil. When we are cursed, we are to absorb it and return a blessing: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (3:17). To speak evil against someone (katalaleo), to curse, slander, run down, mock, would be grave evil, even if done as a response to an outrage perpetrated against one. Jesus is reviled and killed, and He begs forgiveness for us killers and revilers. Saint Stephen is cursed and stoned, and he begs forgiveness for his murderers (a prayer we can assume to have been essential in the conversion of Saint Paul).

 “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just man on behalf of unjust men, in order to bring you [leaving no doubt about our being among the ‘unjust men’] to God” (3:18).

And then we go right into Christ’s descent into hell: “Having been put to death in the flesh (sarki), yet having been made alive in the Spirit (pneumati), in which also to the spirits (pneumasin) in prison having gone, Christ made a proclamation to those who in former times did not obey, when the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah, while was being prepared the ark in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water” (3:18-20).

Where does this come from? I believe it to be at the heart of what Saint Peter is trying to teach in this letter. The unilateral love of God the Father poured out in Christ seeks every lost soul, every single one. From the heights of eternity, as transposed to the heights of the Cross, Jesus is able to reach back in time into the lives of everyone who had ever lived before His coming, as He reaches into every life after. (“He loved me, and gave Himself up for me”—Galatians 2:20.)

Now, we know dogmatically that any person who is saved is saved before death. It is my speculation that the hope for the salvation of those who are not baptized has to do with the “moment” of death. This is a whole other essay (or book!), but my proposal has to do with the revelations to Saint Faustina combined with that astonishing passage in Gaudium et spes 22, probably the most dogmatically phrased proposition in the Pastoral Constitution: “Given that Christ died for everyone, and given that the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, that is, it’s divine, we are obliged to hold [tenere debemus] that the Holy Spirit offers to everyone the possibility of joining in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.”

The normal means of joining in the Paschal Mystery is through baptism. But what is baptism? It is our sacramental configuration to the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. If a person isn’t baptized, when might it be fitting to be configured to the Paschal Mystery? It would seem one’s own dying would be exactly the occasion.

Saint Peter is clearly speaking of baptism in referring to the Noah typology.

Let me propose a constellation, which admittedly owes much to Balthasar: Holy Saturday means entombment means baptism means the final extent of solidary suffering, reaching into sin’s deepest places (vicarious substitution, victim souls). And Spirit is the medium of solidarity: pneumati. Spirit speaks to spirit. Divine love wishes to transform our spiritedness (our thumos), so that our “flesh” becomes transfigured into an instrument of love. We must suffer to be so transformed, and being transformed, must suffer so as to help others be transformed.

There are many details to be worked out, but this post is overlong as is. The basic emphases of Saint Peter’s whole letter must be borne in mind to make sense of what he’s doing: human existence is a fiery trial, often because people curse to get ahead. The Christian must love, not curse, and that means suffering more. In any case, the Christian suffers FOR those who curse. If we are Noahs in this age, then we will be mocked. The Christian response is not, “To hell with you.” It is rather, “May you see in my patient absorption of your evil, the loving gaze of the Father upon you, Who pursues you into your darkest places by His Son Jesus. I will not hate you in turn. I am in Christ, and Christ will chase your spirit into the most hellish places. He endured and, God help me, continues to endure my betrayals of love in order to hold onto me. He’s coming for you too. That’s a very good thing. I hope you see that in my eyes.”

An Addendum on Cursing

After my first post on First Peter, other thoughts about cursing came to me. I began noticing how easy it is to casually curse others. Whenever a driver cuts me off, I might say a coarse word. (Not that I would ever do such a thing…) And it occurred to me, you know there’s a reason these are called “curse words” or “swear words.” Their use can in fact be a solemn act. One doesn’t have to say “damn you” to be wishing another ill through a curse word. There’s a reason Saint Peter and Saint Paul and Saint James want us to clean up our language. It’s not rigorism. It’s that curse words in fact can make us instruments of the Adversary and his legion, the principalities and powers whose only mission is to curse us. Spiritual warfare is very real. When we wish another person ill at some level, that person may in fact be assailed. His life might collapse. It is anti-Christ to be part of such a thing. It is to become an adversary, a minion of the enemy of human nature (and I don’t mean a little, yellow, banana-loving creature).

Now, there are many instances using coarse language is appropriate, and even its comedic value shouldn’t be overlooked. But when we use such language in anger, we have to be very careful we are not in some way wishing ill upon another person.

There is yet another horizon. Sometimes something goes wrong, and if I say a coarse word, am I not cursing the order of the world? Am I not impugning the goodness of the Father? I know I have to do better. And I ask for your prayers that my faith in the Father’s goodness grow no matter how dark things are.