This is a guest post by a recently graduated High School senior, Ryan Money, who served as my Pastoral Intern at First Colony Christian Church for the past year. The following post originates from a writing project he completed on the historical veracity of non-violence for the Historical Jesus movement for an advanced Biblical Studies class at a private college preparatory High School. As we worked this his material, we both were interested in the work that is potentially unexplored regarding the ethical transformation of Peter from a violent Jew to a non-violent follower of Jesus after the Resurrection.
Since John Howard Yoder’s excellent defense of Christian pacifism in his critically acclaimed Politics of Jesus, the general Christian population has received Yoder’s camp much more willingly in discourse regarding nonviolence, social theory, and ecclesiology. With this acceptance has come many great works in the areas of Paul’s rejection and redefining of Roman imperial politics, as well as the congruency of the Old Testament story with the nonviolent way of Jesus.
As I was researching for a paper, I began researching the nonviolence of Paul and Jesus, references for whom I had no problem finding.
When I began to research the nonviolence of Peter, however, I was startled and amazed that there were almost no resources. No material Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox explored the nonviolence of Peter and its relation to Jesus and Paul. It wasn’t until I came to terms with the fact that my Peter section would be lacking resources that I began to wonder why material attempting to prove the nonviolence of Peter was virtually nonexistent. I came to the conclusion that the controversial doctrines of Peter such as the place of women and circumcision have been so greatly debated and contested that we have essentially forgotten the possibility of Peter’s nonviolence.
This conclusion is not a laughable realization, but a sad fact that the Church has chosen to focus on issues that both sides agree are not necessary for salvation. For the purpose of this post, we shall set aside these arguments in favor of a new query: Did Peter conform to Jesus’ nonviolent ethic?
Considering the limited scope of resources available to someone attempting to prove Peter’s nonviolence, I think the best starting place is a brief exposition of Peter’s story, the story of a man formerly craving messianic violence for the establishment of a Kingdom, and after realizing exactly how the Kingdom was established, a man who eschewed it.
A few books that explore these topics are:
Gabrielson, Jeremy. Paul’s Non-violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013.
Gormon, Michael. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004.
Nugent, John C. The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011.
Peter is historically the disciple who always spoke too soon, and in the book of John, we see that he is also the disciple who acted too soon.
“Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’”
Why Peter cut off the ear seems quite clear: Peter was expecting a violent King to bring his reign, destroying his enemies and striking down evildoers. Peter’s cutting off the servants ear then becomes not an isolated incident, subject to Jesus’ harsh words simply because it was out of the ordinary, but the culmination of Israel’s desperate hope for a violent King who would free Israel from her oppressors, and Jesus’ definitive statement that this hope was in vain. Peter was not necessarily trying to anger Jesus, but the act was instead a desperate plea for Jesus to begin the war against the Romans. Just as soon as Peter fired the “first-shot” in the war against the Romans, it was the King himself who put this violence away. In the same way that the servant’s ear was cut off, so were the violent hopes of zealous Jews like Peter. His violent thoughts and wishes to carry them out against the Romans were sheathed by Jesus, as he declared them not useful to his Kingdom. Peter’s subsequent denial of Jesus and weeping was not simply Peter’s grieving for Jesus’ death, but maybe more profoundly, he was grieving his misunderstanding of the way the Kingdom was to be established, and his realization that his entire political stance was at odds with the mission of the Kingdom of God.
This obvious example of Peter’s dramatic transformation from a proponent of violence to a nonviolent follower is backed by a theme of nonviolence in his letters, to which we will now turn to prove that nonviolence was not a debatable doctrine for Peter.
1 Peter 1:14-16
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he
who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.
These short verses, given to a body of believers by Peter may not seem like much. Their implicit meaning however, is proof that Peter knew (which is no surprise) and taught his followers the Jesus Tradition. Peter here quotes the Sermon on the Mount and references Jesus’ admonition to be holy. This holiness is not a pious hope that one day good deeds will afford someone a trip to heaven, but refers to the believer’s ability to join in the Kingdom praxis, the revolutionary way of Jesus.
It is also to interesting to point out that Peter’s quotation (or paraphrase) of Jesus is the admonition ending the Sermon on the Mount. This is almost as if Peter is implying that his followers should adhere to the entirety of Jesus’ teachings, and should therefore act nonviolently. Just as quoting a line from a famous song would draw the entire song to memory, here Peter is referencing not only Jesus’ admonition to be holy, but all of the teachings that contribute to one’s “holiness.” Bearing this in mind, the “passions of former ignorance” that Peter refers to are the violent ways of the world, and the never-ending desire for power only to be attained by violent coercion. By setting these aside, believers are able to focus on the mission given by Jesus and to do good work for the Kingdom. Urging his followers to refrain from these “former
passions” (quite possibly the same passions that caused him to cut the ear of the servant), Peter calls Christians to put away their violence, and to drop their weapons at the feet of the King who conquered without swords, guns, or bombs.
1 Peter 3:13-17
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
Suffering is what happens to Christians. Peter acknowledges this and encourages his people with the hope that death has been defeated and nothing can prevail against the believers who know that their King defeated both sin and death. Suffering itself implies nonviolence, for to suffer the violence of another and to not resist is the very definition of nonviolence. Instead of Peter telling the Christians to fight the empire, or loathe it at the very least, he encourages his people to remain faithful to the call of Jesus, to serve, to love, and to be nonviolent.
The theme of nonviolence is furthered from this text when one takes into account the harsh political climate of the 1st century. The Early Christians did not possess any meaningful political standing, as their “strange” beliefs led them to be outcasted from their social circles and down to a class that was persecuted at every corner. These encouraging words meant infinitely more to a people who were persecuted and faced unspeakable violence on a regular basis, and moreover, a people who were tasked to not only bear the persecution, but respond with good.
From these three verses we can begin to create a narrative of a zealous Jew, excited for the coming of the Messiah, and who was paradoxically surprised when he refused to act like the Messiah they expected, but instead, taught a new way of life that did not necessitate violence. Despite the scant verses that are able to be used as proof for Peter’s nonviolence, the overall message of 1st Peter is encouragement to a people who are suffering, and calling them back to the nonviolent ways of the King. It is also interesting to note that Peter and Paul disagree on several issues, the main one being circumcision, but there are no recorded disagreements on the overall lifestyle of a believer, that is, loving and nonviolent.
This is just the beginning of what I believe could be a more complete and comprehensive study on the nonviolence of Peter. If anyone has any resources that could help me or anyone who is now curious about this topic please feel free to share them in the comments. If anyone has doubts, rebuttals, or questions please share them. I’m excited to hear y’alls thoughts on this!