The apostle Peter wrote his first letter to Christians in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, in a time of persecution by residents of the Roman Empire. “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles,” he encouraged them, “so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Pet 2:12). Then Peter lifted up the example of Christ’s suffering, saying that “if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:20-21). In this verse, Peter is not saying that suffering is a good thing, a right thing, or a desirable thing. But in every life there is suffering, and God can use even bad times for good. Peter tells us that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24). Jesus took our sins on himself and paid our penalty for all time. The good of our forgiveness came out of the bad of Christ’s death on the cross.
Good can come out of our own suffering as well. In 1864, the first Union prisoners arrived at the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. This Confederate POW camp has always been notorious, since almost 13,000 Union men died there from starvation and illness, but a new side of the story is now being highlighted, one that shows the good that existed in that hell-hole of a camp. According to The Washington Post, the first prisoners had to create their own housing by making tents out of blankets or digging into a hillside. The water was polluted and the food rations were very meager. Some men went crazy as they dreamed about good food and life at home. But others kept hope alive by keeping themselves busy. Some sold each other firewood while others made money by selling eggs, soap, cabbage and sassafras beer. A private from Massachusetts named W.F. Lyon reported in his journal that, “We had a great many breweries in the prison — in fact, there were a whole lot of breweries and saloon combined, for each one sold his own product.”
All this activity gave the prisoners something to do and a sense of a normal life, according to The Washington Post. “That may have kept them alive while they waited to be rescued or paroled. Others who had nothing to do but sleep and eat the meager rations, surrounded by dying men, might well become despondent and resign themselves to their own deaths.” Eric Leonard, the chief of education at the Andersonville National Historic Site, is impressed by what the long-term prisoners decided to do with their food. “By early summer, in the midst of all those dying men and the chaos of prison life, they are planting corn,” he said. “They took kernels out of their ration of cornmeal and put them in the ground. That speaks to their knowing they will be there long enough to harvest it. What is corn? It symbolizes hope. It is a remarkable act of hope.”
In the middle of the suffering we face, Jesus Christ is like a fellow prisoner of war, giving us a model for keeping hope alive in a time of anguish and despair. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps,” said Peter (1 Pet 2:21). “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). The message here is not that we should invite abuse upon ourselves, but rather that we should never return evil for evil. Our call is to follow Christ’s example and become Christians who avoid violence at all costs.
Such an approach is not part of any earthly political agenda, but it is at the heart of God’s heavenly kingdom order. According to Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon of Duke Divinity School, discipleship is extended training in letting go of the ways of the world, and “in relying on God’s definition of the direction and meaning of the world — that is, the kingdom of God.”] As disciples, we are to pray that we can let go of our violent traits and discover nonviolent traits, even when we “endure pain while suffering unjustly” (1 Pet 2:19). Then we practice nonviolence wherever we can: At home, at work, in the community, at church. We practice it in whatever way we can: With children, spouses, store clerks, co-workers and the person sitting next to you in the pew.
“Repeated practice is one of the most basic principles of most spiritual and meditative paths,” writes Richard Carlson, Ph.D. “In other words, whatever you practice most is what you will become.” As in all things, we become a nonviolent person most successfully by practicing it wherever we can, in whatever way we can, as often as we can. This passage from 1 Peter is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reminds us that Jesus suffered to free us from sin, and left us an example of the good that can come from a life of not returning abuse for abuse. In a remarkable act of hope, he planted the seed of nonviolence within us so that we “might live for righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24).
1. When have you done right and suffered for it?
2. In the life of Jesus and in your life, how does good come out of suffering?
3. Where have you seen the power of nonviolence at work?
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