At his trials before the priests and Pilate, Jesus did not say a word in his own defense (Matthew 27:12-13). He refused to answer his accusers. Was this good or bad?
Shouldn’t Jesus have stood up for righteousness on that occasion? On some level, he did, at least in the Gospel of John. When Jesus was slapped for smarting off to the high priest (in his enemies’ eyes), he replied, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23, NRSV). When Pilate was throwing his weight around and talking about all his authority, Jesus told him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:11). Jesus did not totally roll over and play dead on those occasions, for he pointed out wrong practices and attitudes throughout the proceedings. (John doesn’t present Jesus being silent at his trials as much as the synoptics do, but you do see something like that in John 19:9).
So why didn’t Jesus take it a step further and demonstrate his accusers’ factual errors? The answer, of course, is that he wanted to be convicted and sentenced, for his mission was to die for humanity.
But that makes Jesus’ refusal to answer very context-specific. It says that, ordinarily, we should feel free to defend ourselves against our accusers in court, since that’s part of what justice is about. But Jesus didn’t do so because he had a specific mission to die.
In I Peter 2:18-23, however, Jesus’ example is made into an ethical norm: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
Should we just roll over and let people walk all over us, as if God will work everything out? Should we defend ourselves at all? Or is total passivity the ideal Christian response?
Plus, what ramifications does this passage have for spousal abuse? If slaves are supposed to put up with unjust treatment at the hands of their masters, does that mean that wives should stick with husbands who beat them?
One good question is this: “Could a slave have done otherwise in the ancient world?” At DePauw, one professor said in a New Testament class that slaves could take legal action against their abusive masters, and Peter (or, for liberal scholars, “Peter”) was telling them not to do so. Peter may have assumed that the slaves had some power to resist when he told them to do the opposite. After all, why would he give them an exhortation to submit if they had no other choice?
On the other hand, the passage states that Jesus did not abuse or threaten, and one can ask what political power he had as a Jewish subject to challenge the chief priests and Pilate. Being who he was spiritually, he could summon twelve legions of angels to wipe out his enemies (Matthew 26:53). Consequently, Peter may assume that Christ could’ve threatened and abused them had he so desired. But his political power as a Jewish subject was probably limited. Peter may maintain that we should not resist our abusers, even if we have the power to do so. Or he may be saying that, when we are powerless to resist, we should endure our ill-treatment with a good attitude of love and service.
Putting the relevant texts together, we can see a number of facets to how Jesus behaved in the midst of abuse. Jesus submitted to his oppressors out of love, for both his Father and also for humanity. He had a mission that was more important to him than his own personal dignity, and so he submitted to those who abused him. At the same time, according to John, Jesus boldly stood up for righteousness throughout the ordeal, meaning that he wasn’t exactly a door-mat. Jesus brought God–God’s authority, God’s standard, God’s love, God’s righteousness, and God’s truth–into every situation that he encountered, both good and bad. Perhaps that’s why Pilate thought he had to be innocent, even though he refused to answer his accusers’ charges.
I can’t tell anyone how to respond to abuse. Who am I? I’m not a counselor, plus there are so many issues to consider (e.g., personal dignity and happiness, safety, etc.). These are hard verses, and the situations are even harder.
But we can say for certain that Jesus was not a passive door-mat. Even in the midst of abuse, he actively pursued our redemption and stood up for truth before those hurting him.