When Paul Corrected Peter

Peter and Paul, depicted in a 4th century etching.
Saints Peter and Paul, from an etching in a catacombe.
Saints Peter and Paul, from an etching in a catacombe.

Some time ago, I was looking through photos from a family wedding: sweet photos of bouquets, a daughter hugging her father, a family gathered around a kitchen table as they prepared for the celebration. And then something caught my eye in the background of a photo where the daughter and parents sat, smiling and conversing: “TRUMP 2016.” The large magnet dominated the refrigerator door where it sat, a bold blue with red stars around the border. I paused for a moment. The wedding had taken place a few months before the election. Certainly, it hadn’t occurred to anyone to clear the fridge — and why should they? Part of the charm of the photos was that they took place in the bride’s childhood home. Still, a part of me was startled. The magnet was a reminder of things unspoken, of divisions within my family that have long seemed unbridgeable.

I sighed in resignation and moved onto the next photo.

I have never known how to have conversations about race with those close to me — especially those who deny the existence of racism, or at least the pervasiveness of its effects. But as the need for that conversation becomes increasingly more urgent, I am reminded of the importance of speaking truth, and holding fellow Christians to a level of accountability. And for this, I want to make it clear that I, as a white woman, am speaking very specifically about engaging in conversations about race with other white people. This is an essential task in the work for racial justice, one that activists have been telling white people to do for a while. It is a way to levy the privilege our skin color offers, for what might be called “filial correction,” or sometimes “fraternal correction.”

That (admittedly androcentric) term, filial correction, has frequently been misused and abused in church history. Still,  I think it is important to remember that the history of the Church is one of oft-contentious argument. It took hundreds of years to reach a consensus on some of the most foundational parts of our faith: things as important as the incarnation weren’t “settled” (and in many ways remain “unsettled”) until Chalcedon in 451CE. And none of these arguments were debate for the sake of debate; they were not merely about “playing devil’s advocate,” or a principled “free speech” that was also free of ethics.  They were arguments in search of genuine truth in both creed and practice.

We see the intertwining of faith and action in the “incident at Antioch,” or when Paul corrected Peter:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:11-14).

What makes this story of Peter and Paul so apropos is precisely the long history of their relationship. Paul’s correction must be placed in the context of the racially-charged debates about Gentiles in Acts of the Apostles. This early argument among the disciples concerned whether people from outside the Jewish faith needed to be circumcised in order to be members of the burgeoning Christian community. In Acts, Peter eventually made the authoritative decision:

After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:7-9).

This is important background, because when we come to Galatians, we must remember that Paul is calling Peter to accountability for his own principles. Peter, like many a white liberal, declared the Gospel to be “colorblind;” and then (like many a white liberal) he refused to eat with the uncircumcised (to integrate their schools, to house refugees, to support pathways to citizenship). Peter needed the reminder that  his right words also called for right actions.

Much of what upholds white privilege and racism in our society today is the result of people who cannot see a disconnect between their stated beliefs in human dignity, or equality, and their everyday actions. There are dangerous groups that boldly claim their eugenicist, white supremacist goals (and we cannot ignore them), but most racism is quotidian and unreflective. By this, I  mean people with TRUMP 2016 magnets (but, “only because they liked his economic policies”), or “colorblind” white liberals, or any other variation of those who do not recognize the ways that race and privilege are intertwined. We must hold them accountable not only for the sake of solidarity and justice, but because speaking truth to those we love is a part of the task of discipleship.

That being said, when we make the choice to speak to our friends and family, it is not necessarily because we expect it to be effective. NPR’s “Code Switch” ran a story not long ago on precisely this topic. In that story, Gene Demby rightfully noted:

You have to go in with realistic, honest understandings of what your expectations are. Are you trying to have a conversation with your mom and your dad in which you want to change their worldview? That’s not realistic. If you want them to understand where you’re coming from, that’s a long process. You’re not going to resolve that in one conversation…the reason you confront your family members about their views, if you think they’re bigoted views, is not because you want to change their minds, so much as to establish that they can’t say those things without some kind of push-back. You’re pushing back on things your uncle says so that your nieces and nephews understand that those views will be met with some push-back. So even if they don’t change their minds, they have to consider whether those views are worth saying.

We may hope for a change in our loved ones, but we must know that we cannot force it. We speak to them because they are included in the obligation to love our neighbors, but that is a love that must be willing to stand strong on the side of justice — justice in word and deed — even when our loved ones do not stand with us.

Nonetheless, the thought of engaging in a conversation about race  can be a daunting task. So, I want to offer a significant caveat to the argument of this post: talking about race with other white people requires a generally positive relationship. It cannot start from a place of superiority: neither person in the conversation will be free of either stick or mote in their eye when it comes to race. Moreover, there is a difference between starting this conversation without expectation of conversion, and starting a conversation where you may fear belittling, escalation, or verbal abuse. If you cannot discuss these difficult things with a given friend or family member without fear, then that may not be the best form for your advocacy to take.

I want to conclude exhortation in this post with some concrete best practices for how to have conversations about race; thankfully, that work has been already been done by people far more experienced in racial advocacy than I. For suggestions, see the aforementioned Code Switch on NPR, plus this article by the Seattle Globalist for some concrete suggestions.  There are also educational resources through various activist collectives, like Black Lives Matter. And Daily Theology itself offers posts like this and this for white teachers of theology to consider when trying to navigate conversations about race. It may seem like a Sisyphean task — but Peter did listen. May we find hope for these hard conversations in that.