Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle

Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle

Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle

Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle


For centuries the apostle Paul has been invoked to justify oppression ? whether on behalf of slavery, to enforce unquestioned obedience to the state, to silence women, or to legitimate anti-Semitism. To interpret Paul is thus to set foot on a terrible battleground between spiritual forces. But as Neil Elliott argues, the struggle to liberate human beings from the power of Death requires "Liberating Paul" from his enthrallment to that power. In this book, Elliott shows that what many people experience as the scandal of Paul is the unfortunate consequence of the way Paul has usually been read, or rather misread, in the churches.In the first half of the book, Elliott examines the many texts historically interpreted to support oppression or maintain the status quo. He shows how often Paul's authentic message has been interpreted in the light of later pseudo-Pauline writings.In Part Two, Elliott applies a "political key" to the interpretation of Paul. Though subsequent centuries have turned the cross into a symbol of Christian piety, Elliott forcefully reminds us that in Paul's time this was the Roman mode of executing rebellious slaves, a fact that has profound political implications.


In August 1991, George Bush was basking in the glow of the highest approval ratings of his presidency in the wake of the Persian Gulf war. As a result, the peace activists, ministers, social workers, teachers, and other friends of the Sojourners community who gathered that month in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Sojourners magazine needed more than a morale boost. In one workshop, Ched Myers of the American Friends Service Committee compared the war’s emotional toll on the peacemaking community with the trauma of ongoing domestic violence: The fatigue and depression felt by many of the workshop’s participants corresponded to the response of abuse victims who go on living in a family that denies the abuse.

As I attended different workshops over that three-day celebration, I was struck by one question asked over and over again, with real anguish, by Christians committed to peacemaking in a violent society: “But what do we do with the Bible?” Further discussion usually revealed that the heart of that question was “What do we do with Paul?” For it was Paul’s voice that we heard most often when our churches debated war, or when they discussed domestic violence, or economic injustice, or a number of other “peace and justice” concerns.

This book was conceived during that celebration, as an attempt to answer the question, “What do we do with Paul?”

My title, Liberating Paul, is deliberately ambiguous, and audacious in either of its possible meanings. Given a history in which the apostle’s voice has again and again rung out like iron to enforce the will of slaveholders or to legitimate violence against women, Jews, homosexuals, or pacifists, proposing to describe a “liberating Paul” may sound like a joke in bad taste. The phrase will ring especially hollow to those who have encountered the oppressive face of the apostle personally, whether on protest lines, in courtrooms, in church board meetings, or in the intimacy of their own bedrooms.

It is just because the voice we have learned to accept as Paul’s is the . . .

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