Friday, September 30, 2005

Sermon: "Should Religious Liberals Reconsider Paul?" (Delivered 7/31/2005)

[Two key books informed this sermon: "In Search of Paul" by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed and "A Radical Jew" by Daniel Boyarin. I've indicated places below where I've quoted/paraphrased their words by ending those paragraphs with brackets.]

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, it was announced that Peter Gomes – a bit of a celebrity professor to us Harvard students – would be giving a series of evening lectures on the subject, “Preaching on Paul.” Now the thing about being a student in Cambridge was that on any given night, you had your pick of talks from Nobel prize winners, literary geniuses, politicians, international diplomats, and experts in any field you could imagine… and somewhere in there you were expected to do your homework too. Let’s just say, “Preaching on Paul” was less intriguing to me than going to hear, say Jared Diamond or Gary Trudeau or a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

One day as I was walking through the halls of the Divinity School, a classmate stopped me and queried whether I’d be going to hear Peter Gomes’ lectures on Paul. I remember replying with the wittiest, and maybe the most arrogant, thing I’ve uttered. Would I be going to the lecture? “Oh, no, it all sounds like so much ‘what Peter says about Paul.’” But the truth was that as a UU, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever preach on Paul.

In late antiquity, a great and powerful empire dominated the western world. It was cruel and violent and unjust and oppressive – not particularly more so than other empires before or since, but oh, the scale. Its imperial reach was military, but also cultural. It imposed its culture upon others. And in many ways, this culture was cutting-edge. [Crossan/Reed preface]

This empire believed that it had God on its side. Its coins, temples, statues, roads, buildings, landscapes bore these inscriptions, “God, Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the World.” These inscriptions described none other than Caesar Augustus. And this empire did desire to save the world, to achieve peace… but to achieve it through victory and domination. [Crossan/Reed preface]

And on the outskirts of this empire, a member of an oppressed minority religion had a powerful spiritual awakening, began to articulate a vision of a new world and a new creation. This vision forever altered the group out of which he came and eventually would threaten the empire itself. At the same time, this vision was threatened on two fronts. It was threatened by those who would bind it to a particular group, possess it exclusively. And it was also threatened by forces that would subsume it into the larger culture, to make it a servant of that culture rather than a challenge to it. [Crossan/Reed]

We might say that today we are living in late, late antiquity. In which a great and powerful empire dominates the Western world. An empire that in some ways is at the cutting edge of civilization, but that also is no stranger to violence, cruelty, injustice and oppression. An empire that flexes its muscles militarily, but also culturally. Whose leaders envision God on our side (at the very least) and who perceive a mandate to be saviors of the world, salvation through victory and domination. [Crossan/Reed]

And what word shall we hear of a different vision? What word shall we hear of a new creation? And can it be said, without binding it to our narrow possession? And can it be said, without bending it so that it becomes a servant to and an accomplice with the same imperial culture that is a disservice to it.


Saul of Tarsus was believed to have been born in the first decade of the Common Era. A contemporary of Jesus, he never actually met him. In the early stages of his life, it is reported, he participated in the persecution of followers of Jesus. Then, on the Road to Damascus, he had a powerful conversion experience, changed his name from Saul to Paul, and became an apostle. He traveled the Mediterranean, assisting, supporting, and directing the communities of Jews who were following Jesus. Paul was martyred in Rome in the year 65.

The New Testament contains twenty-seven books, of which thirteen are letters bearing the inscription that they were written by Paul. These letters, epistles, are among the most remarkable pieces of literature ever written. They are part the spiritual autobiography of a first century Jew, part theological treatise, and part advice columns. They are also among the most criticized pieces of writing ever written. Let me enumerate these criticisms, giving special attention to the criticisms of him that have come from liberal religious circles:

First, Paul has been called an inventor of Christianity, and a betrayer of Jesus and distorter of Jesus’ message. This criticism holds that Paul theologized Jesus’ teachings, over-emphasized the death and resurrection and under-emphasized Jesus’ ministry. He took the religion that Jesus practiced and made it a religion about Jesus. This is the Paul who was portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s movie the Last Temptation of Christ as a zealous defrauder, who fashions an invented Jesus.

Second, not only has Paul been called the apostle who betrayed Jesus, but he’s also been called the apostate who betrayed Judaism. In this reading, Paul’s criticism of The Law is coded as an attack on Judaism. It is true that Paul’s writings and arguments were later interpreted in a way that would lead to Jewish stereotypes, and, eventually, Anti-Semitism.

Thirdly, Paul was also accused of being racist. Paul lived in a time and society in which the owning of slaves was a commonly accepted practice. The racism accusation comes from passages like Ephesians 6, where we find the commonly referenced formula of who-should-obey-whom which includes “slaves obey your masters”, and in the letter to Philemon where Paul instructs a runaway slave to return to his master. These passages were frequently used by Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries to condone the practice of slavery in North America.

Fourth, Paul is also accused of being homophobic. Paul’s words in passages like Romans one, First Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are among the most-used by the Religious Right in their efforts to legislate discrimination against homosexuals today.

And fifthly and lastly, Paul is sexist. Wives obey your husbands it says in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5. Women, do not speak in church, it says in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

So there we have it, Paul is a dishonest, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, misogynist. Let’s send him away, cast him out. Why even bother to reconsider him? I believe that any reconsideration of Paul needs to begin with an open hearing of the charges against him I’ve listed above. Fortunately, it isn’t that difficult to find evidence that will lead to dismissing many of these charges and reducing of the rest. Mainstream Biblical scholarship has made these findings available to us for decades, but for some reason it has been more convenient for many to continue to see Paul as a villain to demonize rather than an ally, albeit a flawed one, to cooperate with.

The first thing to understand is that Paul didn’t write everything that has got his name on it. Of the thirteen epistles, Paul only wrote seven. Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy are not authentically Paul. Neither are Ephesians, Colossians, or 2 Thessalonians. About 90 percent of the offensive stuff that we think Paul wrote appears in these non-Pauline epistles. How do we know this? Biblical scholarship clearly shows it. One of the key tools used to distinguish Paul from non-Paul is this thing scholars call “Pauline Embarrassment.” This theory works like this: if Paul says something that dramatically challenged the dominant culture in a way that would have been embarrassing to the church, Paul most certainly said it, because somebody had to come back later and write pretending to be Paul to try to make it fit the culture. And it is embarrassing things like radical equality, like non-hierarchy that later writers tried to correct or obscure.

You want to know about Paul’s views about women? Try 1 Corinthians 16: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church, so you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you.” In other words, “Do what this woman says.” Paul then goes on to supply a list of leaders. A third of the list are women. But of the ones on the list who he singles out for special praise, half are women, including Junia. Junia is so controversial that the church tradition later pretended that she was a man, however, archeology has accounted for over 250 Junia’s living in the first century and all are women. Junia, it is said, is “prominent among the apostles.” Meaning, she had authority over the leaders of the church. [Crossan/Reed]

Or consider 1 Corinthians 7, where the advice to married couples is egalitarian, and ends with the final piece of advice, “And however that may be, let each of you lead the life to which God called you.” And if you decide to go and read 1 Corinthians, make sure to look for the passage where Paul writes to a group who cross-dress during the religious services. [Crossan/Reed]

Similarly, arguments can be made against claims of Paul’s supposed homophobia. (After all, the concept of homosexuality did not exist in Paul’s day.) So what he was writing about was not specific acts, but specific attitudes – states of egoism, self-absorption, excess, self-worship – forms of idolatry all. It is almost never specific acts that concern Paul, rather it is purity of heart. Paul is saying that sexual desire can be a cruel master. [Peter Gomes, "The Good Book"]

And arguments against his racism are possible as well. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free,” is the famous formula in Galatians 3:28.

As for his anti-Semitism, we should remember that Paul was a Jew who believed he was living out Judaism through offering a radical critique of it. His philosophy may be Greek, but his rhetoric was surely Jewish.

There might be one final thing to say about reading Paul. Reading Paul is like reading the answers to a Dear Abby column without reading the questions. They are one side of a dialogue and the other side has been lost. And the questions that we may be most concerned about are probably not the questions he is answering. I doubt the church at Corinth or Rome were asking, What do you think of women’s suffrage? Or should we adopt a marriage amendment?

So, if what I’ve argued, if the knowledge I’ve introduced, is at all plausible to you, I hope you will welcome this act of reconsidering Paul that I will attempt in the remainder of this sermon.

I believe that central to Paul’s teachings and writings was an egalitarian ideal that was a response to the non-egalitarian structure of Roman civilization and also a response to his separate status as a Jewish other. Roman civilization was highly stratified, according to gender, according to class, according to nationality, and according to religion. Paul, however, envisioned a new creation in which there would no longer be Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. Paul was especially concerned about Jewish particularity and so attempted to open up the Jewish world to gentiles, to make what was particular universal.
However, he immediately ran into problems: were Gentile converts expected to keep Kosher, to become circumcised, to keep the law? For that matter, were Jews still expected to keep the law? And was the universal oneness that Paul dreamt of compatible with people doing differently and being different? Asked succinctly, do people have worth because of a shared common humanity? Or are we valuable because of our differences? [Boyarin]

That is the first question that reconsidering Paul helps us to better answer: What is the nature of human worth? And do we accept Paul’s universalizing answer? Or do we need to continue this work?

The second question that reconsidering Paul will help us to engage with is the question of empire, of imperialism, and our relationship to it. In Paul there is a strong wrestling with what it means to live under an imperial rule, and as a part, albeit a minority part, of an imperial civilization. As I read Paul, there is time and time again an insistence that peace needs to be achieved through Justice, not through Victory, and most certainly not through death. In this regard, Paul represents the continuation of, rather than the departure from, Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. I read Paul as being in line with Vaclav Havel who wrote, “The faithful attitude is and must be fundamentally hostile towards the notion of violent change – simply because it places its faith in violence. An attitude that turns away from abstract political visions of the future and towards concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now is quite naturally accompanied by an intensified antipathy to all forms of violence carried out in the name of ‘better future’ and by a profound belief that a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it… It is not that we should shy away from the idea of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical, but on the contrary, because it is not radical enough.” The Pax Romana was a peace through domination and victory in the name of piety. The Peace of Paul was a peace through justice and non-violence in the name of covenant. [Crossan/Reed epilogue]

Finally, thirdly, a reconsideration of Paul will help us to further discern the relationship between ourselves as religious people and the culture – or we might say today, various sub-cultures. To what degree should our religion be a part of the culture around us? To what degree should it be distinct, set-apart from that culture? To what degree should it be counter-cultural? In Paul’s writings almost an embarrassing amount of time is spent addressing cultural practices that we may have a difficult time thinking are important. He spends an awful lot of time worrying about keeping the Jewish food requirements. He also spends a lot of time on subjects like marriage between Jews and Gentiles. But these practices are value-loaded; they are extremely important to the communities to which he is writing… because the answers to these questions are also going to be the answer to the questions of whether in the new Kingdom there will be slave and free, whether there will be male and female. And we know that the answer that Paul comes up with is going to be so troubling to others in the church that they will write letters in his name arguing for keeping the old cultural standards in place.

These are the three questions: What is the meaning of diversity and difference? What does it mean to live in an imperial time? And to what extent should the church conform to or question culture? These three questions are not ones that Paul offers perfect answers to, in fact far from it. But they were at the core of what this little church was struggling with living under the thumb of the Senatus Populusque Romanus. And perhaps, just perhaps, we might profit from asking these same questions in our little church right here smack dab in the middle of the Senatus Populusque Americanus. [Crossan/Reed]

I close with words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."