A common refrain today among American Christians, in particular those who are politically conservative, is a woeful lament about the state of our country. A relatively recent addition to this lament is the idea that we will endure the New Testament promises of suffering for our faith soon. While when we may face such hardships is still uncertain—let us pray that the day of persecution tarries—there is no if we will suffer. These promises are found multiple places in the New Testament. See Matthew 5:10-12, John 16:2, and 2 Timothy 3:12 for just a sampling.
As Christians grapple with the prospect of persecution, they each naturally wonder: “will I be faithful?” Out of the canon of twentieth century dystopian literature, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four speaks most luridly to man’s desire to remain faithful under pressure (read torture) and what happens when man fails in the endeavor.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is an outer member of “the Party”, led by the mysterious and ubiquitous “Big Brother.” The Party controls “Air Strip One” (formerly known as Great Britain), the province of the totalitarian state to which Winston belongs. As an outer member, he is seemingly better off than “the proles” (think everyone not upper middle-class or better) who have no political status and whose state-enforced delusion and naiveté allows the Party to control them. However, lacking status as an inner member of the Party, Winston does not himself have personal autonomy or political enfranchisement. He can only claim superiority to the proles in the beginning of the book because he knows there is a grand conspiracy, though he cannot affect it. Winston works at the ironically named “Ministry of Truth.” There his job is to fabricate news articles from the past, to better serve the present Party narrative. But Winston recognizes something is amiss—that truth and metaphysical realities will persist. He has a firm though irreligious conviction that despite the Party’s insistence otherwise, the state cannot make two and two equal five. He and his love interest, Julia, share a dream to join the secretive resistance and eventually overthrow the Party. Nearly a third of the book is dedicated to their forbidden romance fueled by the shared intimacy of being co-conspirators against Big Brother and the Party.
The couple is eventually caught and taken to the “Ministry of Love” for torture and re-education. While desiring to be strong and courageous Winston quickly succumbs to naming names and providing intelligence. The chief interrogator/torturer/re-educator is the cruel but brilliant O’Brien. He ingeniously breaks Winston down as part of a regimen designed to build back better. Winston is brutally beaten, subjected to sleep deprivation, electro-shocked, and starved. Every recess of Winston’s person is converted, from his body to his mind. The emotional and psychological torture yield the fruit of a pliable mind willing to accept that two and two do in fact equal five. Yet Winston holds on to the hope that he can protect a sliver of his heart to be faithful to the resistance—that before the Party finally kills his body he can revert to the heretical mindsight of being on the side of truth, even if it is only one mere rebellious thought. The consummation of Winston’s time at the Ministry of Truth is his visit to the dreaded Room 101. There, Winston is bound and a cage is brought within inches of his face. The cage contains his worst nightmare—known by the all-seeing Party— a pair of rabid, frenzied, snarling rats. As O’Brien threatens to release the rats to eat off Winston’s face, the protagonist loses his remaining dignity, crying out like a boy: “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!” O’Brien relented. The education was complete.
Winston is released after his episode in Room 101. He eventually runs into Julia in the street. He approaches her and pulls her close, just to see if his heart would stir. There was no feeling. His failure had undone his desire. The training was complete. Both admitted that they betrayed the other. The book finishes with Winston a hollow man. A ghost whose affection is solely dedicated to the enigmatic Big Brother. Orwell’s picture is grim. Yet, the New Testament offers another possibility.
Similar to Winston, the Apostle Peter desired to remain faithful to his cause, and to the Object of his love (the leader of that cause). He famously declared “Though they all fall away because of you [Jesus], I will never fall away.” Matthew 26:33. Like Winston, Peter was motivated to be a part of a resistance, and stridently confident about his ability to stay courageous under fire. Reality proved rougher on him. Mere hours after his bold promise that he would never fall away, Peter was faced with his own Room 101, yet the tools of terror seemingly paled in comparison to those facing the fictious Winston Smith. In place of rats, Peter was threatened with being rejected from the Jewish establishment because of his association with the radical Rabbi being falsely tried. The interrogators were no match for Orwell’s brilliant O’Brien but instead were idling servant girls and a bystander. When asked by them if he claimed Jesus, Peter cried out “I do not know the man”—reject him, not me, him!— I don’t care what you do to [him]. Tear [his] face off, strip [him] to the bones. Not me! [Jesus]!
Unlike Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the betrayed Object of Peter’s love was disfigured as the crown of thorns ripped into his head and face. He was flogged, likely penetrating the flesh to the bone. Unlike Julia, he was executed by his captors. And unlike Julia, he continued to love Peter.
No stronger grounds exist to dissolve a relationship than those of betrayal. Julia was justified in her rejection of Winston. Jesus would have been too. But therein lies the key. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8. This truth penetrated Peter to the core. That despite his unfaithfulness, Christ remained faithful. Despite Peter’s cowardice, Jesus conquered. Winston turned out to be justified in his betrayal of Julia. She was unworthy. She outed Winston as quickly (if not quicker) than he outed her. Yet the Object of Peter’s love remained faithful.
Winston’s story ends sadly. Having his body and spirit broken, the book ends with him giving over his heart, soul, and mind to Big Brother. But what would have happened had he been unfaithful yet he found that Julia was faithful? We will never know. Orwell had no concept for such. Peter’s story ended differently. He betrayed. He wept bitterly. Yet he found out “if we are faithless, he remains faithful. For he cannot deny himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13. The Object of his love remained faithful despite Peter’s unfaithfulness. “He could love me after that?… He did love me after that?” This unmerited, incomprehensible, irresistible love and forgiveness changed Peter’s heart.
According to church tradition, Peter would get another shot in Room 101 and this time he was no feather tossed by the wind. He was a rock. Reject Jesus this time?— He [Jesus] remain[ed] faithful when Peter was at his worst—I don’t think so. Peter was put to death for claiming Jesus under the Roman emperor Nero. He died a lover’s death on a cross – upside down, since he was unworthy to die as his Master.
Steven Pressfield in Gates of Fire, his telling of the legend of the three hundred Spartan knights at Thermopylae, uses his narrative to postulate on fear and its opposite and antidote. As the knights anxiously awaited their numerous Persian adversaries, Pressfield’s hero, Dienekes, consummates his book long colloquy with his shield bearer on the nature of fear by concluding: “The opposite of fear… is love.” For a warrior, the line was no trite trope (Pressfield himself was a Marine). It was an appreciation that the purest motivation behind risking life and limb for a friend is that of love. All three hundred Spartan knights laid down their lives for each other and for their home.
Peter learned that we truly “love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19. And he was willing to then die for his Lord. No doubt, today, we strive to be strong in all metaphorical Room 101s thrust upon us. We aim not to fail. But if the pressure grows in our culture and the Rooms become darker and we stumble in our faithfulness…we can rise, our eyes set not only on the prize set before us, but on He who remained faithful. And His love and forgiveness will transform us to be able to face the rats.