This remarkable sculpture expresses in gesture, solemnity, and tensile dignity the royal priesthood the author of 1 Peter recognizes in a persecuted community. The woman depicted kneels with an empty bowl. Her gaze is lowered, eyes turned inward and slightly closed. Apart from her royal headdress, she is unclothed, her torso and limbs slender, agile.
The art of the Luba people frequently depicts women in poses of quiet strength, bearing up thrones or carrying vessels, always self-contained and with great reserve.
Just so we might image the community addressed by the author of 1 Peter. The letter admonishes and encourages a young Church which has tasted suffering and bitter trial, suspicion by its neighbours, and accusations of unnamed evils. Throughout the letter we read of suffering—and the dignity that is uncovered in bearing suffering quietly, patiently, confident that in suffering for what is right, a believer will ‘have God’s approval’ (1 Peter 2:20). These are the rejected ones—‘living stones’ (2:5), 1 Peter calls them—who will become corner stones; ‘no-people’ who will become a royal priesthood, a holy nation, precious to the Lord. That this sculpture emerged from the Congo during the nineteenth-century imperial despoliation of central Africa bears powerful testimony to human dignity, resolve, and agency under persecution: a holiness shining in the midst of a night of wrong.
1 Peter is often thought to teach subservience, or worse, a pious devotion to suffering under unjust abusers. A deeper reading uncovers the royal office that is extended to the voiceless: to slaves who must serve the master who owns them, whether just or unjust; to wives who must obey husbands, whether loving or cruel; to those who are slandered who can rely on no public vindication. These are the ones 1 Peter calls a royal household, a temple built of living stones, a community radiating with holiness, chosen and precious before the Lord.
Under imperial domination, subject-peoples must find a foundation and a strength that cannot come from the culture in which they live; it must come from beyond. 1 Peter calls his persecuted church ‘aliens and exiles’: they live under colonial rule, their neighbours a source of danger or betrayal, yet they find another homeland in which they live ‘as free people’ (2:16). This is the citizenship of heaven that makes survival possible, even rich, in an earthly realm where endurance is the only daily lot.
11 Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. 12Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. 19For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.