So here was my conundrum, coming into this Sunday. The “Get behind me, Satan” story is only half of a story–the other half is Peter figuring out that Jesus is the Messiah, and to my mind, you actually need both for it to make sense. Also, I felt like most of the national conversation had been taken up by two things: the awesome high school students in Florida who are pushing for gun control in the wake of surviving another shooting, and the nearly-daily march of indictments coming from the Special Counsel. Neither one jumped out and suggested itself to me as a good match for Peter’s flub here–though, in a way, they both seemed to fit.
So I decided to go slightly meta, and talk about the just-world fallacy. Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 25, 2018
Lent 2, Year B
I was listening to NPR a few months ago, as is required of all Episcopal clergy. In a story about the rapid growth of the #MeToo movement, the reporter mentioned something called the Just World Fallacy.
The Just World Fallacy is an idea from psychology. Basically, it’s the persistent belief shared by nearly all humans to some degree that the world is a just place, and people fundamentally get what they deserve. Good people are rewarded with good things, and bad people are punished. We hear echoes of it all the time. So, when someone says, “What goes around, comes around” they’re echoing this idea. When Job’s friends tell him he must have done something to provoke God’s wrath and judgment, they’re tapping into this. All of us do it, to some extent.
The problem is–it’s not true. Good people suffer irrational tragedies all the time, and people who lie, cheat, and steal get away with stuff. And when we hold onto the fallacy too tightly, we end up denigrating people who suffer, by insinuating that they might have done something to deserve it. Sometimes, the just world fallacy comes out as victim-blaming. Or victim-silencing. If I cannot believe in a world where harassment and assault are so widespread, because the world is just, so what you say happened to you cannot possibly be true.
The just-world fallacy is hard to kill, and it creeps in to every crack and crevice of our brains. Because it’s comforting, to think that the world is understandable, and somewhat controllable. If I believe there are rules the world runs by, then I can avoid suffering, and if not, then at least know why it happened.
So think of that, as we read this gospel passage. Peter is the patron saint of speaking his mind, as we’ve established. And so he says what everyone is thinking–Lord, this awful death can never happen to you. You can’t be powerless, you can’t be hurt, you can’t be weak. That’s not the way the Messiah behaves. The world is just, so the Messiah cannot die.
Jesus rebukes him. Get behind me, Satan. Your mind is on the things of earth, and not the things of heaven.
Because sure, that isn’t what would happen in a just world. A just and fair world doesn’t kill the Son of God at the hands of the empire. A righteous world doesn’t let the innocent suffer, the poor be oppressed and the weak starve. But then again, a just world doesn’t need a Messiah. And this isn’t a just world.
But what’s fascinating about this interchange is the lengths Peter is willing to go to to hold onto his vision of the world as a whole place. He’s working so hard to still believe in the world as essentially fair, that he ends up calling Jesus–Jesus! Whom he just proclaimed as God Incarnate–wrong, and incorrect. Peter so wants his world to stay right, that he calls Jesus wrong.
We want, so badly, to be comfortable and at home in this world that we bend what we know God wants from us to fit what the world wants of us. Less discomfort that way. Less upset. Less confrontation with the world’s brokenness. We bend God to fit into the world as it is, because that feels easier in the moment than the alternative.
Peter is angry because he doesn’t want to confront the sorrow and pain of losing his friend. We don’t want to believe that the world is so broken, so out of step with what God wants, because that is a hard thing to face Who can live in a world so unjust? So full of chaos?
And so, he tells Jesus that, no, the Messiah can’t die. He wants Jesus to fit into the way the world works.
So often, we want Jesus to conform to the routine of the world that we know. The power structures we are familiar with. The Messiah that wields power like an earthly king–because that’s easier to deal with than rather than the suffering savior who dies in an unjust system to call out the injustice.
We want the Christian life to respond to those same rhythms, to confirm our just world beliefs–sometimes so much so that we occasionally just stamp a cross on the status quo and call it good. In ancient times, we’d say: Is one guy in power? God must have done it, because this is a just world! And now the emperor is an instrument of God, and we had the divine right of kings. Later on in history, we’d ask: Did we win that war? God must have wanted to give us that land. And now God is tasked with distributing land to victorious armies–and a whole lot of suffering to the losers.
And nowadays, there are people asking: Are there more guns in America than any country outside of a warzone? Then owning a gun must be a person’s God-given right. And now we have saddled God with unspeakable tragedies.
The problem is–none of these things actually have much to do with God–they have to do with us–and when we lean too far into the just world theory, it leads us into some frightening and deadly places.
When you go back and read scripture, you discover that God doesn’t install kings. (God was pretty against Saul, if you recall in the Old Testament.) God doesn’t distribute land (again, private ownership of land is not a concept God is a fan of in Leviticus and Deuteronomy–land is supposed to revert back to the original owner after 7 years.) And God really doesn’t distribute weapons of war. Jesus had some hard words for Peter once he starts waving a sword around in Gethsemane.
That is not a thing God does. Once God creates the world, calls it good, and sets us loose in it, God really doesn’t spend much time congratulating us for what we’ve done, so much as God keeps trying to get us to do things better, and differently. The constant theme through Scripture is that the world is not, in fact, as it should be. Lots of things are going wrong, and God wants us to fix it with God’s help. God wants us to try again.
But before we can do that, we first have to recognize that the way things are is not the way things should be. This is not a just world. This is not the world as God intended. God did not intend for parents to send their children off to school and never see them again. God did not intend for children to beg politicians for their right to live without fear. God did not want for teachers to have to worry about somehow teaching students and also keeping them alive. God did not intend for us to live like this–because God did not intend for anyone to live like this.
The task before us is to recognize that this is not the world God wants, and work with God to transform it. When Jesus asks us to pick up our cross, he is asking us to acknowledge the current brokenness of the world and not turn away. But the good news here is that Christ has already begun carrying this cross. Christ has already begun to set the world aright. And all we have to do is join in. Christ stands right beside us, asking for our help, asking for our hands, in the effort to fix a broken world and we just have to acknowledge the problem in the first place.
So the question before us is: will we help?