A paper presented at the “Letters of James, Peter, and Jude” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Denver, November 19, 2018.

 

The author of 1 Peter returns repeatedly to his addressees’ experience of socially-imposed shame (1 Pet 1:6; 2:12, 19; 3:14, 16; 4:4, 12-16, 19), suggesting that this is indeed an important feature of the situation that he is addressing.[1]  It is this facet of the text and of the situation it addresses with which Sri Lankan Christians identified most readily and, indeed, drew them to desire to study this text in the first place.  This presentation represents the principal fruits of my conversations about 1 Peter with the students and faculty of Colombo Theological Seminary, whose mission is largely to provide theological education and ministry training especially to evangelical Protestant Christians throughout the island.

 

Context

Slightly more than 70% of Sri Lankans identify themselves as Buddhist. Hinduism is a distant second at 12.6%.  There is a great deal of practical overlap between popular Buddhism and Hindu practice, since the Hindu pantheon has long been part of lay Buddhist culture on the island.[2] The demographics of the two, however, are quite different. Almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese and almost all Hindus are Tamil – and, of course, the ethnic strife between these two groups has been legendary, resulting in nearly thirty years of civil war ended only by a successful, though excessively violent, stratagem in 2009.  Approximately 9.7% of the population subscribes to Islam and 7.6% to Christianity.  Of the latter, about four out of five are Roman Catholic Christians and the remainder one or another variety of Protestantism.[3]  These figures add up to almost 100%.  Sri Lanka is very much more akin to the first-century Mediterranean than the twenty-first-century Western context insofar as almost everyone on the island would claim a particular religious affiliation.  While the Sri Lankan constitution protects freedom of religion and the freedom to change religious affiliation, Buddhism is formally awarded “foremost place” among the country’s religions and is afforded more explicit protections than minority religions.[4]

The non-Christian majority and dominant cultures of Sri Lanka respond to the Christian presence there much as did the non-Christian majority and dominant cultures of Roman Anatolia in the regions addressed by 1 Peter.  Despite the legal right to freedom of religion, there exists significant prejudice against Christianity in Sri Lanka, often manifesting itself in harassment, intimidation, and even violent hostility.  A principal cause for this is the fact that the Christian gospel is seen – quite rightly – as a foreign import into Sri Lankan territory.  Indeed, although there was a small Christian presence in Sri Lanka prior to the colonization of the island by European powers,[5] “the Christianity which is found in Sri Lanka today owes its origins to the colonial rule of the past.”[6] Christianity had been an accouterment, even an instrument, of colonization for almost three centuries and, since Sri Lankan independence in 1947, has continued to be viewed as an instrument of Westernization.  Colonial rule was often brutal.  Under Portuguese domination, the colonizers confiscated sacred sites, burned the temples, and erected Roman Catholic churches in their place, sometimes slaughtering the Buddhist clergy who resisted.[7] During Dutch rule, the Dutch Reformed Church suppressed Sri Lankan Catholics while seeking to win converts from among the very poor with material support (whence the pejorative expression “rice Christians”).  The Dutch did not allow new buildings to be constructed for the worship of any other religion.[8]  Under the British Raj, Christians, especially Anglicans, enjoyed significant privilege.

Since political independence, many have promoted the view that Buddhism is the religion most proper to Sri Lanka and, indeed, central to its post-colonial recovery of a more indigenous Sri Lankan identity.  As this impetus gained ground, local toleration for other religions decreased, especially for overtly and energetically proselytizing Christian groups, which local Buddhist leaders regard as a corrosive and anti-patriotic influence.

Christians in Sri Lanka are no strangers to the social dynamics reflected in 1 Peter. Sculpted images and their veneration continue to play a prominent, even central, role in Sri Lankan Buddhism and Hinduism.  The tendency of a great many Christians to avoid the religious ceremonies valued by their non-Christian neighbors, which involve the invocation of other gods and some ritual presence of idols, is a constant reminder of the lack of unity and solidarity within a family or a community.  This is all the more problematic insofar as Buddhists and Hindus can readily participate in the religious ceremonies of their Christian family members and friends; the refusal of the latter to reciprocate exacerbates the tensions.  This is again very much akin to the first century setting – polytheists can accommodate the rites of monotheists, but the reverse is highly problematic for the monotheist. The non-Christian families and neighbors are indeed “surprised,” “estranged,” even “alienated” (xenizontai) by the anti-social behavior of former friends, associates, and otherwise reliable citizens (1 Pet 4:3-4).  Non-Christian family members often view converts as betraying the family – “forsaking father and mother” is a common idiom in this regard.

Outside of pressure within a family, the most significant and overt hostility tends to surface against evangelical Christian groups, and this particularly outside of the major urban centers.  According to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, there were ninety-seven “incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation, violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services” in 2017, an increase from eighty-nine recorded incidents in 2016.[9]  Local Buddhist monks will often be found in the forefront of a mob that gathers to confront a local Christian pastor or assembly.  These mobs, which have been known to turn violent, have numbered from the dozens to as high as two thousand on one occasion in the southern village of Devinuwara.[10] Local police and other authorities are often seen to be slow to respond or even to side with those harassing or threatening Christian leaders and their assemblies, advising against filing complaints and even urging acquiescence to the demands of non-Christian protestors for the sake of preserving the peace or the local Christians’ safety.

 

1 Peter and Responses to Harassment and Hostility

Passages like 1 Peter 3:13-17 and 4:12-16 spoke with a keen immediacy to the situation of thousands of Sri Lankan Christians. Many of my conversation partners sympathized quite personally with the challenges facing the audience of 1 Peter – either succumb to the social forces pressing for “rehabilitation” or come to grips with the experience of shame and hostility in such a way that these do not become debilitating.

An interesting development in our conversations was the recognition of the importance of thinking critically about both antagonism and rapprochement in the Sri Lankan context.  How much of the former is essential if one is to maintain one’s Christian identity and practice intact? How much of the latter can be effectively pursued without sacrificing the same, and with what hope for changed relationships?  The author of 1 Peter himself seems concerned that any experience of being slandered or otherwise shamed by non-Christians be rooted in their fidelity to the call and example of Christ, and not in any behavior to which non-Christians might legitimately object.  The principal unavoidable offenses would be those inherent in “turning to God from idols” (to borrow a phrase from 1 Thess 1:9), transferring their allegiance to this God and the kingdom of God’s Son – not the avoidable offenses of, for example, disturbing a neighborhood with excessively loud, Western-style worship bands or visiting a sacred archaeological site and failing to remove one’s shoes out of respect (or else, not to frequent such spaces in the first place).  My conversation partners also latched on to the ways in which 1 Peter suggested avenues toward rapprochement, e.g., through foregrounding the embodiment of shared ethical ideals.

  1. Shared Ethical Ideals

The author of 1 Peter exploits the substantial areas of overlap between what the Christian community and the non-Christian majority culture affirms as noble and avoids as vicious.  He calls the hearers to counter the feelings of shame evoked by their neighbors’ hostility and reproach by developing a healthy self-respect based on the embodiment of ideals and virtues they know to be held in esteem both within the Christian subculture and the dominant culture, the culture of their primary upbringing. He expresses the hope that the consonance of Christian conduct with celebrated ideals will eventually lead to acceptance of this alternative way of life, “silencing the ignorant slander of foolish people” (1 Pet 2:13-15).  If the outsiders continue to degrade and reject the Christians, however, the latter will be in a position to consider this to be a reflection of their neighbors’ ignorance – their failure to recognize virtue – and so nullify the social pressure of shame rather than internalize and act upon it.

He draws prominently on the ethical topic of mastering one’s desires and cravings, rather than being mastered by the same, so that one could live a consistently virtuous life: “I exhort you to abstain from the fleshly desires that wage war against your soul, keeping your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (2:11-12); “don’t continue to conform yourselves to the desires of your former ignorance” (1:14).[11]  The topic of “mastery of the passions” as an ideal of philosophical ethics is widely attested in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic Jewish literature; it is also central to the Buddhist ideal.  The Buddha identified desire – “the entangling and embroiling craving” – as a principal problem at the core of human existence most diligently to be eliminated (Dhammapada 180, 359). “Just as the rain does not break through a well-thatched house, even so passion never penetrates a well-developed mind” (Dhammapada 14).[12]

Another prominently shared value is cultivating and acting upon the desire to bring benefit to others.  The author of 1 Peter urges his readers to remain steadfast in their love and hospitality toward one another (1:22; 4:8-9); other New Testament voices are more specific about the doing of good to all people beyond the household of faith (even while ensuring that they have not overlooked the needs of the household of faith).  This resonates with the Buddhist ideal of mettā, “loving-kindness through all bodily, verbal, and mental activities,” or “that which ‘promotes welfare’.”[13] This is indeed an area in which many Christian bodies in Sri Lanka have distinguished themselves, very dramatically in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, less dramatically but quite consistently through ongoing investment in coming alongside and helping the refugee, the homeless, and the displaced throughout the island.

The remaining ethical teachings that run throughout 1 Peter continued to resonate significantly with the teachings of the Buddha.  Compare, for example, Peter’s recitation from the Psalm enjoining the devotee to “turn away from evil and do good” (3:11) with the Buddha’s injunctions to “hasten to do good and restrain your mind from evil”  (Dhammapada 116), and “To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s own mind – this is the teaching of the Buddhas” (Dhammapada 183). The Buddha identified anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit, hatred, lust, and hypocrisy as “fetters” from which to seek to free oneself (Dhammapada 7, 221, 262-63, 399-400, 407) and truthfulness, virtue, inoffensiveness, restraint, patience, and self-mastery as qualities to be cultivated (Dhammapada 10, 261, 399-400).  There is a great deal of overlap with the author of 1 Peter’s censure of wickedness, guile, hypocrisy, envy, slander and promotion of harmony, sympathy, mutual love, compassion, and humility. All of these came to be seen as bridges by means of which Christ-followers could affirm the Buddha’s ethical insights, offering honor to him and, thereby, to their Buddhist neighbors and, to the extent that they invested themselves in the realization of these ideals, quite plausibly raise the stature of Christian teaching in their neighbors’ eyes.

It is in this context that the author of 1 Peter’s directions concerning how Christians should respond to their harassers became particularly important.   Christians confronted with such attacks on their honor as verbal challenges, reproachful speech, or even physical affronts might be sorely tempted to respond in kind, playing out the challenge-riposte game before the onlookers.  Beginning with Jesus, however, Christian leaders sought to cultivate a specifically Christian riposte: “When he was reviled, he did not riposte with more reviling in kind,” but instead “committed himself to the One who judges justly,” that is, to God (2:22-23). The author calls all Christians, therefore, not to respond in kind, but rather to follow Christ’s example, “not returning injury for injury or insult for insult, but, on the contrary, extending blessing – for to this you were called, in order that you might inherit a blessing” (3:9).[14]

This response resonates especially closely with Buddhist ideals concerning the sage’s conduct in the midst of hostility: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred alone is hatred appeased” (Dhammapada 5); “Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness” (Dhammapada 223).[15] The Christian who remains committed to 1 Peter’s advice would be in a position to declare, along with the Buddha, “Happy indeed we live, friendly amidst the hostile! Amidst hostile people we dwell free from hatred” (Dhammapada 197).

Rather than either yield to the feelings of shame or riposte in a manner that would antagonize, the author of 1 Peter calls Christians are called to be ready to give a gentle but committed verbal defense (an apologia, 3:15) for their new commitments and practices.  In the Sri Lankan context, this defense would plausibly include the affirmation that, “without Christ, I could not be a Buddhist.”[16]

  1. Avoiding Unnecessary Offensiveness: Westernization as Skandalon

While it seemed fairly self-evident that my conversation partners would not, in fact, suffer “as murderers or thieves or evildoers or busybodies” (1 Pet 4:18), the author’s concerns that the host society not find legitimate cause for complaint against the members of the Christian movement promoted a good deal of healthy reflection on their part concerning their churches’ and their congregations’ practices.  Their attention focused on the need to reassess the degree of Westernization present in Sri Lankan Christianity in every area, since the adoption and ongoing importation of Western Christian music, theologies, worship practices, strategies for congregational growth and development, even the Bible translations employed present an unnecessary obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity as a naturalized religion.[17]

Is a more indigenous expression of Christianity possible, such that Buddhist nationalists, for example, would be less inclined to see Christianity as a force for (or, at least, vestige of) Western imperialism? My conversation partners acknowledged the call to develop ways of singing the psalms and to write new hymns that could be sung to tunes and with instrumentation more closely representative of indigenous musical practice; to continue to formulate a Christian theology that, while firmly grounded in Scripture and the global Church’s heritage, places the pressing issues of Sri Lankan existence at the center of concern to that emerging theology; to pay greater attention to the values inherent in Sri Lankan culture (e.g., community and relationship) and develop congregational life around those values rather than pattern congregations after Western patterns (which tend to be more “program-centered” than “people-centered,” which tend to think in terms of marketing the church, hence in more “commercial” than “community” terms).[18]

  1. Further Observations
  • The author’s injunctions to respect authority occasioned conversations about how to offer honor even to those impeding one’s legal access to religious freedoms and rights, honor being an important value in Sri Lankan culture, while still rigorously pursuing those freedoms and rights.
  • The author’s words to Christian wives and Christian husbands occasioned a great deal of discussion concerning gender issues in Sri Lanka, particularly the more traditional roles assigned to and expected of women in the less urbanized areas, and the importance of addressing domestic violence – particularly where this is fueled by patriarchal expectations.
  • The author’s attention throughout to nurturing Christian identity as “an elect race, a holy nation,” the formation of a people where formerly there was not a “people” (2:9-10) invited reflections on the ongoing tensions of race and nation(alism) in Sri Lanka especially between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, and the invitation to transcend these tensions and the categories that sustain them.
  • My conversation partners were attentive to the author’s program of nurturing inner-church solidarity, urging his hearers to show one another “an unfeigned brotherly and sisterly love … constantly from the heart” (1:22; see 3:8), shaping their relationships within the church according to the ethical ideal of family at its best.[19] Internal harmony and unity (3:8), ungrudging mutual support and hospitality (4:8-11), and bearing oneself with that gentle humility that nurtures solidarity and harmony (5:3, 6) – these were greeted as much-to-be-desired qualities in the midst of a hostile environment.
  • This further stimulated their reflection on the ills of denominationalism, division, and the erosion of witness in their context – in a number of ways a direct result of the manner of Christianity’s introduction under a series of colonial powers each with their own brand of Christianity, and ongoingly the result of Western denominations staking their claim in Sri Lanka through their independent missions.
  • Despite their limited resources and local needs, my conversation partners were sensitive to the fact that, as the author of 1 Peter put it, their “sisters and brothers throughout the world are facing the same kinds of sufferings” (5:9). They were stimulated to think of ways in which they could put themselves in contact with those who faced even more stringent pressures because of their commitment to the faith, extending honor to them in their experience of being shamed and making the reality of the Church Universal as a social matrix for perseverance felt more keenly through prayer, personal support, and material assistance.

 

Why Should Western Readers of 1 Peter Care?

I would answer this from my own location for those teaching in similar locations – theological schools with a commitment to the Christian tradition and ministry.  Some of our commonly shared Scriptures speak much more directly to other bodies within the global church than to our own.  While we are still interested in these texts’ word “to us,” we will become both more globally aware and less self-centered in our engagement with Scripture as we are ourselves attentive, and teach our students to attend to, those Christian contexts to which these texts speak more immediately.  This, in turn, puts those other parts of the global church more forthrightly on our radar.  We may come to see that their challenges and needs should take priority for us over our own as we seek to discern our own response to “the word.”

At the same time, reading 1 Peter with Sri Lankan Christians cautions well-resourced and marketing-savvy Christians in the West concerning their relationship with the Church in the non-Western world.  Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan Church (for example) for every one of our Western denominations to establish our own franchise and brand in their land, or do we need to radically re-think our missiological practice if we are not to continue to replicate the problems of former missiological practices?  Is it in their interests for us to continue to package our music, our programs, our church-growth strategies as ecclesiastical solutions for the world, and not acknowledge them more forthrightly as culture-bound and location-bound expressions that should not simply become products to export?  I also find that reading 1 Peter and other texts with Sri Lankan Christians in their contexts also assists me in the exegetical task of entering into the ancient texts themselves in their ancient contexts, for the social dynamics surrounding Sri Lankan Christians resembles those of 1 Peter’s audience much more closely than any reference points in my Western experience.

 

[1] The frequency with which an author returns to a particular topic is underscored as one indication of its importance in the landscape of the community being addressed in John M. G. Barclay, “Mirror-reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case” (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 [1987] 73-93), 73-93. Throughout this essay I will simply refer to the “author” without engaging the question of whether or not this involved the historical Peter.  Readers may review discussions of authorship in critical commentaries.  These positions and supporting literature are briefly surveyed in D. A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 844-847.

[2] G. P. V. Somaratna, The Foreignness of the Christian Church in Sri Lanka (Kohuwela, Sri Lanka: CTS Publishing, 2006), 4.

[3] Total population of Sri Lanka: 20,359,439; Buddhists: 14,272,056; Hindus: 2,561,299; Muslims: 1,967,523; Roman Catholics: 1,261,194; Other Christians: 290,967; Other: 6,400.  These figures are taken from the “Census of Population and Housing 2012,” prepared by the Department of Census & Statistics: Ministry of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs, p. 163 (accessed online at http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/CPH2011/index.php?fileName=FinalReportE&gp=Activities&tpl=3# on November 8, 2018).

[4] United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,   http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2017&dlid=281034, accessed November 3, 2018.

[5] See Prabo Mihindukulasuriya, The ‘Nestorian’ Cross and the Persian Christians of the Anuradhapura Period (Kohuwela: CTS Publishing, 2012).

[6] Somaratna, Foreignness, 7.

[7] Somaratna, Foreignness, 32-34.

[8] Somaratna, Foreignness, 34. During these centuries almost no attention was given to developing either indigenous forms or indigenous leaders (Somaratna, Foreignness, 9).

[9] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Sri Lanka,” pp, 1, 9. A perusal of successive reports from the U.S. Department of State on Sri Lanka indicates continued incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault island-wide.  The 2009 report includes the murder of a Protestant pastor and his two sons, a Jesuit relief coordinator, and (likely) a Seventh Day Adventist pastor (http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2009/127371.htm, accessed November 9, 2018).  The 2011 report shows a slight decrease in physical violence and greater responsiveness on the part of local police (http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/193147.pdf, accessed November 9, 2018).  It is important to note that Muslim leaders, congregations, places of worship, citizens, and places of business experience the same kinds and degrees of harassment, for generally all the same reasons.

[10] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Sri Lanka,” p. 10.

[11] See Plato, Resp. 431A; Gorg. 491; Phaedo 93-94; Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 2.22; 3.22; 4.10-11; Plutarch, Virt. mor. 1-4 (Mor. 440D-443D); Ep. Aristeas 221; 4 Maccabees.  This was an ideal that the Christian movement was quite intent on fulfilling (see, for example, Gal 5:13-25).

[12] Consider also the following quotations: “Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower one who lives for the pursuit of pleasures, who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in eating, indolent and dissipated” (Dhammapada 7); “The wise control themselves” (Dhammapada 80); “For a person tormented by evil thoughts, who is passion-dominated and given to the pursuit of pleasure, his craving steadily grows.  He makes the fetter strong indeed” (Dhammapada 349).

[13] Acharya Buddharakkhita, Mettā: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1989), 13, 22.

[14] Elliott (“Disgraced Yet Graced,” 171) helpfully compares 1 Peter’s advice to the similar course promoted by Plutarch: “‘How shall I defend myself against my enemy?’ ‘By proving yourself good and honorable’” (“How to Profit by One’s Enemies” 4; Moralia 88B).   It will distress the enemy more than being insulted, Plutarch writes, to see you bear yourself with self-control, justice, and kindness toward those with whom you come in contact.  The insulted person must use the insult as an occasion to examine his life and rid himself of any semblance of that vice (“How to Profit” 6; Moralia 89 D-E).

[15] See also Dhammapada 389: “One should not strike a holy man, nor should a holy man, when struck, give way to anger.  Shame on him who strikes a holy man, and more shame on him [that is, on the holy man] who gives way to anger.”

[16] Prabo Mihindakulasuriya, “Without Christ I Could Not Be a Buddhist: An Evangelical Response to Christian Self-Understanding in a Buddhist Context,” Current Dialogue 51 (2011): 73-87.

[17] The presence of KJV-only-ism among some Christian groups in Sri Lanka is a singular triumph for colonialism!

[18] A number of recommendations for building bridges between Christian worship and major elements of worship already familiar to Sri Lankan Buddhists can be found in G. P. V. Somaratna, Sinhala Christian Worship (Kohuwela, Sri Lanka: CTS Publishing, 2006).

[19] See, further, deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 165-73, 212-26 and the literature cited therein. An especially important primary text is Plutarch’s essay, “On Fraternal [and Sororal] Affection.”