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While you were hanging yourself on someone else's words…

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.
~ Paul, Ro 9.1-4a
I have given a lot of thought to this passage in Ro 9.  What it says to me, is that Paul was willing to do anything — anything — if he thought that the result of his actions would be life and salvation for the people whom he loved.  Specifically, he appears to be willing to engage in the sort of activities that would get him removed from God’s covenant people, the sort of activities that would cause him to be damned, if he thought that the actions performed would make a difference for his beloved.
Of course, Paul does not write these words as some sort of academic or theorist.  He writes as a person of action, longing not for the best appropriate theological expression, but for the next level of action — the type of activity that might create an apocalyptic rupture, that might create space for an Event.  Thus, he does end up gambling (and finally losing) everything, in his efforts to spread the Spirit of life and the good news of the crucified one who overcame Death.
Now, when I compare this sort of way of thinking and living to what I have encountered amongst those who claim to know Paul intimately — those involved in biblical and theological studies — the contrast is pretty striking.  What we find in this company is endless criticisms — this course of action is not sufficiently trinitarian, that way of thinking is not christocentric, this way of living neglects the fundamentally pneumatological and eschatological nature of New Testament ethics, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam.  Of course, what we don’t (generally) find in this company is anything close to the risk-taking and sacrificial activity that Paul himself practiced.
Similarly, when you compare Paul’s approach with the way that many (so-called ‘radical’) Christians approach matters related to social justice, the contrast is stark.  With Paul we find a person who was genuinely and wholly committed to those whom he loved — so much so, that he bore on his body the brand-marks of Jesus (i.e. the disciplinary scars inflicted upon those who dared to resist the Powers).  With Paul we find a person willing to wager it all — even his own salvation — if he thought it would make a difference.  So, how does this compare to most contemporary Christian social justice circles?  In those circles, we hear a lot of talk about justice, we watch some captivating documentaries, we dress up in costumes and engage in a little street theatre or political drama… and then we go home to our places of comfort and privilege and exclusion and feel good about ourselves.  It’s all a bit of a rush, but nothing was really at risk, and nothing was really required of me.  And this is what we say we do out of our ‘deep love for poor people’ (or something like that).  What a sham.
As for me, I’m at a place where I’m willing to act in any way possible.  Willing to act against my own faith even, if I thought that it would genuinely make a difference in the lives of those who have been abandoned.

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  1. “As for me, I’m at a place where I’m willing to act in any way possible. Willing to act against my own faith even, if I thought that it would genuinely make a difference in the lives of those who have been abandoned.”
    For example? I don’t ask condescendingly, rather, I’m genuinely interested in what you mean and what this might look like.

    • If I could provide an example, I would have done it already. Basically, I’m asking the same questions you are. It’s just that I am no longer a priori discounting any course of action.

  2. Good old Paul! “I would cut off my own arm, I would give up so much for you, I would give up my relationbship to God -aka what I value most in the entire world- if it would save you”. No pain, no gain eh?
    I’ve been reading some of the Rianne Eisler stuff, which assumes that effective love is based on pleasure. Some good stuff there. Unfortunately, there also a lot of very boring waffle. But at least it’s innovative.

    • Yeah, I thought about the hyperbole but Paul, at least, had the scars to back up that kind of talk — whipped five times, beaten with rods twice, stoned, blah blah blah… and executed.
      That said, I don’t see anything wrong with love being based on pleasure. Have you seen the movie “Hunger”? It’s about Bobby Sands, who lead an IRA hunger strike in prison in 1981 (he starved to death after 66 days… great movie, by the way). What I love about his character in the movie is that it is his overwhelming love of life that leads him to sacrifice his own. His joie de vivre leads him to die. That, I think, makes good sense of Jesus’ sayings that ‘those who wish to find life must lose it’ and so on.

  3. I don’t think this text indicates Paul was ready to somehow dishonor God and be damned to help Israel. It literally just expresses grief and the wish to change places. Even if it is more than rhetoric, how could his act effect this anyway? Paul never shows that he would “do anything” for others beyond fulfill his commission from Christ to preach to them. Any lashes he bore were in service to Christ, we get no statement that it was commitment to Israel or the global poor or any personal commitment.
    That leads to the larger problem of hero-worship and Paul. Paul’s role is exaggerated by the rhetoric in and the quantity of literature he left and by viewing him as the normative Christian. He left behind many normal boring Christians in a place like Thessalonika where all there was to do was watch documentaries. Paul went on doing what he did, but they didn’t. He specifically points out what he has done in this regard and doesn’t expect that they also would have or necessarily should.
    If you are looking for models for what to do, find it in the boring churches Paul (and Jesus and Peter) left behind in the villages and towns, and cities. Humdrum bourgeois potlucks, theologizing, social work etc. I know you view the communities as pockets of radical risk-taking (I regard that as a backward rationalization). But what if they just weren’t? Paul’s risky megalomaniacal quest to spread the cult across the Mediterranean left little to be done like that. We can’t all be Paul or live lives of the martyrologies, nor did most of them. It seems like you can’t reconcile yourself to believe our boring insignificant existence can be a spiritually beautiful righteous thing.
    But anyway, if your itching to do something like you’ve been hinting at, go throw a rock at a pimp, don’t throw it through the cop’s windshield.

    • Hi Stan,
      Yes, we do disagree on the nature of Paul’s churches. For more on that, I’ll be sure to refer you to my book on Paul once it is published (sorry, I couldn’t resist throwing that in there!). However, you do make a good point about ‘hero worship’ and the way in which Paul’s ‘role is exaggerated’. It’s important to keep that in mind, particularly when it comes to subsidiary points or illustrations that Paul employs in the letters that we have (say, for example, what is written about same-sex sexual relations in Ro 1). It’s also important to remember in the field of Paul and politics because, although Paul was resisting the Powers in many ways, there were other ways in which he had internalized the power structures of his day (just like we all do, no matter how hard we try).
      By the way, I’m curious, are you closely acquainted with any pimps?

    • Stan,
      I don’t understand why you would take the time to offer an analysis in your first comment and then, after receiving a serious response from Dan, go for an emotional incite as your follow up.
      I’m not looking for an explanation as to why you’ve done it, I just want to challenge you to stick to your points rather than trying to engage Dan on a purely emotional level. It’s a much more interesting conversation that way.


  • Ben’s Blog » Blog Archive » Reading the Bible October 2, 2009

    […] If you’ve never read/think you’ve read Paul before, you’ll find challenging reflections here […]