Peter started out as a man of delusional hope. Paul began as a man of irrational fear. Both are parables for our time.
The role of tens of thousands of Christians in the election of the current president of the United States surprised many people. But the Bible could have helped us to predict that, if we had read its stories with a better understanding. Particularly the stories of Peter and Paul.
Peter and Paul are two of the best-known apostles of the Christian story. But their stories have been disastrously misinterpreted, with appalling consequences.
I have a friend who says all of society’s problems are rooted in fear and ignorance. He might be on to something. We might find help by looking at how Peter got beyond his ignorance and Paul beyond his fear.
Just compare the way the stories of Peter and Paul have been told by the church with the way Luke the evangelist told them.
Take Peter first, in Luke’s gospel. You’ve been told that when the chips were down, the crisis at hand, Peter’s response was cowardly. Denying Jesus, he was weak in face of the great test. Not so.
Consider this: Luke says Peter saw Jesus as the promised Messiah, the savior and deliverer of Israel, the one who would make Israel great again. Luke reports Peter saying he and the disciples had left home and everything to follow Jesus. He reports Peter’s courage and determination: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”
Then Jesus warns that Peter will deny him, and says that he (Jesus) will soon be identified with the lawless and the transgressors. Hours later, after Jesus is arrested, in the courtyard of the authorities, Peter denies three times that he is one of Jesus’ followers. “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).
What is going on here? Had Peter suddenly lost the courage of his convictions? There is another possibility, which was surely in Luke’s mind and message.
Moments earlier, Luke reports, one of the disciples had swung a sword in Jesus defense. Jesus rebuked that disciple and said, “No more of this,” and healed the wounded man. Jesus’ life is clearly at stake, and one of his disciples sets out to defend him.
Was that Peter? Do you think Peter was ready to fight to the death to defend Jesus’ life? What reason do you have to think otherwise?
This is the great historic struggle between violence and nonviolence, played out between Jesus and Peter. Peter, a man of violence, has just been astonished and embarrassed by the man he thought was to redeem Israel, when that man responded nonviolently to his enemies.
Peter does the only thing he can do to maintain his stance and self-image as a man of courage — and violence if necessary. He denies that he even knows Jesus.
Thus Jesus has been identified with transgressors, with men of violence who claim to fight with Christ on their side.
That is Luke’s telling of the story of Peter’s denial. It is not the way the church has told the story for 2,000 years. And so the church is where it is on the question of violence and nonviolence. Christendom has sided with Peter the denier all of these centuries.
But Luke’s story of Peter goes on. Later we see Peter astonished by the empty tomb of Jesus (Luke 24) and then speaking publicly with great courage in the face of threat and opposition (Acts 3 and 4). His estimate of Jesus has turned 180 degrees. He has accepted the evidence that Jesus’ way of suffering love and nonviolent response to enemies is not a dead end but God’s way of saving Israel and the world itself. The nonviolent Messiah he so recently denied he now embraces, with no thought of personal risk or even death.
We live in an era reaping the deadly consequences of delusional hope in messiahs who promise to deliver us by violence. So much is Peter’s story relevant to our politics and world.
Second, consider Paul. The church’s telling of his story has Saul converted on the road to Damascus — struck by a blinding light, hearing a voice and rising up a new man. Again, not so.
As Luke tells the story, Saul was blinded on the road to Damascus. He heard a voice asking him, “Why are you persecuting me?” That’s it. Nothing more. Saul fasts for three days, wondering what all of this meant.
But in the church’s telling, his blinding is treated as if it was an enlightenment and conversion.
Luke, telling it differently, brings another character, absolutely decisive, into the story of Saul’s conversion. His name is Ananias.
Luke describes Ananias as a disciple in Damascus, which makes him a follower of the Way. Saul was authorized by the religious authorities to arrest followers of the Way and bring them bound back to Jerusalem. This makes Ananias an enemy of Saul.
The story reports Ananias having a vision, a conversation with the Lord, in which the Lord tells Ananias to restore sight to a man named Saul, currently in a house praying on Straight Street. Ananias objects, but the Lord insists.
Ananias enters the house where Saul is staying. Addressing him as “Brother Saul,” Ananias tells him that Jesus “has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul’s sight is restored, and Ananias baptizes him.
Saul heard the words “Brother Saul” from his enemy, and he was converted.
But not until then.
Why is it important to see the difference between locating Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus or under the hands and voice of Ananias? For 2,000 years the church has failed to see Saul’s conversion as a conversion from homicidal violence to the way of love.
The role of Ananias was crucial. It was the role of a messenger who practiced the love of enemies.
Saul’s fear of followers of the Way was irrational. These people and their way of loving enemies were not the problem. They were the solution.
But who could believe that? Christendom, with its truncated interpretation of Saul’s conversion story, has not believed it.
And now we are reaping the grim consequences of centuries of irrational fear of others. Today in the United States it is fear of Muslims and people of color. Irrational fear.
Beyond Peter’s delusional hope in a violent Messiah and Saul’s irrational fear of others are their changed minds. Peter and Paul embraced hope in the nonviolent way of Jesus and the enemy-loving brotherhood of Ananias.
Our world, and we ourselves, desperately need conversions like these.
John K. Stoner, of Akron, Pa., is a parent, peace activist, pastor, gardener and co-author with Berry Friesen of If Not Empire, What?