Since Peter’s audience is about to face persecution, he tells them how they are to respond to attacks on their faith. Most scholars think that the kind of persecution that Christians faced in Asia Minor in the middle first century was the sort of insult and malicious character attacks that typically occurred in the Roman world (Jobes, 1 Peter 216; Elliott, 1 Peter, 607).
In order to build one’s own honor, it was sometimes necessary to attack an opponent in order to reduce their honor (i.e., to shame them). This is not unlike modern politics, where an opponent is often attacked publicly in order to “hurt them politically,” but it went far beyond that. In modern political cartoons some characteristic of the politician is over-emphasized (think of cartoons featuring political figures).
Peter’s command to not reply to insults with insults is therefore socially disruptive. The Christian community does not retaliate with the sort of verbal assaults common in the society. Just as Jesus was silent, Peter said in 2:23, so too ought the Christian is not to pay back evil for evil.
Rather than reviling opponents, Peter tells his readers they are to bless those who attack them. Followers of Jesus are to be like Jesus and do good toward those who attack them, rather than follow the culture and seek revenge. This non-retaliation is exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:27-26, Matt 5:43-47, “love your enemies,” Matt 5:38-42, “turn the other cheek,” etc.). Paul teaches virtually the same thing in Romans 12:14, 17-21.
The real challenge is actually doing what Jesus, Peter and Paul all say that we ought not do. Not retaliating when we are attacked is difficult, but to actually do something that blesses our accusers is culturally shocking.
Christians sometimes reduce this “blessing” to prayer. When we face persecution we pray for our enemy so that we can “heap burning coals on their head.” If you are praying to harm your enemy, you are not at all catching the spirit of this command, and are engaging in some sort of curse-prayer that seems inappropriate to Christians.
But Peter is not talking to political candidates, but the church. How should Christians respond to someone who is attacking their faith? In America, the some Christians immediately go on the offensive against their alleged persecutors, claiming a a “war of Christmas” or using the Martin Luther Insult Generator to vilify them. Setting aside the question of whether this is real persecution or not, is this a proper response?
How can we “bless those who persecute” in a tangible way?