A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I thought of the time Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10).
Many of us with differing priorities for justice have spat venom at each other before and since the election. When someone or something we love faces injustice, we may not use physical weapons, but we do brandish as many heated jabs and creative insults as we can muster within a lunch break spent on Twitter. Even peaceful protests have at points turned riotous, giving friends and strangers even more to fight about.
Watching all this play out online and in the streets, I began to wonder what Peter’s response to injustice could teach me. He didn’t sling tweets, but he did draw his sword. And Jesus was in the garden with him, modeling the right way forward. I realized three things:
1. We react in anger; Jesus responds in self-sacrifice
Considering the stakes, Peter’s reaction to Jesus’s arrest is pretty believable. Jesus changed Peter’s whole world. He allowed him to walk on water. He knew of life beyond Earth. Peter said it himself: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life” (John 6:68). And here is his Lord, about to be arrested, and probably killed, despite being innocent of any wrongdoing. It’s no wonder that in that moment of anger and desperation, Peter’s first instinct is to draw his sword.
But Jesus tells Peter, “Put your sword back in its place! Do you think that I will not drink the cup of suffering which my Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Jesus chooses to submit to a brutal death he does not deserve. He tells his disciples beforehand, and they refuse to believe it. It’s confounding, but Jesus knows his purpose and is willing to pour out his life for others.
2. Love is not passive
Reflecting on Jesus and Peter the lesson seemed obvious: we must show love and resist lashing out in anger towards those who disagree with us—or even oppress us. Didn’t Jesus teach throughout his ministry to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek? (Matthew 5:39) I enthusiastically told a friend my conclusion and she raised a good question: how are Christians supposed to “turn the other cheek” when the Bible calls us to defend the defenseless (Psalm 82:3-4) and to open our mouths for the mute (Proverbs 31:8-9)?
At first glance, “Turning the other cheek” sounds like being passive in the face of adversity. Jesus, however, is anything but passive in the Gospels. He calls the Pharisees snakes (Matthew 23:1-33), and he overturns the tables in the Temple and drives out the merchants with a whip (21:12-17). He isn’t afraid to call out his own disciples on their wrong mindset and actions either, especially Peter (16:23), and he speaks up for those at their lowest (John 8:1-11, 12:1-8). His whole ministry is based on embodying God’s justice by bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to captives, recovering sight to the blind, setting free the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).
When Jesus says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too,” he isn’t telling them to give into wrongdoing. He is teaching his followers not to take revenge on those who have wronged them, and to not become bitter. This is a tremendous act of love—to defend the defenselessness, to stand firmly in justice, without retaliating in violence or harboring resentment.
3. Love is beyond our emotions
Getting emotional about injustice is only human. But Jesus, while bold, doesn’t indulge his emotions. Everything he does is lined up with God’s will and is meant to honor his Father—to build up others. His ultimate act of justice is also his meekest moment. In surrendering himself to crucifixion he allows the relationship between God and people to be restored.
When we choose violent words and actions against our real or perceived enemies, we are getting distracted from our real work—to defend the oppressed and vulnerable. We are making the situation about our own feelings instead of those we are called to serve. Jesus’s words and actions were always motivated by his love for others. When we choose love and pursue God’s justice, we look beyond our emotions, speaking truth to others without condemnation. Rather than demonizing our opponents we extend kindness. We consider how to care for those who are hurting, putting our love into action. Instead of destroying bonds, we leave judgment up to God, and participate in God’s work of restoration.
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