Black Lives Matter. Saint Peter and Saint Paul disagreed on much, but this, this, they agreed on: black lives matter. Let’s circle back here in a moment.
Today, we celebrate the Feast of Peter and Paul, two of the great early leaders of the church. If you feel like you’ve seen this before, you have—their lives are seen to be so important that they occupy a few feast days in the various calendars. In January, each have feast days a week apart, and we typically use the space between the feasts of the Confession of Peter and Conversion of Paul as an ecumenical time. This is funny, mostly because Peter and Paul couldn’t stand each other. Paul thought Peter was a traditionalist, authoritarian, conservative jerk who couldn’t live up to what he preached. Peter thought Paul was a fringe zealot and convert who couldn’t understand the hard work that had been done in the past. They mostly agreed about Jesus, but both were happy to be ministering in different contexts. I’m sure you’ve never seen this kind of disagreement in Christian community.
The Feast for today celebrates their joint martyrdom, something that tradition (not scripture) attests. Maybe this provides grounds for unity between them, but honestly, I’d look elsewhere, because there was one thing, in fact, that they did come to agree on. Both Peter and Paul came to see that Gentile Lives Matter.
Maybe that seems obvious, but it’s the most significant fight of the New Testament. Not about the divinity of Jesus, not about politics, not about the generic question about whether God loves all (which everyone could agree about) but about its particular expression—whether and how Gentiles could matter in the Jesus movement, in the world, and to God. Everyone agreed that ‘all lives mattered’, but as Jesus’s love of Samaritans, centurions, and the poor attested, the systems of his time made it clear that, in reality, some people mattered more, and some mattered not at all. This systemic bigotry had invaded even the holiest of religious institutions, and this angered Jesus enough to flip tables and hit people with a whip. Jesus loved each, not some amorphous and theoretical ‘all.’
Once Jesus wasn’t bodily around anymore, one important question was how this very Jewish Christian movement would respond to Jesus’s teaching, and Gentiles became a flashpoint issue for thinking about it. Its details are thorny and interesting, and they’d exceed the space here to follow them all.
The short version is that Peter had a series of visions, Paul had his conversion, and in both cases, they realized that Gentiles needed full inclusion. This wouldn’t be simple—it required changing racist attitudes at a deep level, and it seems likely that many early church communities had trouble diversifying (again, you’ve never seen this kind of problem in a Christian community, I’m sure). Neither Peter nor Paul would see its full realization, but both took seriously the kinds of changes that would be needed to make Gentiles full, beloved members of the Christian movement. Both were careful to single out God’s love for Gentiles because their particularity was what was at stake.
Peter and Paul advocated for Gentile lives not because Christian history would stop there, but because the patterns of supremacy needed to die in Christian life. God’s love meant loving particular people, particular races and cultures and languages, and it meant that we’d have to do the complex and painful work of figuring out how to navigate culture in light of that radical acceptance. 1st Corinthians is, among other things, a long reflection by Paul on navigating the complexity of living with diverse people in light of God’s love. Knowing that Gentile Lives Matter, to God and to the church, involved a hard look at assumptions, bigotry, and systems of oppression.
In our moment, it’s clear that we need to pay attention to Jesus’s love of each. Black Lives Matter. It’s clear that black lives haven’t mattered enough, when we think about the results of slavery, Jim Crow, the prison system, and on and on through that oppression woven into society. The importance of black lives is not the same as the Gentile question any more than the massacre and mistreatment of native people is the same horror. Anti-Semitism, and others, have their own narratives of suffering, sometimes connected to each other. Yet, each is a particular evil, a particular history, a specific wrong. Each requires redress. What they share in common is terrible family relationship—they are a family of evils, supremacy and racism. Paul writes that there is neither Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, because all are one—without supremacy—in Jesus. Each is loved, each matters, but this reality for God is, alas, a work for us.
As we celebrate this joint Feast day, we need to tend the true unity between Peter and Paul. Perhaps they died at the same time, but they certainly did agree that the particular working out of love in the human family is our Christ-centered call.
Black Lives Matter, say the saints, and we have work to do if we are to see more of this truth in our Christian communities.