by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 3.18-4.6 (click to see Scripture text)
There are myriad gripes I could offer about how the bureaucracy known as the United Methodist Church wastes time and money whenever we gather for our Annual Conference, but four years ago in Hampton, Virginia we outdid ourselves. During the proceedings, we debated— we debated— a resolution recommending that we pray for the (gay) victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida that happened just days earlier.
We, actually, debated it.
Christians debated praying. Full stop. For victims of murder.
We eventually did so and in it we prayed for the victims and their families. We prayed for other victims of other shootings. We prayed for victims of hate and homophobia everywhere. And, if I recall, there was verbiage spent on gun violence and gun legislation and hateful ideologies. We prayed that we would all use the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
What was missing, I noticed immediately, was a prayer for the perpetrator.
Omar Mateen killed forty-nine and wounded fifty-three others. A self-identified “Soldier of God,” Mateen struggled with his own sexual identity.
Thousands of preachers and church leaders— and not one of us prayed for the shooter. To my mind, this omission is even more egregious than the thousands of dollars per minute the United Methodist Church spent in St. Louis in 2019 to argue about sex. There were a whole lot more than two or three of us gathered in Christ’s name and yet not one of us prayed as Christ commanded us to pray.
For the trespasser.
For the enemy.
In our zeal to stand up with others against hate and homophobia, we neglected the peculiar form our Christian resistance should assume.
I noticed the omission in the prayer and in our debate about it, but I was too reticent or too indifferent to step up to the microphone five or ten yards away to say anything about it.
The line in the prayer we did pray, that line about resisting evil and oppression, it’s from the baptismal covenant. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” the liturgy asks the catechumen. Our forebears put the question in a less secular frame. Until relatively recently, the question to the baptismal candidate was, “Do you reject the Devil and all his works and pomp’s?” Earlier generations as well had a lower anthropology than us and a higher view of our ongoing bondage to sin. Rather than answer the question with a succinct, “I do,” as United Methodist candidates do today, they replied to that question about rejecting the Devil and his pomp’s with, “I do, God being my Helper.” In other words, if we are to have any hope of living into our baptismal promises, then we require the active agency of the Living God working on our behalf.
Reject the Devil and all his pomp’s— all his empty promises.
Resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Reject, resist— it’s the same word in the New Testament, antistasis. And there are no alternative translations for it. It means to oppose, to stand against. Though resistance has become a political mantra of late, the word itself is unique to Peter’s first epistle. A chapter after our text today, Peter exhorts the elect community, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your Enemy, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
Peter puts it in the imperative, antistete. “Stand against him!”
On Twitter today, the hashtag resist trended in dizzying contradictory directions, linking to issues as disparate as racism and police brutality to cancelling Tucker Carlson and even cancelling cancel culture. The hashtag “resist” was linked to standing up against “oppressive” mask orders in localities hit by surges in the coronavirus. Given the ubiquitous yet ambiguous nature of the word, it would behoove us as Christians, I believe, to ask what it means to resist, biblically-speaking.
Who, or what are we as the elect community to resist?
And, more importantly, how are we to resist?
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands those whom He has called to love their enemies. That Jesus orders His disciples to love our enemies suggests that Jesus expects us, like Him, to make enemies. The cruciform way of Jesus Christ is unintelligible without enemies. The problem, though, is that too often— at least in a liberal Mainline denomination like United Methodism— the enemies the Church stands up to resist are everybody’s enemies: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. It’s not that those issues are not urgent. It’s that the distinctive form of our Christian witness becomes unclear if we’re simply resisting what you need not be a Christian to resist. If we’re just standing against what everyone is standing against, then what is our particular apostolic witness? Is the salt of the earth, as Jesus warns in that same sermon, in danger of losing our saltiness?
Recall that at the top of his letter the Apostle Peter addresses the elect community, the Church, as “resident aliens,” as those no longer at ease in the nations and cultures in which we find ourselves, as citizens of another Kingdom, subjects of a crucified Sovereign. The Apostle Peter assumes our baptisms makes us different from all those who insist on living as though the Old Age is not over and Jesus isn’t Lord. So, if we are the ones whom God has elected to make odd in the world for the sake of the world, then what does it mean to resist as Christians?
The negative frame of the word makes it all the more critical we understand, in Gospel terms, the word antistasis. After all, St. Peter is not exhorting us to be for certain concerns. He’s not urging us to be for the poor, for the oppressed, for inclusiveness, for hospitality and love and welcome and all the other sentiments we liken to self-congratulating plaster on church signs.
Peter’s not exhorting us to be for; he’s urging us to be against. You can hear it in the Greek even, anti-stasis. It’s riskier to be against something not only because the cost is greater if we are wrong in our discernment, but because the very act of resistance, drawing lines between right and wrong, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, risks obscuring the offensive, counter-intuitive Gospel God has elected us to proclaim. How do we practice Christian resistance without resisting the radical inclusiveness of the Christian kergyma?
God did not come to love the loveable and improve the improvable, but to raise the dead— raise up those who were dead in their trespasses, the Apostle Paul writes. The Gospel is not “This is what you must do for God.” The Gospel is “This is what God in Jesus Christ has done for you.” Everything. Everything has already been done. He’s taken your sins, once for all time. And He’s gifted you His permanent, perfect record. And this gift, God’s grace, it isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.
Done, not Do— That’s the Gospel.
The Gospel is not “Become a Better You.”
The Gospel is Christ has died for unrighteous you. Christ was cancelled for the sake of every last deplorable— not, Peter says today in chapter three, to beckon you to God, but in order to bring you to God all by his lonesome.
The Gospel is not “What a Friend and Role Model We Have in Jesus.”
The Gospel is while we were yet his enemies, Christ Jesus was crucified for the justification of the ungodly.
Christ died for the justification not of the good, but of the ungodly.
And notice, the apostolic Gospel is not that Christ Jesus was crucified for the repentance of the ungodly. No, it’s Christ Jesus was crucified for the justification of the ungodly; that is, on account of Jesus Christ and His shed blood alone, God declares even the ungodly to be in the right— righteous— before God.
The Gospel is more inclusive than anyone who does not know scripture could imagine and more inclusive than anyone who does know scripture wants to admit.
God is not just a God on the side of the poor and oppressed, the righteous and the peacemakers. The Gospel makes the offensive and audacious claim that God is also on the side of the irreligious, the immoral, and the unjust. The Gospel is Good News for victims, yes, but also for the victimizers, for the oppressed, of course, but for their oppressors, too. How many churches have you seen with signs out front that say, “Crooks, Adulterers, Liars, and Xenophobes, Welcome!”
The Gospel proclaims the exasperating news that the Living God is for us to such an excessively prodigal degree it’s difficult to know how we are to be against in a manner that does not shroud our message. How do we practice Christian resistance without simultaneously resisting the radical inclusiveness of the Christian kergyma? It’s tricky business, knowing how to be against when God in Jesus Christ has not left us anyone, not a single soul, he is not for— to hell and back, Peter tells us today. There is not one “No!” we can say to someone to whom God has not already uttered a final and decisive “Yes!” How do we resist the sin of racism, for example, without also resisting the uncomfortable news that every last racist in every one of those viral videos we’ve seen in the news this summer is a sinner for whom Christ has not only died, but justified?
What does it look like for resistance to be shaped by a cross instead of a hashtag?
Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher and a Civil Rights activist, who died a few years ago. He’s the author of Brother to a Dragonfly and Up to Our Steeples in Politics. He won the National Book Award for the former. Campbell grew up in Amite County, Mississippi where his family’s Baptist Church had Bibles in the pews whose covers were emblazoned with the Ku Klux Klan insignia. Ordained at the age of seventeen, Campbell went on to study at Yale and, upon graduation, he took a position as the campus chaplain at the University of Mississippi in 1954, He resigned two years later in the face of death threats over his support for Civil Rights and school integration. He went on to direct the Committee of Southern Churchmen, which included publishing a journal called Katallagete— the Greek word Paul uses in Corinthians for “Be reconciled!”
During the Civil Rights movement, Will Campbell was acclaimed by many and accursed by many for the radically inclusive nature of his ministry. He simply refused to resist racism in the terms of Us vs.Them given to him by the culture. On more than one occasion, he counter-intuitively pastored the families of those victimized by Klan violence but also the victimizers, murderous Klansmen and their families. In his 1962 book, Race and the Renewal of the Church, Campbell was critical of how he and his peers had initially entered the resistance movement. “There were no innocent people involved in the civil rights movement,” Campbell wrote. “All of us— Black and white— were guilty in that all of us were sinners. We all stood in desperate need of the message of judgment and redemption. . . . Even those engaged in the new and dramatic protest movements, even we must also hear the Gospel of the Lord who burns and heals. We have moved into Christian social action from the wrong point of departure. We initiated our resistance efforts from the wrong starting point, solidarity with the suffering of the victims, which is no different from the secular view of social action and carries with it a superficial, sentimental understanding of the depth of humanity’s depravity.”
Critiquing his own form of resistance early on, Campbell writes that he and his peers should’ve taken as their point of departure, not right and wrong, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, but the one reality we all share, white and Black.
“We’re all the ungodly,” Campbell said. “All of us are captive to the Power of Sin. The chains of bondage just appear different depending on our color or creed, our station or situation. Thus, solidarity with victims is not enough. We must see one another, but most of all ourselves, as potential victimizers.”
We’re all captive to the Power of Sin.
In Jesus Christ, God has not left us anyone— not a single person— whom God is not for, because every single one of us is yet in bondage to an Enemy from whom Almighty God is determined to set us free.
Even, to bring it full circle, Omar Mateen.
Christian resistance is intelligible only as it relates to the Power of Sin and Death. The Apostle Peter exhorts the elect community to resist not our neighbors or our fellow citizens, not political parties or social policies per se but God’s Enemy. “Be self-controlled and alert. Your Enemy, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” Peter says, “Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” Even the baptismal liturgy, as well as Peter’s reflection upon baptism today, presuppose the entrenched opposition of an occupying Enemy, the Devil, against which the human race is powerless without aid from another realm.
Of course, a neighbor’s racism, a fellow citizen’s violence, a callous social policy, or a political party’s ideology— they can all be ways our collective bondage to the Enemy manifests. But— this is important, pay attention now— they do not make our neighbor the enemy. The enemy is the Enemy. And in one way or another, we are all in its grip. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Your neighbor is not the enemy.
The Enemy is the enemy.
We’re all prisoners of the same Pharaoh. The Devil’s laid different chains on me than on you maybe, but we’re all in the same situation, waiting on the final redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ. But just because we’re all prisoners waiting on our Rescuer to come back in final victory does not mean that we don’t try to knock down some walls, bust some chains, and dig a tunnel to freedom from behind Rita Hayworth.
Just as we acknowledge at our baptisms, Christ has elected us to resist the spiritual forces of wickedness in our world. But our Christian resistance should never be tinged with self-righteousness or hate but tempered by the knowledge of our own captivity and, therefore, by humility and pity and compassion.
Episcopal priest and author, Fleming Rutledge, tells the story of how when she was young and newly in the throes of the social justice movement, she complained to Will Campbell about racists. After listening to her rant, Campbell laughed and replied, “Fleming, we’re all racists!”
We’re all racists, or something.
We’re all captive to the Power of Sin.
Fleming says that Will Campbell could laugh at our common plight, because he was convinced that in Jesus Christ, God had not only justified the ungodly, He would one day return to redeem the ungodly and, in rescuing us, remake us.
18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.