Edited by T. Lai
Think about Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Think of the women who braved ridicule to be the first steadfast evangelists (Heed the Witness: The Work of Evangelism). Now, think about Peter again.
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a slave woman came to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” Matthew 26:69-70
Peter and the other disciples were insiders in many ways. They were of the cultural and gender majority. Peter and the other disciples had eaten, sat, and walked alongside Jesus, hearing His message. In all the gospel accounts, Peter is depicted as either the leader or the first to believe the women’s account of the resurrection. However, Peter did not go to Jesus’ grave or attend the crucifixion. Very publicly, he lied about his relationship with Jesus–not once but thrice.
Acceptance of truth often involves recognizing one’s own complicity, one’s own lies, and the repercussions from them. Sometimes the lies are the very foundation upon which one has built one’s work, reputation, or life. For Peter, it would have involved admitting that the crucifixion was a direct effect of the disciples’ actions or lack thereof. While the women stood and witnessed the crucifixion, Peter and the disciples had to weigh the implications of their actions and absence. In fact, during the drama of the trial of Jesus Peter doubled down on the lie.
When he had gone out to the gateway, another slave woman saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it, with an oath: “I do not know the man.” Matt. 26:71-72
Peter denied Jesus with an oath–swearing repudiation. The disciples and Peter had an experience of personal hypocrisy. After three years of seeing themselves as a part of the salvation of their world, they came face to face with the realization that they lacked courage, the essential element to be real change agents.
Currently, people are experiencing similar dissonance between what they thought their values were and their actions and the correlating effect of their lives on the world. This, the Peter Denial, is one of the greatest obstacles for real change. Many reasons for this tendency to disbelieve have been posited–socioeconomic, demographic, cultural, etc.
It is a human tendency to forget our own struggles to change our beliefs. This amnesia often leads to harsh judgments about the very people with whom we are attempting to dialogue. In turn, these people, hearing and feeling our judgment, become angry. When we feel judged, we often respond by hardening our defenses. At that juncture, facts stop mattering. The injection of adrenaline creates the energy of a battle and not a dialogue. The more passionate we become about our communication, whether it is from a “good place” or not, the more conversations became a battle of will and personalities.
Later when Peter accepts the good news of the resurrection, it is revealing and astonishing. In believing the women’s witness, he had to say to himself three words that most humans have trouble saying to themselves and anyone else, “I was wrong.” He had to confront his disappointment in himself. He had to admit his cowardice and complicity.
To turn from one’s complicity, one must transform and shift it into a connection of compassion and faith in the capacity to change. This is the discipline of the work of the gospel–to see and treat those with whom we may disagree as our siblings and not our enemies, to believe that our mutual actions or inactions matter and will have an impact. Even while doing so, we may be in a minority or even the primary victims of the hurt. To those who fight for racial equality, marriage equality, immigrant rights, and environmental changes, and more, we must live the gospel as well as share the gospel. In effect, we are saying, “I know you can change and be different because I too am changing.”
We need to celebrate the Peters–anyone who heeds the call to face their own demons of complicity. It required courage from Peter to turn away from his lies and publicly acknowledge belief in the message of Jesus. The gospel is a frightening story because it does not hide how hard it is to be courageous. It is a call to face accountability and changes with faith as social justice wrapped with empathy and grace. We are all a part of the problem. We can all be part of solving it.
Learn from Peter.