Paulianity, Part 3
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Romans 7:14-15, 24
The apostle Paul placed himself at the sharp edge of many opposing forces in his day. He was a devout Jew, but he was also a Roman citizen, and the Romans occupied and were distrusted by the Jews. Within the Jewish faith, Jesus’ life created a strong division – those who believed Jesus was the Messiah (who became the early Christians) and those who did not. Among those who eventually broke from traditional Judaism were those who felt the message of Jesus was primarily for those who came to faith in Jesus as Jews. Paul, while working with the Jewish Christians, felt called to bring the Gentiles (non-Jews) into the gospel feast. This included groups who were despised by most Jews, including the Samaritans, other foreigners, and especially the Romans. In many ways, Paul built bridges between disparate groups. Arguably, he also deepened some divisions. The interpretation and application of his writings often creates a significant fault line between churchianity and Christianity today.
We can perhaps better understand the controversial potential of Paul’s writings by examining the influence of privilege. Paul was a man of privilege among the Jews and early Christians because he was a Roman citizen. As such, he was entitled to protections and benefits not afforded to non-citizens, which included most of the Jewish people. Many white folks today, myself included, are beginning to understand how our privilege lifts us up while holding others down. Most of our laws and social systems were created by white folks for the benefit of white folks, even though we see increasing numbers of white folks being left behind by those systems today. These systems of privilege and prejudice are so deeply ingrained into the social fabric as to be nearly invisible, at least to those benefiting from them. It is nearly impossible for a person of privilege, like Paul, not to ruffle the feathers of those without privilege. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible for the privileging social systems to be changed in more just and equitable ways without the willing participation of those in control of those systems – the privileged. It is true today, just as it was true in Paul’s day. Speaking from a position of privilege affords one the opportunity to speak with authority.
Personally, I do not believe Paul was as arrogant or certain as many of his writings lead some to believe. One can find passages in his writings that expressed profound humility (see this issue’s Epilogue) and an understanding that he was struggling with becoming the person he felt called to become every bit as much as the rest of us. The difference, in my opinion, is that his position of privilege and his inherent tendency toward zealotry make his writings sound more certain and authoritative than perhaps even he believed they were at the time. He was working out his own understandings on paper, which many of us do. What I write today I would almost certainly write differently a few months or years hence. I suspect Paul might too.
In my opinion, zealots tend to cover their insecurities and uncertainties under a veil of loud boldness and confidence. None of which is to say we should dismiss Paul’s writings as unworthy of study simply because he was a privileged zealot. Rather, those of us who might dismiss Paul because of the seemingly judgmental certainty with which he wrote may benefit from patience with his human frailties to open ourselves to the inspired insights he conveys.
The problem, in my opinion, with Paulianity is that it too often emphasizes the sometimes unfairly judgmental language of Paul out of the context within which it was written. It is sometimes used to condemn and isolate others, building one group of people up while holding others down, which is a manifestation of privilege. Some of Paul’s language lends itself to use for behavioral and moral control. Unfortunately, the personal behaviors and morals of Paulianity-types of sycophants is as bad or worse than those they are supposedly attempting to lift. A point of emphasis for Paul is that we all sin (miss the mark) and fall short of the glory of God: “Wretched man that I am.” We cannot pull someone out of a pit when we are at or below their level. We can, however, work together to help each other up. In Paul’s overarching imagery, we are all parts of one body and will only be lifted together.
This is the 42nd in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.