We are booked on a cruise next August from Istanbul to Athens. The first stop is Ephesus. We will be in or near a lot of the geographical territory that was transversed by the Apostle Paul.
I am one who has always had a difficult time with Paul. Some of his teachings about wives and slaves being submissive and his condemnation of homosexuality are difficult to deal with in the twenty-first century. A book, The First Paul, by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg gave me a whole new appreciation for Paul.
It was only after a retreat with John Dear over ten years ago that I started to get the Good News. Jesus was not some saccharine religious figure who came to offer God a sacrifice for original sin. What God would send his son as a sacrifice for sin?
It is evident that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who died because he opposed the Roman Empire and the priestly class in Israel. Jesus came to proclaim the Kin-don—a new world order based on justice, truth, mercy, compassion and love.
I never really saw Paul as much more than an itinerant preacher who talked a lot about sins of the flesh and ended up founding the Christian church. But Paul was much more. Like Jesus, Paul was always a Jew. He saw himself, like Jesus, as a reformer of Judaism once he has encountered the Messiah on the road to Damascus. Paul too opposed the Roman Empire and the values of that empire. He opposed the priestly perversions of Judaism.
When Christians and Paul proclaimed that Jesus was Lord they were committing a subversive act. Augustus, the Emperor, was cloaked in divinity. He was God and redeemer. He brought the Pax Romana—peace through the sword. As we found out in Iraq, if you have enough military might, you can pretty well control things. Jesus and Paul brought another kind of peace—nonviolent peace based on justice, not violence.
Paul then is writing to small communities stretched throughout the Mediterranean basin. Scholars say the largest community was probably no more than forty or fifty. When it comes to the epistles, biblical scholars now tell us that only seven are authentic, radical Paul—Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The other epistles were written after Paul and reflect domestication, a taming, of his radical message over against the vicissitudes of empire. The other “Paul” ordered women to be silent in church.
Again, as with all inspired writings, there is an issue of what is inspired and what simply reflects the culture and mores of the times. Therefore, in addition to domestication of Paul’s message, we have unthinking adoption of current cultural values. We have no problem seeing this when it comes to slavery; however, when it comes to women and homosexuality, it seems to be more difficult for us to accept.
The bottom line in all this is that the authentic message of Jesus and Paul has been hijacked. Instead of exhorting Christians to stand over against the false values of empire, the American empire included, we turn Paul into a moralizer on the sins of the flesh. The prosperity Gospel justifies our greed and covetousness. Sins of the flesh, nevertheless, extends to far more than personal sexual transgressions. The flesh is the hubris of empire run amok. Sins of the flesh includes material contort at the expense of other human beings. Sins of the flesh extends to wars for oil and other natural resources.
For Paul, en Christo, means that there is only one Lord, only one who is worthy of our trust and allegiance—Jesus the Christ. Like Jesus the Christ and Paul the apostle we proclaim that Jesus, not the president or prime minister, is Lord—the one in charge, the one worthy of our allegiance. We proclaim that violence has no place. Nonviolent justice secures the peace of Christ.
What has happened? Where has the church gone wrong? Where is the voice of Jesus and Paul today when it comes to the vicissitudes of empire? How can we say Jesus is Lord and acquiesce to drone bombings of innocent civilians, waterboarding torture of terrorists, deportation of undocumented immigrants who came here twenty years ago with their parents, disproportionate numbers of black and brown people in our prisons and jails, the rape of our nest for sheer profit, and budget reform on the backs of the most vulnerable among us as the income gap continues to widen?