Love & Hate, War & Peace
The mixed legacy of Paul of Tarsus and what we can do to fall in love with his stories once again.
O Paul, Paul! Don’t you know that poisonous, violent people have committed unspeakable acts of barbarism against others and justified their actions by quoting your letters?
O Paul, Paul! Don’t you know that people who are just a little different from the society around them have wrestled with debilitating mental health issues and a terrible lack of self-worth, some even taking their own lives–all because of what people believe you preached?
O Paul, Paul! Don’t you know that millions of people have spent countless hours pouring over every square inch of your letters in order to construct the most elaborate doctrines about the most trivial minutia of what is means to walk in the footsteps of Christ?
O Paul, Paul! Don’t you know that for thousands of years after you wrote your letters, numerous sectarian religious cults captured the world’s attention by spewing hateful rhetoric and condemning all those they don’t approve of to the depths of hell while claiming they alone hear the voice of God through your writings?
O Paul, Paul! Don’t you know that, far from women feeling liberated and secure in the love of Christ and of their husbands and families, women feel oppressed, discarded, disrespected, shunned, and abused by men who insist they are merely following the precepts you presented in your letters about the God-ordained roles of women?
I think if Paul suddenly came back to life today and looked at the elaborate religious machines that got build up over the centuries around his writings, he would weep uncontrollably.
I don’t believe he intended any of this to happen. I don’t believe Paul’s agenda was to subjugate women, harass the LGBTQ+ population, depict God as a vindictive monster, condemn sinners to lakes of fire for eternity, or turn the work of Christ on the cross into a mere legal transaction we have virtually no control over.
But before we can embrace the writings of Paul, before we can make peace with the legacy of Paul and fall in love with his wondrous, creative, joy-filled, passionate, theatrical, cosmic stories about Jesus, the Divine, and everything–we must come to grips with what terrible things have been done in the name of Paul.
We must acknowledge that his writings have served as prooftexts for branches of the Christian tradition which have engaged in the wholesale slaughter of innocents, persecution of indigenous populations, destruction of lives via heavy doctrines of guilt and shame, and the twisting of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry into something utterly foreign to the Good News of the love of God.
Does Paul deserve actual blame for these tragedies? That’s a good question. I think some people have blamed Paul. They can’t stomach to read or study Paul’s letters anymore–perhaps not even the whole Bible at this point–because of triggers due to the shame and abuse they’ve suffered by so-called Christians quoting Romans or Galatians or Timothy or the like.
I’ll be honest with you. There have been times when I was frustrated with Paul as well. I couldn’t understand how in one passage he could wax eloquently about the extravagant love that God has for us no matter who we are or what we’ve done, and then in the next passage speak violently about a laundry list of human behaviors we all struggle with sometimes. I couldn’t square the vision of Jesus eating and drinking with winebibbers and letting his feet get washed by the tears of a prostitute with the vision of Paul dictating lofty and divisive theological precepts from on high.
But then something shifted in my brian. Even though I’d long ago thrown off the intellectual and spiritual shackles of fundamentalism and no longer identified as an American Evangelical, I realized I still regarded some of Paul’s writings as if I had never taken off those lenses.
So I tried something new. I took off those old lenses of dusty Protestantism, I sat down with my Bibliotheca volume in hand (Bibliotheca is a printing of the Bible without chapter and verse using a typeface and paper weight which makes you feel like you’re reading actual literature), and I read through Paul’s letter to the Romans. I read through it as if I were simply reading a story. I imagined myself as part of the audience Paul was writing to. I tried to picture every grand gesture and rhetorical flourish as if Paul were a performer on stage presenting his one-man show. I forced myself to disengage with every solitary verse I’d ever heard quoted out-of-context, and I read Romans from start to finish as a single narrative.
It was mind blowing.
Romans, historically one of my least favorite letters of Paul’s and the one I usually attempted to avoid for the most part (except for chapter 12!), quickly catapulted up to the top of my favorites list! Well, I might name one or two I still love more overall–Ephesians being an obvious candidate–but Romans simply fascinates me.
Romans exhibits a diverse set of moods and concepts which are interwoven in a variety of clever and dynamic ways. It has comedy and tragedy, romance and intimacy, cosmic plots and humanist musings.
But more than the colorful writing of Romans, I found myself continually astonished about one particular point:
Romans, favored prooftext of the propotents of PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory), Original Sin, the Billy Graham-style “Sinner’s Prayer,” and a litany of other Evangelical standbys, does not actually promote any of these doctrines!
In addition, a fresh, unadulterated reading of Romans convinced me once and for all that Romans is not a valid weapon with which to bash gays, atheists, and Jews; nor is Romans in any way at odds with or contrary to the radical social justice message we find in the ministries of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James.
So if you can find it within yourself to forgive Paul for all the horrors wrought in his name by terrible people, and experience Paul’s letter to the Romans with a clean slate and a clear pair of glasses, I think you’ll discover a brand new world of brilliant spirituality, theology, ecclesiology, and orthopraxy that will simply knock your socks off. With luck, you might even–gasp–learn to enjoy Paul again.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series where we discuss the themes, the historical context, and the impact of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Subscribe for new articles every week.
✢ ✢ ✢