Breaking the Trauma Triangle by Changing Ideas of Honor, Humility, and Agency
Or, The Emotions of Peter and the Passion of Christ (part 1 of 4)
Peter didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet.
It was a matter of honor.
A matter of pride.
But like many of us, Peter was stuck in the Trauma Triangle, desiring to be the Honorable Hero (the “Rescuer”). And Jesus is calling us to break out by changing our ideas of honor, humility, and agency.
First, we briefly look at the text
Then, we talk about honor and pride.
And end by looking at the Trauma Triangle
Text: John 13: 1-17
During the Last Supper, Jesus sets an example for loving each other by washing their feet (John 13:14, 34-35).
But when Jesus got to Peter, Peter asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” and says, “You will never wash my feet!”
Why didn’t Peter want Jesus to wash his feet?
Pride and Honor in Emotional Context
Usually, pride is viewed negatively within Christianity.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Peter was undoubtedly proud to be one of the 12 disciples. Proud of the work they had been doing with Jesus. And above all, proud to be associated with Jesus and all that meant.
And pride, as a social emotion, brings us to honor.
Honor is a social and relational concept.
You cannot gain or lose honor alone. Only in the context of a group holding similar communal values and codes of behavior.
When I embody those communal values by following the codes of behavior, I bring honor to myself and to my group (my tribe).
When I fail to embody the values of my community by violating codes of behavior, I bring dishonor to myself and my group (my tribe).
When I bring honor to myself and my group, I feel pride.
When I bring dishonor to myself and my group, I feel shame.
Pride and Honor in the Emotions of Peter
Back to our text: Why didn’t Peter want Jesus, the Lord, to wash his feet?
For Peter, Jesus is the Lord, the Leader, the Boss.
This means—in an honor culture that Jesus and Peter lived in—that…
Jesus should receive honor as Lord.
Jesus receives honor when his followers give him honor as Lord.
When Jesus receives honor, by extension, Peter receives honor (for being in Jesus’ group and being the leader of the group).
Therefore, as a follower of Jesus and the leader of Jesus’ group, Peter is careful 1) to give honor to Jesus and 2) to protect the honor of Jesus.
But washing feet brings dishonor.
It is the work of servants and slaves.
Therefore, in Peter’s mind and emotions (his threatened honor and wounded pride),
Jesus is bringing dishonor to himself by washing the disciples’ feet.
Jesus is also bringing dishonor to his disciples by washing their feet.
And Peter is bringing dishonor to his group by allowing his Jesus to dishonor himself by washing their feet.
And Peter is bringing dishonor to himself by not enforcing the communal codes of behavior which dictate that the “Lord” should not wash feet.
So Peter is trying to manage the emotions of communal and personal pride and shame in the face of Jesus publicly dishonoring himself.
But that’s not all.
The Rescuer Caught in the Trauma Triangle
It is easy to imagine that Peter, like everyone else, was traumatized by Roman rule in Israel.
And everyone hoped for the day someone would come along and free them from this oppression.
And Peter—probably along with most of the disciples—thought that Jesus was going to be the kind of Messiah who would start the revolution to free Israel.
Peter wanted to be this kind of Hero.
Peter wanted to be the Rescuer.
In the Trauma Triangle there are the roles of Rescuer, Victim, and Persecutor. And a person can cycle through all the roles.
Overly helpful on behalf of others
Likes to be needed and in control
Helpless and needy
Downtrodden and blaming
“Poor me” syndrome
Aggressive and judgmental
Demanding and bullying
Open and hidden anger
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Peter, the Rescuer, Protecting the Honor of Jesus
Why did Peter refuse to have his feet washed?
Because, in the short-term, Peter was being the Rescuer who needed to protect the honor of Jesus (and the honor of the group) from Jesus’ misguided service of washing feet.
And, long-term, Peter viewed himself as the honorable leader of the group following Jesus, which was going to Heroic Rescuers of Israel (the Victim) against from Rome (the Persecutor).
And to do that work as the Rescuer he occasionally has to slip into the role of Persecutor, telling Jesus to not wash his feet (John 13:8), and by rebuking Jesus for talking about his suffering and death (Mark 8:31-34) (and of course Jesus called Peter “Satan”, but Peter didn’t seem to get the memo).
And of course Peter will later play the role of Victim when he denies Jesus (which we will talk about in part 3 of this series).
The New Honor of Humble Service
But Jesus is showing Peter a way out of the Trauma Triangle.
Jesus is showing Peter a way out of self-protective (self-loving) ways of living (disguised as other-love in the form of rescuing victims).
Peter—and all the disciples, and all of us—needed to break out of being the Heroic Rescuer who defends Honor.
And to do this, Jesus gives them the example of humber service as the expression of love (John 13:14-15, 34-35).
Jesus is changing the communal values (of what constitutes honor) and changing the codes of behavior (expressing honor through humility).
Of course when we take up these values and behaviors and follow Jesus, it might start off feeling like carrying a cross of death (Mark 8:34), but it ends with the abundance of life (John 10:10).
Humble Service Doesn’t Make Us Agentless Victims
When we are trapped in the Trauma Triangle it can feel like following Jesus’ example of humble service is just another step as the Victim submitting to circumstances and further trauma from the Persecutors.
But this is not how Jesus sees himself.
He is not a victim because he has full agency, even in his perceived humility (much more could be said about this).
But here are two passages:
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. (John 10:16-18)
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (Phil. 3:6-7)
Of course, like Peter, we can’t understand the faith, the hope, and the love expressed in passages like this (or the connections between agency and service) until after Jesus’ resurrection.
But we have to make it through 3 more posts until we get there.
Next will post will cover how Peter avoided his emotions by falling asleep in the garden.
Series: The Emotions of Peter and the Passion of Christ (in 4 parts)