by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 1.13-21 (click to see Scripture text)
Giving someone the cold shoulder.
Seeing right through them.
Looking down on people.
Turning a blind eye.
According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, these metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. In a piece with the provocative title, “Rich People Just Care Less,” Goleman writes that these metaphors for cold, compassionless behavior “suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of individual interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality and prejudice in the United States.”
In other words, disparities in privilege and power have a determinative effect on empathy. The social distance between the haves and the have-nots creates not only an economic and opportunity gap, but also an empathy gap. It becomes easier to see no evil and hear no evil when you do not see the one to whom social evil is done as someone much like yourself. Freud called this “the narcissism of minor differences.”
A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain, yet a growing body of recent research, Goleman reports, shows that people with the most social power and privilege pay scant attention to those with little such power or privilege. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful. The more privileged people, for example, showed fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people were also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and were more likely to take over the conversation, interrupt, look past the less privileged speaker, or correct the less privileged person’s perception of their situation.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, whose work focuses on the dynamic between social power and attention deficit puts the matter simply in Goleman’s article: “In general, we focus the most on those we value most.” And ever since the Old Adam, we value most those who most resemble ourselves.
Thus, the key to fostering empathy and overcoming prejudice, Goleman argues, is neither education nor exhortation, but closing the social distance between rich and poor, black and white, privileged and unprivileged. That is, only when the privileged can see that they are in the same situation as the less privileged, with both possessing equivalent status, will the former be able to regard the latter “as someone just like me.” Indeed, Goleman suggests that systemic change and societal transformation depends less on public policy and more on the practice of empathy— our ability to hear one another that is itself dependent on our ability to see one another as possessing the same value.
Peter mixes his metaphors today and urges us to “gird up the loins of our minds.”
In the first century, men wore tunics, long flowing tunics, which, for any sort of hard labor or hurried action, required you to gather them up from your feet and cinch the overflow around your waist. Thus, to “gird up the loins” was to take deliberate action. “Gird up the loins of your minds,” Peter exhorts. That is, rearrange your mental effects for the labor of bearing witness to a crucified Lord. The craft of discipleship requires self-conscious intentionality and preparation.
In other words, get rid of the slack in your mind. Be sober. Set your hope not on the present circumstances around you, but on the future that even now is coming to you. As children of obedience— meaning, as those born again by the obedience of Jesus Christ— conform yourselves not to the wants of the wider world but to the grain of the universe.
Be holy in all manner of your living, Peter presses us. Live lives that make no sense if God has not raised the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount from the dead. Live lives, as the Apostle Paul writes, that if Christ is not risen then of all people in the world we are the most pathetic. Our vocation is not to be influential or powerful or effective or even to change the world. Our vocation is to bear witness to the world about the objective change God has made in the world through Jesus Christ.
Therefore, our way of life in the world should not falsify our witness to the world.
Peter won’t abide any distinction you prefer to make between your private self and your public self. You don’t get to compartmentalize your piety from the public square. The separation of Church and State is in the Bill of Rights; it’s not in your New Testament. Indeed that it’s in the former and not the latter is but an indication of whose interest is served by it.
Be holy in every realm of your life, Peter commands in this epistle, just as the Father who elected you in and for the Son is holy.
That is, set apart.
Be holy, Peter exhorts.
Be holy— be different, be distinct.
That sounds like a heavy ask given that the temptation for God’s peculiar people is always to hunker down in the safety of the crowd rather than to live as exiles whose citizenship belongs to a Kingdom that is near but not yet here.
Pay attention now—
Peter exhorts us to live the distinct, difficult, upside down, at-odds-with-the-empire life of a disciple on-the-basis of its value.
“You know that were ransomed,” Peter reminds us, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus already told us he doesn’t cast his pearls before swine. You have been bought not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the matchless blood of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
Which makes you— YOU and YOU and YOU…precious.
In response to one of the most brutal lynchings in American history, the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, Bishop Atticus Haygood of the Methodist Episcopal Church South authored an editorial titled, “The Black Shadow in the South.”
In the op-ed, Bishop Haygood— who was white— took pains to come just short of justifying Smith’s lynching by, instead, explaining and empathizing with the reasons a mob had burned Smith alive after first torturing him for hours.
Malcom Foley is a PCA pastor and an historian at Baylor whose work specializes in the Christian response to lynching in America. Writing about the recent murder of Ahmad Arbery, the twenty-five year old black man who was stopped while jogging in a south Georgia neighborhood by two armed white men, Foley places Abery’s vigilante murder within the our long history of lynching; that is, the killing of blacks by whites which have occurred under the pretext of justice.
Like the lynching of Will and Jesse Powell in Montgomery, Alabama in 1917 who were guilty of brushing up against a farmer’s horse.
Like the lynching of Albert Blades, who was hanged and burned, in 1926 for picnicking near a white girl playing with her friend.
Malcom Foley says that when you survey the history of lynching in America you recognize many of the same justifications used by the media today in their coverage of shootings of unarmed black men and women. The presumption of innocence is given to the lynch(er). The character of the person killed is called into question.
There must have been more to the story.
If he was innocent why did he fight, why did he flee?
Did you know that Arbery has a record?
Don’t all lives matter?
When it comes to the history of lynching, empathy never seems to cross the social distance.
In a recent article for Mere Orthodoxy, “Lynching Then and Lynching Now: Racial Justice as Christian Imperative,” Foley writes that when it comes to the history of lynching in the United States, “The first, most important and most hopeful thing to know is that the Body of Christ has not been silent.”
But then Foley drops the mic, “But it is equally important to know,” he adds, “that those faithful voices have been almost exclusively those of Black Christians. When one looks to the mouths of white Christians in the history of lynching, one must prepare for profound disappointment.”
Only the Black Church has been set apart from the idols of nation and culture.
They alone have been holy.
Racism is the preferred weapon which the Power of Sin and Death has chosen to wield in our own American context, Foley says, stating the obvious. And, in order to fight back against the Enemy, white Christians owe it to black Christians “to assure the endangered brothers and sisters in our midst that we are members of one another.”
Our baptism into Jesus Christ is a more determinative identity for us than our skin color. And if we have truly been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, then when one of us suffers, the whole Body suffers. Thus, if the American Christian wishes to be holy, wishes to live out the Gospel they claim to believe, we must seek racial justice in their personal relationships and in the world around them.
Anything less, Foley writes, crucifies the Savior anew, puts him to open shame and denies the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Anything less than our doing battle with the demon of racism— it denies the work of Jesus Christ.
He means the work by which Jesus Christ has made you precious.
You were ransomed, Peter says.
And the word in Greek is lutron.
It’s the same word the Apostle Paul uses when he reminds the Corinthians twice in rapid succession, “You were bought with a price.”
And the Apostle Paul uses it in his letter to Timothy, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a lutron for all.”
But Jesus himself only uses that word, lutron, once.
Only once and in only two of the four Gospels.
“The Son of Man came also not to be served but to serve,” Jesus tells the disciples, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Part of what it means to say the Lord is risen and reigning is that after his resurrection, Jesus Christ taught the apostles the meaning of what He had said to them prior to His crucifixion. Only on this side of the cross was Peter in a position to understand that Christ himself was the purchase price of the ransom Jesus had spoken of to them.
Jesus’ ransom saying occurs only in Mark and Matthew, the two Gospels which have only one word from Christ on the cross, the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The ransom saying and the cry of dereliction are connected.
The godforsaken death of God’s own eternal Son— that’s the cost commensurate with the gravity and power of Sin. The precious blood of Jesus Christ— that was the purchase price Christ paid to buy you out of bondage to Sin and Death and bind you into service for Him.
Jesus speaks of giving his life as a ransom for many in the midst of a cringeworthy grab at privilege and power on the part of the twelve disciples. In Mark 10, Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. Like the crowds on Palm Sunday, the disciples are expecting a red-carpet royal coronation.
James and John though, the sons of Zebedee, they say the quiet part out loud, angling for Leo McGarry’s job, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your Kingdom.”
And, of course, upon hearing their tacky request, the other disciples respond not with altruistic talk of their own about how we’re here to serve not to be served. No, they respond with jealousy that they didn’t think to ask first and elbow their own way to the front of the line. “So Jesus called them,” Mark reports, “and Jesus aid to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom…”
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “to give his life a ransom for the few of you.” No, Jesus says He will pay out his precious blood to buy from bondage the many.” And before you start trying to puzzle how many are included in that many, the Book of Hebrews makes it plain. His life is a lutron paid out in a single installment for all.
The only time Jesus says he’s come to give his life as a ransom is in the middle of a fight between the disciples about power and privilege. They were hoping to cross the social distance with this King, from the bottom to the top. They assume they are the few who will soon have power and privilege over and against the many.
And Jesus responds to their grab at privilege by saying that with his precious blood he’s not going to cross the social distance. He’s going to close it, once for all.
The blood of Jesus Christ was of incomparable value, the Apostle Peter says today.
And it was paid out to ransom all.
Everyone, every last one of us, is of incomparable value.
This is why Jesus and Peter both say that the form of our life in the world should be resonant with the work of Christ’s life for the world. We are to serve rather than be served not as a pretense at humility whereby we work our way to the front of the Kingdom line, pretending to be last in order to be first, which is just a passive aggressive ploy for privilege and power. No, we are the serve one another rather than be served by another because all of us, every last one of us, is of equal and infinite value.
And note, our equality with one another is not endowed to us by our Creator.
That’s the Declaration of Independence. That’s not the Gospel.
And the writer of the first didn’t know much about the second.
Our equality with one another is endowed to us by our Redeemer.
Redeemer— it’s from that same word, lutron.
This is what the Apostle Paul means when he says, “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for we all are one in Christ Jesus.” By his precious blood, Paul says, “Christ has destroyed the barriers between us, torn down the dividing wall of hostilities, and made us one.”
He’s torn down the social distance of privilege and power between us.
We’ve all been purchased at the same surpassing price.
And, therefore, we are all equally precious to him.
Malcom Foley notes in Mere Orthodoxy that in American history to the extent white Christians have spoken out against racial injustice they have done so almost exclusively on the basis of law, due process, and socio-political terms rather than on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ.
In other words, the world needs you— your black brothers and sisters need you— to be a peculiar people who will insist upon their equality and their surpassing value not based on what Thomas Jefferson supposedly promised them but based on what our Redeemer has done for them.
The world needs you to be holy.
And, that’s a scary summons for any of you out there who look like me.
It’s always easier to bury the foolishness of the cross in the wisdom of the crowd.
If God elected you from before the foundation of the world to bear witness to the work of Jesus of Christ, do you really think the Holy Spirit will leave you bereft of the ability to do so?
After all, if the Bible is clear about anything, it’s that, in the End, God’s going to get what God wants.
13 Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’
17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.