Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Can Paul Be Redeemed?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Can Paul Be Redeemed?

Article excerpt

Why some of us love Jesus and don't like Paul.

"Jesus was a radical who welcomed everyone and criticized powerful leaders who oppressed the poor. Jesus was crucified because he was a political threat.

But the Apostle Paul was a con- servative missionary who misunderstood Jesus and was anti-woman, pro-slavery, and anti-gay."

That seems to sum up how many progressive Christians view Paul. But are such views justified by the biblical record? Or are there other ways to understand the zealous Pharisee who became an apostle to the Gentiles?

in tHe eArLy 1970s, I came across an article on Jesus' women disciples in the Christian social justice magazine The Other Side. I was shocked. I had attended church all my life; how come I never noticed those women disciples?

What I didn't know then was that a renewed "search for the historical Jesus" was underway. Applying the ever-develop- ing insights of sociology, anthropology, and archaeology, scholars were investigating the socio-economic and political aspects of life in first century Palestine. How did Jesus fit into his historical context? As a peasant healer, how did he challenge the Roman occupation and their clients, the chief priests at the temple in Jerusalem?

It takes a while for new insights from biblical research to reach lay Christians. This is further delayed if church leaders are suspicious of intellectual elitism and fear- ful some of their parishioners might "lose their faith."

But some of those dams were breaking open for U.S. Christians who had caught the fervor of the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements-both secular and reli- gious-which had begun in the 1950s and '60s. Evangelicals for Social Action and the Evangelical Women's Caucus emerged, along with publications such as The Other Side, Daughters of Sarah, and The Post-American, now called Sojourners. Intentional commu- nities sprouted here and there. The growing body of research on Jesus in his social and political contexts fit well with this movement that involved many justice-oriented lay peo- ple. As my feminist awareness grew, I was drawn into deeper discipleship with this rad- ical rabbi Jesus.

radical Jesus vs. conservative Paul

On the other hand, Paul still appears bipo- lar. His progressive supporters appeal to Galatians 3:28-"in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female." But many African Americans, women, GLBT persons, and other progressive Christians distance themselves from a Paul who (in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy) asks slaves and wives to submit, and who appar- ently opposes (in Romans 1) what translators render as homosexuality. Paul's instructions to obey the government in Romans 13 raise red flags for Christian political activists. Those involved in alternate forms of church often choose to ignore the ecclesial order called for in the pastoral letters.

Here is one colorful response I received when I asked a progressive Christian about her former impressions of Paul.

I always thought of Paul as some "full of s- conservative dude" who perverted the message of Jesus. I pictured him being com- plicit in making Jesus' cool and deep message into something simple-stupid enough to get the masses to buy into. He mainly wanted to obtain power for himself. I figured his stuff got included in the Bible because power and control was the goal of everyone who came after him. So Paul and all those other dudes just spun the message of Jesus to support their patriarchal and hierarchical worldview.

So when somebody would read about Paul putting down women or telling slaves to behave, I would just roll my eyes and blow it off, because he was obviously (to me) working his own agenda, not that of Jesus.

Another woman spoke of her militaris- tic father humorlessly keeping his children in line with Paul's admonition, "I beat my body and enslave it" (1 Corinthians 9:27). "Rules and fear," she said, "were the foun- dation; and church, church, church (doing the Lord's work) was the metronome of life. …

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