Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time and energy exploring what it means to be an ally. On one hand, as the white father of a black son, I need to understand and embrace these commitments for his sake. On the other hand, as a queer man who is amid very painful discrimination, I know what I want and need from those I love and trust. Because I come at this from the context of my faith as a Christian, something occurred to me lately that has stuck with me. I had been considering examples of allyship in Scripture but kept coming up with examples that were less than compelling. So I put the question aside. Then, something happened: An ally who had been advocating strongly on our behalf backed off when the pressure turned to threats.
I understand why they made this choice and honour their agency to make the choices they feel are best for them. However, it left me feeling devastated and grieved. And in that grief, an example from the Bible came sharply to mind: Peter on the night Jesus was arrested. Let me unpack this a bit.
On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter leaped to Jesus’s defense by drawing his sword and hacking off the ear of one of the men who had come. Now, all things considered, Peter’s response makes sense. He believed (rightly) that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised saviour and legitimate King of Israel. He responded with a passion that most of us would long for allies to embody.
Yet Jesus stops Peter, saying “Put your sword away!”. Peter made a common mistake many allies make: He behaved as though he knew best. Peter should have looked to Jesus for how he wanted to respond rather than assume that he knew what was best. All too often well-intentioned allies charge ahead in their zeal and do more harm than good. Like with Peter, it is often in the heat of the moment. Peter’s passion and desire to be an ally were good and commendable but in practice caused real harm, both the man he struck and to the non-violent intentions of Christ. Jesus knew the kind of resistance He wanted to practice and Peter rushed passed it in an instant.
Things suddenly shifted for Peter. With Jesus arrested and His followers scattered, Peter found himself largely alone facing what seemed a doomed situation. Jesus stood accused and reviled with little to no support and anyone associated with Him was at risk of a similar fate. And so, when victory seemed impossible and the price seemed too high, Peter denied Christ.
While we do not know what Peter was thinking in those moments, it is not far-fetched to think that he might have justified his choice. After all, what good could he do Jesus or Israel if he was arrested or worse? This wasn’t really his fight. Sure, he believed in it, but Jesus refused to fight. What good would it do to go down with the ship?
All too often, in the face of real sacrifice, allies exercise one of their central privileges: the freedom to opt-out. And it is not like the reasoning has no merit. The goal is not self-destruction. However, far too few allies are willing to remain in faithful solidarity if it means they will pay too high a price.
The things is, Jesus saw it coming. He told Peter he would deny Him. While we often read it as a prophetic prediction, I cannot help but think it was just the hard-earned wisdom of a man who had experienced rejection and abandonment. After all, I have more than once turned to my wife and accurately predicted the withdrawal of ally support. There was no clairvoyance necessary. Just painful experience repeated more often than I like to remember.
The good news is that Peter learned his lesson. He became the kind of ally that Jesus called him to be. After all, in the end, he died for his devotion to the way of Jesus, crucified. And even his request to be crucified upside down demonstrates a recognition of the difference between the sacrifice he was making compared to that of Jesus. And this is, perhaps, the most important lesson for allies to learn: when you fully embrace the self-sacrificial solidarity of a true ally, you still might die in the end.
After all, it’s not about winning. It’s about love.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is Director of Community - Central for Generous Space Ministries , a writer, and the authors of several books, including "Vulnerable Faith", featuring a foreword by Jean Vanier.