Jason Byassee: Get behind me, Satan

Leading like Jesus requires a willingness to enter into the suffering of others in the body of Christ.

A recent Sunday was one of those that keep me from envying the jobs of my preacher friends. There’s Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, calling Peter “Satan” and telling him to “get behind me.” That text got me in trouble when I was preaching every Sunday. It came up in the lectionary as we were about to attack Iraq in 2003. I couldn’t help it -- Jesus made me do it -- I told them that a vision of power that involves violence, rather than suffering, is satanic. The reverb from that sermon involved a call to my superior. Not good. I blamed Jesus.

What is going on in Mark 8:31-38? Jesus asks about the gossip on him, and Peter makes a stunningly clear confession of faith. But instead of getting praised, Peter gets rebuked as “Satan” for saying Jesus shouldn’t plan to be rejected, suffer and die. Here Jesus uses the word “Satan” in an older sense than the more common understanding, that is, the being who runs hell, directing a legion of angels. Etymologically a “satan” meant an accuser -- one who looks at us without mercy, only with judgment, and tries to evoke despair. Here the accuser is trying to get the messiah to avoid the road of suffering. Such avoidance would be, quite literally, satanic.

What I love about Jesus’ rebuke is that, unlike the accuser’s, it includes mercy. “Get behind me,” he says. And where else should a follower of Jesus be, but right behind Jesus? Peter’s mistake is that he is out in front, trying to lead. “No, no, no, Jesus, come with me this way -- the way to power is not through suffering.” Jesus, as fully human as he is divine, is indeed tempted by this way without suffering, as he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan (Mark 1:12-13). So his rebuke is harsh and swift: No Peter, I lead, you follow.

Peter eventually got the message of course. Even in the Gospels it is forecast how Peter will die. He will “stretch out his hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18-19). By the time Jesus rises and the Spirit descends on his followers, they will get it. They follow. They don’t lead. Jesus does. And the way he treads is often the way of suffering. Peter figures this out so well later that, according to Christian tradition, he ends up crucified himself. But he declares himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord, so he asks to be crucified upside-down. The cruel Romans are happy to comply with a wish that will make death even more painful and humiliating.

It is not always the case that following Jesus includes suffering. It does often enough in some parts of the world today but not in most places where readers of this blog are sitting. Still, we must sometimes be rebuked by Jesus and reminded that he leads, we follow, rather than the reverse. Even if our following does not exact the high cost that Christians elsewhere pay daily, we still need to remember that suffering may wait just beyond the horizon if we lead faithfully in our own ministries.

A colleague and I were once discussing Nelson Mandela’s great leadership. I said that his suffering during decades of imprisonment on Robben Island helped prepare him to lead with compassion. My friend demurred, not wanting to sentimentalize suffering. “Suffering often hardens people, makes them bitter, and so ruins their ability to have compassion on others,” he said.

So how should a leader relate to suffering -- especially a leader who has not suffered? “She relates to her followers’ suffering via the sufferings of Christ,” he said wisely. Even if someone has not suffered herself, she is part of the body of Christ which still suffers today and ever bears the wounds of its suffering through time. As part of that body she can enter into the suffering of sisters and brothers, learn from that suffering, and have compassion (literally: suffering with) on others who have been so treated.

It is a strange sort of leader we Christians follow, who leads us on the way to a painful death. Even if our following does not lead to that end, we are part of a body for whose members it often does. So we can relate to others whose experiences differ vastly. It just might be that being part of the body of Christ helps us to lead with more open hearts and more imaginative sympathy with those who follow after us.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.