Paul and the White Church

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 

My first semester in seminary, my theology professor[1] hammered into us an important distinction: Scripture is not the Word of God – Christ is the Word of God. That is, Christ is the self-disclosure of God to humankind. Scripture is the record of that revelation, not the revelation itself. The importance of this distinction was that it meant that, as an Anglican, I believe that God speaks to us through the text of the Scripture, but the text itself is not necessarily what They are saying. We are called to discern, even in the holy texts, where God is.

It is not always apparent. The Reformer Luther spoke of God’s Opus Alienorum and God’s Opus Proprium – God’s Strange Work and God’s Proper Work. Another way to say it, of course, would be “stories where God is obscured, hidden, occulted” and “stories where God is fully revealed, present, liberating.” It is incumbent on the faithful to do the work of actually listening to The Holy Spirit when they encounter a text, and determining when God is speaking to us through a character – and when They’re speaking to us about a character.

Case in point: I love Saint Paul. No, really, I do. Galatians 3:28 out to be recognized as the motto of every Christian anarchist to ever walk upon the earth, and I think not nearly enough has been made of Paul’s formative role on the Lucan Corpus’ author – whether they were named Luke or not! – and thus on the foregrounding of the Commune we see in Acts 4:32. Ephesians may not have been written by Paul himself – but, then, it may have been, or else by a student so close to Paul that their style and beliefs passed for Paul’s relatively easily – and who among us who identify as both Christians and Leftists has not taken heart from the fact that we war with Principalities and Powers in the celestial realms? The Holy Spirit put a lot of good words in St. Paul’s mouth; that doesn’t mean every word out of St. Paul’s mouth was put there by The Holy Spirit.

I like to play St. Paul off against St. Peter – Romans 13 off against “We must obey God rather than men.” What a contrast! What division we see in the early Church, between the Apostles themselves no less! And how easy it is for me to to pitch Paul over the side with that nonsense of his. I would hardly be alone – no lesser a light among Christian anarchists than Ammon Hennacy did the same, and many more besides. But then I remember what Jesus Himself has said – that I must  pray for my enemies, and love them. In seminary, I was taught to balance two hermeneutics – the Hermeneutic of Suspicion and the Hermeneutic of Charity. The first comes easy to Christian Leftists; we want, oh how we want, to be St. John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, making a highway for the Liberating God! It’s a good thing to want, to be sure – but it was Jesus, not John, that the Voice of God cried out over, saying “This is My Child in Whom I am Well Pleased!”

We find the Hermeneutic of Charity harder for, at least, the right reasons: our sense of compassion, of justice, cries out against the sins of this world, our hearts ache to serve Christ in His Poor[2]. But no one – or, almost no one – falls into the Adversary’s snares willingly. Even Caesar himself is worthy not of our hatred but our compassion – the throne he sits upon, after all, is deforming his own soul as well as causing suffering around him; removing him from it is an act of charity towards Caesar just as much as it is an act of justice towards the oppressed.

Which brings us back to Paul, and what The Holy Spirit is using Scripture to say about him rather than through him, and so about the Church as it is today. Why this gap between Paul and Peter on how Caesar fit into God’s plan? After all, as a rule, Paul was what we would consider as being to Peter’s left – Peter was often influenced by St. James, Brother of Jesus, who was a major voice in the Church in Jerusalem, to expect a much stricter, occasionally even legalistic adherence to Jewish customs from Gentile converts to the Way. Paul, on the other hand, was keen that converts adapt the Way to their own circumstances within reason – what we today would term enculturation – he was insistent on them to become monotheists, and recognize Jesus’ divinity, but that was pretty much it. So how is it from Peter, not Paul, that we get this deep skepticism of traditional authority? What did Paul have that Peter did not?

Roman citizenship, for one.[3]

The Acts of the Apostles says that Paul was ‘born a Roman citizen’. Paul had certain rights and privileges under Roman law that Peter never did. Though both Jews, and therefore an occupied subaltern population, nevertheless Paul was from a higher, semi-aristocratic class, one which enabled him to experience a certain amount of assimilation. Although his ultimate class interests – and indeed, his ultimate spiritual interests – were aligned with Peter and the poor, his lived experience blinded him to the inherent contradictions in recognizing Jesus as Lord and Caesar as anything other than a jumped-up gangster with a decent PR division.

One can so easily image St. Paul defending his position – “No, now, wait just a moment! Now, now, I’m sure that there is some corruption in the Roman government, obviously, but most of the Roman legal structure is good, and just! We just need to talk to them, persuade them! We’re good, decent people, surely they’ll leave us alone if they just see that!” Peter, on the other hand, having lived his life in fear of Roman procurators’ greed, centurions’ malice, and praetors’ spies, had no such illusions – Empire would out, no matter how ‘just’ Roman law appeared. And it did; both Peter and Paul were executed under the orders of Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian emperors – on the same day, according to tradition. One wonders what that conversation must have been like, down in the cells of Rome, between these two Apostles. Did Peter say “I told you so”? Somehow I doubt it. I suspect they spoke about what was important – about solidarity with each other, and with Jesus. About Paul’s commitment to the Church’s catholicity – that is, its universality, openess to all people regardless of race, gender, social status. About Peter’s commitment to the Church’s apostolicity – that is, its mission, its call to proclaim the Good News. About the friends and families both men had left behind. About Capernum, and Tarsus. About Jerusalem.  About God.

So what are we the living to take from this? What, as the liturgy asks, is the Spirit saying to God’s people? What can we learn from Paul here, both in his triumphs and his failures?
Speaking as a white Christian, I’ve heard Paul many times over the years – both the good Paul, Holy Spirit dripping from his lips like wine, and the weak Paul, so sure of the ability to salvage Rome. I usually hear the latter most from my fellow white Christians. The interests of the working class remain the interests of the working class, but Oh!, how easy it is for them to be convinced, persuaded, that they can trust Caesar, that they just need to make him see, make him understand. They don’t realize that he does understand; they are far too deep under his spell, dreaming the unholy dreams he has spun for them. Their souls do indeed cry out – for how could they not, when God Godself has made of them a people? – for their black and brown brothers and sisters, but it is too often to no avail: the Adversary has stopped up their ears with its lies, “they must have done something to deserve it”, “if they just followed the cop’s orders they wouldn’t get hurt!”, “the communists are coming for your toothbrush!”, and on and on and on. They are asleep, and dream noxious dreams. For the good of their souls, not to mention the world, they must be shocked awake.

Perhaps a good place to start would be reminding them what happened to St. Paul when he tried out their argument.

[1]      Who, if he ever reads this, will be having a connipition fit over my Free-Wheeling Capitalizations.

[2]      Why yes, I am influenced by Dorothy Day, why do you ask?

[3]      Some scholars dispute the Lucan account of Paul’s citizenship, our only source of this factoid. However, as those scholars argue that Luke uses “Roman citizen” as a gloss for social privileges, I feel that in this context it need not detain us farther than this footnote. Suffice it to say that Paul was, at the very least, possessed of a strong network of social and political ties which he could call upon for protection – a network that people like Peter would never have.

Written by Bill Eldridge, MA student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific – Graduate Theological Union. You can check out his tumblr here.


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