Formations 08.13.2017: Persecuted Christian Seeks Asylum

1 Peter 2:11-24

What does it take to be “persecuted” around here?

That’s the question that will soon be before the United States Supreme Court as Chinese Christian Ting Xue’s appeal of a Circuit Court decision moves forward.

The former factory worker fled China after his arrest for attending illegal house-church gatherings in his native country. For four days, he was mocked and mistreated by his guards. Upon his release, Ting was compelled to sign a form promising no longer to attend such gatherings and to attend weekly “re-education” classes. Other members of his congregation were arrested in a later raid and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

Xue entered the U. S. illegally, but appealed for asylum on the grounds that he feared further religious persecution were he to return to his home country. The Board of Immigration Appeals concluded, however, that “Xue’s testimony was insufficient to carry his burden of establishing he was subjected to past persecution or there was reasonable possibility he would, upon being returned to China, be subjected to persecution in the future.”

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the BIA’s ruling, finding that “Xue failed to establish a reasonable possibility of future persecution.”

In his petition requesting the Supreme Court review and reverse the appellate decision, Xue points out that different circuits treat religious persecution issues differently: addressing issues of legality, factuality, or simply being muddled in their approach. Xue argues that the high court should resolve these discrepancies.

As “immigrants and strangers in the world” (v. 11), Peter’s addressees had proverbial targets on their backs. Like Ting Xue, their commitment to Christ set them apart from their neighbors, and not in a good way. Although scholars debate the degree of persecution they suffered, it’s safe to say they did not enjoy perfect freedom to practice their faith.

Defamed and mistreated under a regime that misunderstands and distrusts them, how is one to respond? Peter calls believers to live honorably no matter the circumstances. In part, this involves submitting to oppressive human institutions. This is a hard word, to be sure, but Peter reminds his readers of the nonviolent example of Christ himself, by whose wounds we are healed.

Kelcee Griffis, “Chinese Christian Urges High Court to Review Persecution,” Law360, 8 May 2017 .

Discussion

• The Tenth Circuit weighed whether false imprisonment, mistreatment, mockery, re-education classes, and the criminalization of religious gatherings constitute religious persecution. What is our definition of “persecution”?
• If Peter’s call for submission to those in authority was good advice in the first century, how does it hold up today?
• What does this passage teach us about submission, endurance, and nonviolence?
• What “warning labels” would you like to place on this passage to prevent its misuse?
• How might this passage raise our awareness of the plight of marginalized people in our world?

Reference Shelf

Temptation and Persecution

First Peter addresses two crises: temptation and persecution. The pagan society in which the readers lived posed a constant threat. Many religions, cultures, and cults were active and attractive. The Christian community survived by its close fellowship. (Christ is here portrayed as shepherd and the church as a flock, 5:2-4). Moral perils at hand were to be avoided: passions of ignorance (1:14); futile ways (1:18); malice, guile, insincerity, envy, slander (2:1); passions of the flesh (2:11); evil (2:16); superficial and showy adornment (3:3); reviling (3:9); licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, reveling, carousing, lawless idolatry, wild profligacy (4:3-4); murder, theft, wrong-doing, mischief-making (4:15). The writer exhorts the exiles by pointing to Jesus as redeemer and spotless example, and by calling them to respond to Christ with resolute conviction (2:24).

While persecution appears to be a focus throughout the Letter, in 1:1–4:11 persecution is only potential; but, from 4:12 on, it is real. While 1:6 says “you may have to suffer,” and 3:14 “even if you do suffer,” beginning with 4:12 the language shifts to “you share Christ’s sufferings” (4:13), “let those who suffer…” (4:19). The danger they faced was intense. They were in peril of losing their well-being and their lives. That may be concluded fairly by the intense exhortation given and by the author’s use of the example of Christ’s suffering and death as their model.

Richard A. Spencer, “Peter, Letters of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 677.

Submission to All

Commentators sometimes debate whether the advice in 2:13–3:7 was intended (a) to make Christians look as harmless and normal as possible to nonbelievers, especially in response to slanders that Christians are anti-social; or (b) to encourage mutual support between Christians as a way of coping with harsh treatment; or (c) to help Christians find the proper balance between total separation from and complete assimilation to the “worthless manner of life inherited from their ancestors.” It seems to me that 1 Peter gives all three as reasons to follow his advice, and that these motives are not mutually exclusive.

“Be subordinate” is the main idea in 2:13-17, and the audience is given specifics on “to whom” and “how far.” The verb, hypotasso, is repeated to slaves (2:18), to wives (3:1), and to “youths” (5:5). The word means to order something below something else; the passive imperative in 2:13 has the sense of “set yourselves under” or “be subject to.” It surely implies “obey,” but as 1 Peter uses it, not “obey unquestioningly”; the author sets up a hierarchy of loyalties that limits how submissive a Christian might be to the emperor, for instance. It also implies “act appropriately for your station,” which is not high—recall that the author addressed them as resident aliens and sojourners, not as citizens or householders. Many modern readers, including me, will almost reflexively resist being ordered to submit or to keep to one’s place—tell me I should not wear white socks to church and I may do it even if I would not have considered it otherwise. But for a first-century Christian, un-infected with American mule-headed individualism, who had not grown up with the expectation that one’s education, marriage, residence, and vocation could all be freely chosen, “be subordinate” probably went almost without saying. Be subordinate to the governor? Duh—what choice do I have? As a slave, be subordinate to my master? For sure, since I do not relish being beaten or crucified. Highborn elite Greek and Roman writers were of the opinion that acting according to one’s station was honorable and that overreaching was shameful. 1 Peter gives other reasons, as we will see.

“Be subordinate to every human creature” is a tall order and a broad responsibility. “Creature” is literally “created thing” (ktisis, the result of an act of creation, whether human or divine), and the interpretive question is whether the ktisis is made by a human or is a human made by God. Commentators and translators who take the first option often make the phrase “human institution,” but v. 17, “honor everyone,” tilts toward persons created by God rather than human institutions like the empire. If this is correct, then starting with “human creature” and moving to the emperor as the first example is a reminder that, for Christians, no human can occupy God’s place. The emperor may be “supreme” in terms of human authority, but despite all the imperial propaganda, the emperor was no god.

Richard B. Vinson, “1 Peter,” 1 & 2 Peter; Jude, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 113–15.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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