Does Peter have an original social ethic? It's a question I've been pondering as I've wrestled with 1 Peter 2:11-3:12 this week. My struggles have been greatly helped by a Miroslav Volf Essay 'Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter' (Ex Auditu, 10 1994, Pp15-30). It's an elegant essay that repays careful reading.
To sum up his argument in a rather crude nutshell, Volf argues that Peter urges his readers to be distinctive but not eccentric. He suggests 'To make a difference, one must be different' - a simple, obvious and yet profound observation that's worth reflecting on for a moment or two.
Some scholars suggest that Peter's social ethic - like that of the pastorals - is inherently conservative. He talks about submission in the political arena, workplace and home. He explicitly states that wives are the weaker vessel and that slaves should accept their lot. It doesn't seem promising!
But Volf suggests that Peter's ethic is strongly communitarian (he doesn't use that phrase) in that his teaching urges the formation of strong counter-cultural communities that seek to embody the values of the gospel of Christ in good works. It's not our job to change society, still less the world. our role is not to bend opinion to our view, build up blocs of supporters until we can vote the Kingdom of God through whatever legislature runs our countries.
Rather, our role is much simpler and small scale. It's to live by the values of the Kingdom and tell people why we're hopeful.
He says: 'What we should learn from the text is not, of course, to keep our mouths shut and hands folded, but to make our rhetoric and action more modest so that they can be more effective. As we strive for social change, 1 Peter nudges us to drop the pen that scripts master narratives and instead give account of the living hope in God and God's future (3:15; 1:5), to abandon the project of reshaping society from the ground up and instead do as much good as we can from where we are at the time we are there (2:11), to suffer injustice and bless the unjust rather than perpetrating violence by repaying "evil for evil or abuse for abuse" (3:9), and to replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation (4:13).'
And that's why we need to be forming strong communities that are shaping those values in places of mutual support and prayer, so we are strengthened to live well in our homes, work places and political arenas. 'For people who live the soft difference,' he says, 'mission fundamentally takes for the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even "without a word" (3:1)'.
It's great stuff. Later this week, I'll be reflecting on how this approach helps to understand the practicalities of what Peter says about our lifestyles.