I’m trying to tell the truth sideways, so this is a little different: a fictional piece, exploring the themes of suffering in 1 Peter. Today’s (Episode 1 of 5) is based on 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. Take a cup of tea, settle down and enjoy!
I lay on my bed, my Bible open on the duvet. I had just been reading 1 Peter, but the talk of slaves and wives submitting had bored me. It seemed so irrelevant.
I sighed and looked up from the Bible. My bedroom looked small, and it felt like the walls were closing in on me. It was a day that I felt acutely the limitations of the illness, in bed for so much of the day, unable to walk further than a few metres. I was so sick of being inside for so many years, being ill for so long, being dependent on others. I realised I was directing this at God: this had become a prayer.
My Bible in my hands, open on 1 Peter, I said aloud, “God – I want my freedom back.”
No sooner had the words come out of my mouth when the world swam before my eyes, as though I had gone underwater, and then it all started to go black and I felt myself falling.
I landed with a bump, and felt hard mud beneath my hands. I must have fallen off the bed somehow. But something was different – the air was warmer, drier, there was a sound of some kind of singing insects in the distance, and there was a banging of wooden objects, and the sound of a woman humming a tune.
The humming stopped: I must have disturbed her. I opened my eyes: I was in a small stone house, with just one room, a few make-shift beds at one end, and a long wooden table with chairs at the other. On the table were pots and pans of various sizes, and a huge basket full of fresh vegetables, and behind the table was a young Arabic-looking woman who was staring at me.
There was a silence, and then she spoke:
“Well, you don’t look like much of an angel,” she said.
“Uh – hi,” I said, brushing the dust off my knees, “…where am I?”
“Well, roughly in the middle of nowhere, but Ephesus isn’t far if you need something in the city. Who are you looking for?”
“I don’t know…” A thought occurred to me. “When is this?”
“Tuesday,” she said, and when I looked blank, “It’s the ninth year of Nero, if that’s what you’re after.”
Nero… It must have been about 62 AD. I looked at her more closely. She was short, about 5′ tall, and she had long, black wavy hair, tied back in some sort of a headscarf, and she was busy chopping tomatoes on a chopping board.
“I’m Talitha,” she said, and handed me a knife. “Here, make yourself useful before you begin your teaching.”
Teaching? I took a seat and the table and began chopping, slightly stupefied.
“I was having a conversation with God and I was moaning about my lack of freedom,” she said. “And I was praying to God to send me an angel to sort me out – and, well, here you are! I mean, I know we had to leave Rome – I know we had to come here, and now that there’s a little one on the way” she patted her stomach, “it makes me all the more glad we’re here. But – I’m just so sick of following people’s orders. I’m sick of making food for other people, and then when I get home making food for my family. I’m sick of being here. Three dishes that man complained about yesterday! Too salty, too garlicky… He’s lucky to have me as his cook. I was made for better things that this. In Rome, I used to be someone.”
She sighed. “A female Jewish slave. Is there anyone lower in society than that?” A knife still in her hand, she threw up her hands theatrically and looked heavenward. “Oh yes, that’s right! A Christian!” She went back to chopping, and smiled at me, her dark eyes twinkling. “Welcome, angel, you have officially come to the home of the scum of the earth. Would you like an orange?”
I took my orange and began to peel as she gathered up the tomatoes into a wooden bowl and began chopping some garlic.
“You used to live in Rome?” I asked.
“Yes!” she replied. “That’s how we knew Peter. Dear Peter. I miss him. We got his letter last week – it was so sweet of him to take the trouble to write to us even though we’re no longer in Rome. We’re all scattered about now, our little Roman church community. There’s only a few of us here now in this – this back end of nowhere,” she gestured at the rolling countryside out of her window, “just my husband’s family, really, and the other Christians we found here. I’m more of a city girl than a country girl, needless to say…”
“Why did you leave Rome?” I asked.
Her face darkened. “I don’t want to talk about that right now. Later, perhaps. I’m sure you’ll be back another time. But why are you here? What message do you have for me?”
I bit my lip. “I don’t know, exactly. I’m sorry – I’m not an angel. My name’s Tanya, and I’m a Christian like you, but from…” I couldn’t quite bring myself to say ‘the future’. ” – another country. I was reading Peter’s letter when I ended up here.”
Her eyes widened. Just then, the door burst open and a tall woman with long, straight hair came in and hugged Talitha. She removed her veil, thus revealing a large purple bruise on her cheek, and burst into tears.
Talitha sat stroking her back for a while and whispered to me, “It’s her no-good husband. He beats her every week.”
To her friend she said, “This is Tanya. She’s safe. She’s an angel from another country.”
The friend dried her eyes, and calmed herself down and introduced herself as Claudia. She was Greek, from a well-respected family in Ephesus, and she had become a Christian only recently. Her husband was not too pleased by her religious independence and threatened to beat her if she continued to meet weekly with those slaves who were part of a Jewish sect.
And suddenly I knew why God had sent me.
“This is abuse,” I said. “You don’t have to put up with this. You are worth more than this. He is breaking his vows by treating you like this – you are free to leave. God would not want you to stay with an abusive husband. Please don’t stay with him.”
Both of them stared at me open-mouthed.
Then Talitha spoke: “But honey – if she leaves him she’d be killed.”
“What do you mean? Couldn’t she get a divorce?”
They both laughed quietly. Claudia took the half-peeled orange from me and finished peeling it.
“In theory,” she said. But it’s the men who call the shots, who decide whether they want you or not. They do the divorcing. If he did divorce me, it would be hard, and although I don’t know what I’d do financially…”
“We’d take care of you – you know that,” interrupted Talitha.
“…in many ways that would be okay.” She smiled gratefully at Talitha and handed me an orange segment. “But I cannot divorce him, and I cannot leave him. The day I left would be the day I died. It would bring him dishonour, shame upon his well-respected family, to have a rebellious wife. If he didn’t murder me for it, his family would. In many ways, I have it lucky. He only beats me once a week, after our church gathering.”
And then she cried a little more, and Talitha stopped chopping to hug her, and I tried to absorb this information. Honour killings. This was a little out of my comfort zone. Surely there must be something…?
“Could you not… stop going to church? I’m sure God would understand…”
“I have thought about that,” she said. “And days like this, I feel like giving up, living in secret.”
There was a silence, and I didn’t know what to say. She pushed back her hair, and it caught the light, with shades of hazel and brown and deep chestnut.
She looked determinedly at me.
“But no – I love Jesus and I want my husband to come to know Jesus. It would be wrong to lie, and I couldn’t bring myself to deny Jesus, even to my husband. Peter’s letter gave me hope that maybe one day he’ll see. I will not give way to fear.”
Her story brought to mind a girl I had met once in Eastern Europe. She had become a Christian through the local Christian Union and had joined a local church. Her family were nominally Orthodox Christians, though they didn’t have a personal faith, and they viewed the evangelical church as a sect. Every week, after church, her father beat her for her rebellion. She said she longed that he would come to know Jesus. Every week she went to church, and every week she submitted to a beating.
I saw Jesus in that girl, and looking at Claudia now, I could see Jesus in her. I hoped her husband would, too.
“It’s different where we are,” I said. “We would encourage a woman to leave, to be safe.”
But it wasn’t safe everywhere in the world. I thought of the book I had read recently, ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’. It described life in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and the lack of freedom that women had as a result. They were restricted in everything they did. The world has not changed all over, just in parts.
I should not read 1 Peter imagining our Western churches, I realised. It would be more helpful to envisage it as ‘Reading 1 Peter in Tehran’, and perhaps that modern day Arabic shame/honour, patriarchal culture is the closest I would get to first century Asia Minor.
Talitha had gone back to chopping – green and red peppers now. She never seemed to stop.
I thought about the questions I had about 1 Peter.
“Why does Peter give such detailed instructions for women and servants, and not so much for masters and husbands? It doesn’t seem fair.”
“Come to church with us some day, and you’ll see why,” Claudia replied with a smile. “There aren’t exactly a lot of free men.”
“But – why are husbands told to respect women as the weaker partner? Is this not demeaning to women?”
“Are you kidding?” Claudia said. “We have these kinds of household codes written in Roman Law. They only address the men, as though wives and slaves are property that they need to keep under control. We are viewed as inferior. This is different.”
“Weaker does not mean inferior. We have less power in society (and physically) but we are no less important. So Peter tells husbands to be considerate and treat us with respect, and not only that, to treat us equally as heirs together in Christ.”
“But all the same – ‘weaker partner’ – it sounds demeaning.”
“Demeaning? ” Talitha was brandishing her knife in mid-air again. “That’s crazy. No-one ever cares what women or slaves need, or even addressed us before. Peter told our husbands to respect us as equals. Are you kidding? Peter gave us a voice.”
“But – why does Peter not tell you to escape?” I asked.
Talitha’s eyes narrowed.
“Are you some kind of zealot?” she asked. “We’re not after a rebellion, at least not that kind. How could we possibly overthrow anything? We’re tiny in number, and everyone is suspicious of us – the Romans, the Greeks, and even our own people.”
Her voice grew quiet. “We’re safe, here, for now, I think, I hope – but who knows what will happen. There are rumours about Rome. Everyone still talks about the riots in Ephesus. We need to keep our heads down.”
I felt frustrated. I wanted to fight.
“We just don’t have the freedom that you do,” Talitha said simply, and that word stuck into my chest, for only an hour ago I had been complaining of my lack of freedom. There was an awkward silence.
“We know, deep down, that we have to submit to the world we find ourselves in. We have limitations. The surprise isn’t that Peter told us to submit, but why we should submit,” said Claudia, her eyes shining. “He redeemed the whole idea of submission, somehow. I’m not submitting to my husband for his sake, I’m doing it for Jesus’ sake, so He can be glorified.”
She passed me a segment of orange and I bit into the juicy bitter-sweetness.
“Being a Christian changes everything. It lifts my eyes heavenward, to see the spiritual reality. Jesus is ultimately my husband. Talitha ultimately has a different master. And so every time I look my husband in the eye, even when he hits me, I pray that he will see something in me that points to Jesus, the way that the Roman soldier was convicted by Jesus’ death,” she said.
We were silent for a minute. I considered it all for a while: these wives and slaves didn’t have a choice but to submit. If they could have left they would have, but there was nowhere else to go. That they were choosing to submit in a way that honoured God and prompted people to ask about Jesus – it just broke me.
Live as free men… Live as God’s slaves. They were holding those both in tension.
“I don’t want to submit,” I said quietly. There was nothing I could do about my illness, no way I could escape it. In one sense, I didn’t have any choice but to submit to it.
But I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to say, “I choose to submit. I choose to let God redeem it. I choose to honour God in my invalid state.” I was afraid if I said that, it would become my identity.
“I am not an invalid,” I said out loud.
“I am not a slave,” Talitha said, and she looked directly at me and held my gaze. I felt emotion welling up within me. I wanted to fight it.
Live as free men… Live as God’s slaves. This was the paradox, the challenge that Peter had laid down. Being a slave was not Talitha’s identity, she was free in Christ. But right now she still remained a slave. She could reclaim it, redeem it, live a revolutionary life that would point people to Jesus. She could be a slave for God.
Could I do that? Live as a free woman… Live as God’s invalid.
Everything in me was wanting to fight it. But I tried saying the words anyway.
“I am God’s invalid,” I said, and found myself choked up.
“I am God’s slave,” Talitha replied, and there were tears in her eyes, too.
Talitha broke the silence.
“Well then, Claudia, if you can put up with getting beaten each week then I suppose I can stop spitting in Captain Justus’ meals,” she said.
Claudia burst out laughing.
“You really spit in his food?”
“My little rebellion,” Talitha said. “But I need to bring Jesus into this. If He can go to the cross, if you can love your husband even when he is being so cruel, then I can bring Jesus into my inescapable situation. I’ll pretend I’m working for God, not him. I’ll be God’s slave.”
Claudia brushed the hair from her eyes and turned to me and smiled.
“Thank you for reminding us of Peter’s words. You’ve taught us so much.”
And even while I was protesting, “No, it’s you who have taught me…” the room was fading and I found myself back within the four yellow walls of my bedroom.
It seemed bigger than before.
**NB: If you suspect that you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, whether sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, then please read these excellent resources and especially this pack for churches from Restored. **
Linking up with Rachel Held Evans for her #onetoanother week, exploring the theme of submission in the New Testament.
Over to you:
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