Before anything else, let’s admit this up front: it is not easy for us to look at 1 Peter 2:18-25 (on slaves submitting to masters, as Jesus submitted to the Father) without fire in our eyes, shame in our history, and nuance all over everything we say. Why? Because of what we know about the history of slavery in our world. This text, to use a term from feminists studies, a “text of terror.” But not to all of us. And that is the point.
So, in today’s post I want to offer an experimental reading. Only after such a reading will I turn to a more traditional look at the text. I will offer a “reading of the oppressed.” I do not want this to be seen as a reading exclusively as to how, say, an African-American liberation theologian would read this. Instead, I’m seeking at how this can text has been used and therefore how it is heard by some. Enter into this conversation by way of sympathy rather than asking “Is this interpretation justifiable?” At least try to do this, and as the week proceeds we’ll be able to entertain other readings, and I hope readings that get us behind and beyond the power ideologies that have been used in reading this text and the others that follow.
First, approach the text from the perspective of power. “Slaves, submit…” is the language of the powerful, and it is designed to keep the powerless in their powerlessness.
Second, understand the theological rationale as justification for power. To evoke Jesus’ example is to find the most potent example possible to justify the power and to justify the need for slaves submitting. Some of us will be resisting here (and the previous point). I’m not asking for all of us to agree; I’m asking that we learn to “hear” what others have heard through the history of the interpretation of this text.
Third, resist the notion that suffering at the hands of the powerful is redemptive. So, when Peter says in v. 20 that doing good that is surrounded by suffering finds favor with God, hear this: “the powerful are contending that suffering is redemptive in order to keep us from fighting for justice.”
Fourth, deconstruct the text and find, on the other side, a text that is subversive of power. Yes, the powerless who see this text as a text of terror will say, Jesus did suffer and die; but he also fought against injustices with everything he had — and that is the example we should find.
Fifth, shape everything through the press of liberation. Read the Bible through the Exodus, through the resurrection, through Pentecostal power. The powerless are in need of liberation; they are not in need of hearing a word about the redemptive value of suffering. So, instead of succumbing to the rhetoric of the powerful, on whose side Peter is standing, fight back — resist, meet at night, wake up early, find companions, do whatever you can to fight for justice. We white folks tend to read the Bible through the lens of Genesis 12 (covenant) whereas the oppressed (not all, but many) read it through the lens of Exodus 12 (Passover — and liberation).
James Cone, an African American theologian, says this about Bearden, where he grew up and learned to see himself as the whites saw him: “Bearden white people,” he says, “like most Southerners of the time, could be mean and vicious, and I, along with other blacks, avoided them whenever possible as if they were poisonous snakes.” How wold James Cone have heard 1 Peter 2:18-25? That is the question we have to ask.
Now, again, it is not easy for many of us to hear this text this way; and many of us will say it is wrong to abuse a text like this — and that is just the point. This text we are looking at today is a text the Church abused, and it abused it by using as a text of terror against New World Slaves, against minorities, and against all sorts of marginalized people. And that abuse leads to counter-readings of the text, a deconstruction of misreadings, and I have offered here a deconstruction of misreadings of 1 Peter 2:18-25.
I welcome you to this conversation — a conversation about how texts have been used and how they have been heard.
Two pieces to read:
Brian Blount, Then the Whisper Put on Flesh
David Kling, The Bible in History, chp. 6.