He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.–John 21:17
Peter did not understand why his resurrected Lord asked him three times to affirm his love. He thought that the Saviour was chastising him. Christ knew, though, that the man who had denied Him three times on the night of His crucifixion needed to affirm Him three times to atone for his actions.
I often reflect on this story as an example of the depth of Christ’s love. I imagine that the Lord knew that Peter, wracked with guilt over his betrayal, could not forgive himself. In a moment of fear and confusion, he had abandoned the core of his identity and betrayed the person he loved the most. Without his faith in Christ, he was not even Peter. He was Simon, son of Jonas, and nothing particularly special. By giving Simon the opportunity to disavow his rejection of that faith, Christ gave him a way to reclaim his discipleship–a way to become, once again, Peter, the Rock of the Church.
Christ, in effect, gave Peter a do-over. It is something that we all need from time to time. And it is also something that nations need when they stray from the values that make them who they are. The American people have been beautiful and wise at times, but we have also been foolish and ugly. We have, like Peter, betrayed the better angels of our nature and allowed ourselves to give in to the fear and confusion that make us small.
We gave into such a fear 73 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when we allowed more than 100,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry to be stripped of their property and locked away in relocation camps. We were afraid. They looked like the people we were fighting, and we determined that it was better to violate the rights of an entire group than risk the chance that even a few of them would sympathize with our enemy. It was a test of our comittment to our own values, and we flunked.
And now we appear to be starting down the same road again. Presidential candidates who might actually win are openly saying that they will close down mosques, track citizens in a database, and require people of the Muslim faith to carry identification cards. More than half of the nation’s governors, exceeding their Constitutional authority, have declared that their state will not accept Syrian refugees. And our Congress is doing everything it can to force America to abandon its committment to the internatuonal community–and to our own values–to resettle the most desperate victims of the very forces that we are fighting.
Beneath all of the horrors of past few weeks, however, lurks an amazing opportunity: the chance to repudiate our past actions and try again. We can reject those who want to manipulate us through our fears to be our worst selves and summon instead the better angels that define us at our best. Like Peter, we are getting a do-over. A chance to atone. And the conditions of our expiation are exactly the same: we must feed His sheep.