Peter the Spy: Imitatio Christi Versus Imitatio Mundi

Every year during Holy Week, we re-encounter the characters of the Passion narrative: the women weeping on the via Crucis, Judas and his 30 pieces of silver, Pontius Pilate with his deep concern with clean hands, soldiers rolling dice for a ragged robe, the good thief asking only to be remembered. Each year, as we watch the story play out, we watch Peter denying Jesus three times before the cock crows. I want to spend a little time with the Peter of Holy Week because I think he has something to teach us about imitating Jesus instead of the world.

Augustine in Sermon 296, speaks of Peter as “Blessed Peter, both lover and repudiator of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter is so hapless—a ragtag believer—who one moment is walking on water and the next drowning, one moment being called the Rock of the Church and the next being called Satan. Peter’s vacillation does not end after the Pentecost. Paul goes to Peter after his conversion for guidance; Paul also goes to Peter to critique him to his face for faltering in bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. Peter, the lover and repentant repudiator, is the Peter who gives me hope and guidance.

For I too am a lover and repudiator of Jesus. I hear the Gospel message of love and thirty minutes later I flip someone off. I so often go wrong and end up like Peter in the garden and courtyard because I respond to the world by imitating the way the world works. If we spend some time with Peter on the via crucis, we might learn about the ways we repudiate Jesus by falling in with the crowd and their ways. I hope in spending time with Peter—in the garden, in the courtyard, and at breakfast with the Risen Christ—to learn from his false virtues and so discover how to be an imitator of Jesus who takes up his methods of peace, healing, and mercy.

The “Cowardice” of Peter

A standard take on Peter’s three denials is that they were motivated by cowardice. He was too afraid to testify that he was a follower of Jesus. For instance, Augustine wisely sees that Peter’s flaw was his over-promising. “He promised he would die for Him, and he wasn’t even able to die with Him; he had staked more . . . than his credit could stand.” Peter thought he could depend on himself, which for Augustine is the original human sin. However, Augustine thinks that this over-promising is undermined by fear. “That was why he was afraid and denied Christ.” Augustine is my guide for most matters in life but seeing Peter as motivated by fear just seems wrong. If his denials were based in fear, why not leave after the first one?

It is tempting to think of Peter as a coward. The reader of the Gospel can think of Peter’s cowardice while positing their own likely courage. Rene Girard, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, sees exactly this desire at work in our interpretations of Peter. By looking at Peter as an individual failure, we tend to think that “in Peter’s place we would have responded differently; we would not have denied Jesus.”

This tendency is grounded in a false sense—held by Peter and by us—that we can, by ourselves, achieve independence from the crowd and so not be drawn into the ways of the world. The tendency is what leads us to see Peter as a coward and so fail to see that it is Peter’s “virtue” that leads him to betray Christ. Centering our reflection on personal morality, we see cowardice rather than the glittering vice of self-sufficient courage. We cannot see that Peter’s failing is relying on himself and so falling into a pattern of imitating the world.

If Peter was a coward, he was certainly an odd one. We can see this if we move back and forth between the garden and the courtyard. To watch the drama of Peter is to find not cowardice, but misplaced courage, a misunderstanding of Jesus’s methods, and a preference for the worldly methods of coercion and deception. Peter accidentally teaches us how easy it is to repudiate Christ just when we think we are upholding him.

To see this, let us rewind a little and watch what plays out in the garden at Gethsemane. In each of the four Gospels, we find a depiction of the seizure of Jesus. In Matthew it is a “large crowd with sword and clubs” (26:47) and in John it is a “band of soldiers and guards” who are armed and carrying torches (18:3). Peter, faced with a group of angry armed men, grabs a sword and attacks. Pause and imagine the scene. We see twelve men, with no military training, faced by a large armed crowd, many of them soldiers. Peter, the coward, grabs his sword and attacks. Mind you, he is a fisherman. Fisherman are a tough lot and I would not want to tussle with one in a bar. But they tend not to be trained in combat with a sword, whether in Gloucester MA., or Galilee of the Gentiles. It takes moxie to grab a sword and attack a large crowd of armed men. Is this Peter the coward?

Where does this Peter even come from? The peasant fisherman following around the Prince of Peace is suddenly transformed into a sword bearing brigand? Rene Girard argues that it is in this moment that Peter is “the most spectacular example of mimetic contagion.” A man, who up to now in the Gospels, has mostly either listened to the teaching of Jesus or gone fishing has been seized not by the throng but by their ethos of violence and so succumbs “to the violent contagion that does not spare any of the witnesses of the passion.” Facing the violence of the crowd he is consumed by the violence of the crowd. He is no coward in the garden; he is as courageous as the violent mob that he imitates.

If Peter is no coward in the garden, then why do we find him slinking around after Jesus? Let us fast-forward back to the courtyard. After his bravado with the sword, is this his moment of cowardice? Consider the scene. Having committed an act of violence against the High Priest’s slave, he follows Jesus to the courtyard of the High Priest. Surrounded by guards and other servants of the High Priest, he has gone to the place of greatest possible danger to him. Cowards cut and run; they hide; they avoid the place of danger. After bravely facing a mob by imitating the methods of the mob, Peter continues to brave danger in the courtyard.

So, what is Peter doing there in the courtyard as Jesus is scourged within? After Peter had sworn he would not abandon Jesus and after Jesus has told him he would deny him three times, Peter proceeds to deny Jesus three times. While the stress was high, but it seems unlikely Peter forgot what Jesus told him. Rather, we should imagine Peter following along and thinking: “No Jesus, I will not abandon you, I will not deny you. I will save you.” And then he denies Jesus. One explanation is that he’s a coward, but this doesn’t fit the bravery of his going to the courtyard. No, I think that each time Peter said he did not know that man, he did not think he was denying Christ.

How can denials not be denials? Let us return to Peter’s first courageous act. We need to see what was wrong about his courage. Peter takes up the sword to defend his Lord and his companions. This is notably what many of us would think Peter should do. When the violent attack, should we not counter-attack? This is precisely the kind of mimesis that Girard critiques and that Jesus wholly refuses. Girard writes that “rather than inflicting violence on others, Christ submits to it . . . Christ does not achieve his victory by violence. He obtains it through a renunciation of violence.” Peter caught up in the crowd cannot but see its metric for victory, to strike the other so the other cannot strike you.

How does Jesus react to Peter following the crowd? In each Gospel, Jesus rejects the sword. In Matthew, Christ says “Put your sword back, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:52). In Mark, Christ rebukes everyone for carrying weapons and at this the Apostles “left him and fled” (14:50). In Luke, Jesus shouts “Stop no more of this!” (22:51). In John, Jesus says, “Put your sword in your scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” (18:11). The message is clear: Christ is not to be defended with the sword. Faced with violence, Jesus forbids violence. He could lead an army of angels, but he rejects this too. Jesus could imitate the crowd’s violence and overwhelm it with infinite force. But instead of swords and armies, Jesus heals his enemy. Peter, having courageously taken up the option of violence, is told to put the sword down and take up the way of peace. If the crowd brings violence, we must not imitate it but truly reverse it by offering back to the crowd the healing of Christ.

Imagine Peter standing there, abashed at having once again misunderstood the Christ. Peter, having heard Jesus preach, fails to live out that preaching. Christ, in rejecting the sword, has rejected the way of the world. It is the logic of the world that meets weapon with weapon; it is the absurdity of the Cross that meets weapons with love. But Peter still does not get that to turn the other cheek is not pleasant aspiration but a command. After the garden, he puts down the sword to take up other methods of the world: intrigue, deception, and obfuscation. No longer the wannabe solider, Peter is now a wannabe spy.

What is he doing in the courtyard? He is doing opposition-research: trying to figure out how to spring Jesus in order to get the revolt going and make Jesus the great king. During Holy Week we speak of “Spy Wednesday” because of Judas’s treachery, but Peter is a spy too. When he takes up the sword, he neglects Jesus’s teachings about peace. He thinks he is the great follower of Jesus in this moment. In the courtyard, he still thinks this. If he cannot exalt Jesus by violence, he will do so by intrigue and even treachery. He is lying but he does not think he is denying Christ, since his disavowals are in service of Christ.

It is the crowing of the rooster that convicts Peter. The rooster who crows for the rising sun foreshadows the rising to the Son. God’s victories operate according to a heavenly logic. We should operate according to that logic too. Hearing the rooster, Peter understands Jesus’s prophesy. Luke writes that “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). Just as Jesus rebuked him for the sword, Jesus’s glance now rebukes his intriguing. But note the form of rebuke, a look. Jesus, who could call an army of angels, instead looks at us with love.

Despite his courage and his scheming, Peter had again failed to follow Christ. Trying to save Christ, he betrays Christ. Surrounded by angry and suspicious people, he leaves “weeping bitterly” (Luke 22:62) Peter, the courageous, imitates the world. It is thus in Peter’s cowardice that we find his true moment of grace. Do not emulate his courage, emulate his tears of repentance. Because it is in those tears that Peter stops imitating the crowd. No longer will he strike or deceive. His weeping is the gift of becoming like Christ. What I had always thought was a story of cowardice and courage was no such thing. Courage does not save us, the loving look of Jesus does.

The Methods of Christ: Works of Mercy

The scene in the courtyard is the reminder that we can betray Christ precisely when we think we are upholding him. This happens when we serve the Lord by the methods of the world. Peter in the courtyard tries to deceive and trick in order to advance the cause of Christ. He takes the methods of Roman power as his guide rather than those of the Sermon on the Mount. Like him, we can easily be tempted by activities that we think are following Christ, but are actually betrayals of the Gospel. Can we not imagine Christ looking askance at the crusader or inquisitor when they thought they were upholding the Gospel? The ways of the world are violence and coercion; Christ tells us to put them away. But the ways of the world are also intrigue, politics, ingratiating words, and insulting words. We are to put those away too.

Our interpretation of Peter as suffering from personal failure threatens to reproduce his sin. We keep imitating Peter because we cannot see that he is imitating the persecutors of Christ. As the crowd schemes to find a way to crucify Jesus by making up false accusations, Peter responds by scheming and deceiving. He thinks he can serve Christ by acting like the world. For Rene Girard Peter “proudly believed that he was immunized against all unfaithfulness to Jesus.” So confident in his self-immunization, he thinks he can maintain his faithfulness even as he rejects Jesus’s way of peace. We think that if have the right motivations, we can bring to bear force and intrigue in a loving way. But this is to fail to see that what matters is that we act in a loving way according to the methods of Christ. We should stop imitating the world's methods and imitate the Lord’s.

In contemporary politics, Christians remain attracted to coercion and intrigue because we cannot or will not exit the cycle of mimetic violence, whether actual or rhetorical. Cynthia Haven, in “Rene Girard and this Present Moment,” insists that we are continuing our mimesis of worldly coercion even as we think we reject it. It is this imitation of the world that prevents us from getting out of the dilemmas of violence and civic division. Girard, for Haven, “was unrelenting in his insistence on this [mimetic cycle], and said the only way out of the dilemma is Imitatio Christi, using Jesus as our mimetic model, since Jesus is the only one who points directly to the Father.” Peter had to learn the imitatio Christi to break him out of the cycle of the imitatio mundi.

In our time, so many Christians think that strong-man politics is the way to advance the Gospel. Often, we do this out of fear of the secularizing forces opposed to our churches. These forces are real, but we should not imitate them. Abandoning Christian witness for a “go-for-the-jugular manner” is what Jesus rejected in the garden. We might think that the way to respond to secular forces that threaten the Church is to go ahead and threaten them right back. But the life of a Christian is to imitate Christ who took up the cross not the sword.

Jesus did not imitate the violent; rather, their swords were broken because he responded to them with peace. Abandoning Christian witness to manipulate power in order to “own the libs” while oppressing the refugee and the poor is what Jesus denounced in the courtyard. Returning to a Church working hand-in-glove with the state’s coercive power is another way of doing violence to Christ. We might be thought of as losers when we refuse these methods. But Jesus on the cross and Peter weeping in the courtyard are losers in the eyes of the world which seeks only winning. What matters is not the way the world looks at us, but the way Jesus looks at us.

Ultimately, Peter learns his lesson in a third dramatic scene. After the garden and the courtyard, we find Peter with Jesus at the breakfast table. What does Jesus ask him? Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Peter answers three times: “Yes Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15). Peter had thought that his job was to defend and save Jesus; this hubris led him to his violent act and his duplicitous denials. Peter had to learn that we must love God without thinking we can take care of God. He had to learn to stop imitating the world and start imitating Christ.

Augustine writes of this moment at the breakfast table “What have you got that you can offer God, you clever so-and-so? What can you offer God?” The answer would seem to be nothing. But it cannot be nothing for love seeks to give. If we cannot give, how can we love? Jesus tells Peter: “Feed my sheep . . . Tend my sheep . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Christ asks us to take care of each other, especially the hungry person on food stamps, the imprisoned refugee, the person who has not heard of Christ’s love, and the enemies of Christianity. God does not need anything, but our neighbors do. Augustine preaches that if we really want to give to God, “Just look next to you; in case perhaps what you should do for your neighbor is help him reach God. When you have done it for the least of mine, you have done it for me.” Peter in the garden did not help his enemy with the sword. And in the courtyard, he did not help his neighbor to reach God by his deception. He should have offered a loving hand instead of the sword, truth instead of deception. At breakfast with the risen Lord, he learns that he must offer enemies is healing. When people ask us if we know the Nazarene, we should give them the Gospel using the methods of the Gospel. What we should give to others is bread not intrigue.

The methods of Jesus are not those of the sword and intrigue. The methods of Jesus are the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. Some might think of us as suckers or losers for employing His methods instead of our power politics. But Jesus told Peter “blessed are they when they insult you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:11). Peter learned this lesson even unto his own death. Let us return to that scene in the courtyard where Peter sheds his violence and schemes, his courage and spying. In that courtyard, people probably laughed at the crying Peter, but at this moment Jesus looked with love at Peter and forgave him. The world may laugh, but Jesus loves. That is the lesson of Peter the spy: imitate Jesus, not the world.

Featured Image: Theodoor Rombouts, The Denial of St. Peter, 17th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Honors Program and Humanities Department at Villanova University. His work centers on Augustine but extends to medieval thought, philosophical theology, and political theory.

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