Posted by cherylem on September 23, 2007
In 1996 when I was studying Paul in an institute class under Mack Stirling, I remember thinking, and telling Mack, that wonderful as Paul sometimes is, I wished all his letters had been lost because over the centuries and even within our time so much evil had been done in Paul’s name. I expressed then that all the good that Paul’s letters have done/were doing/could do could never balance against the evil and suffering perpetrated with his writings as justification.
Recently I’ve read a book I’ve actually owned for quite a while: Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle, by Neil Elliott, 1994, Orbis Books. This post is going to be something like a long book review with my own comments perhaps interspersed. It is interesting, by the way, that this book has some Girardian references; Neil Elliott seems very famililar with Girard and argues both for and against Hamerton-Kelly’s Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross.’
I think this post fits here in on the Feast because of its subject matter. If it doesn’t, please let me know . . .
On the one hand, I want to engage Paul’s legacy in terms of specific verses that have been used to justify evil. On the other hand, I want to make it clear that this is only one book, and there may be room for argument and counterargument here, as the Pauline text is further engaged.
Elliott begins his book by talking about Paul’s legacy in a chapter entitled: Paul in the Service of Death. He makes the following points and gives moving examples of each:
1) Verses such as Eph. 6:4-6 ff, Col. 3:22-23, 1 Timothy 6:1-2 have been used to justify slavery.
2) Verses such as 1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Cor. 14:34-35 have been used to oppress women, sometimes violently and murderously.
3) 1 Thess. 2:14-15 have been used to oppress Jews and justify the Holocaust.
4) Romans 13:1-7 has been used to keep people in subjugation to the worst kinds of governments, and sometimes has been used to justify orders of obedience to governmental authorities that led people to their deaths.
5) Romans 13:1-7 has been used to keep people from holding their governments accountable for immoral acts and from voicing their dissent against those acts.
6) Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Cor. 6:9-10 have been used to justify the oppression of homosexuals, treat them as less than human, and deny them any form of God’s love.
7) 2 Thess. 3:10 has been used to justify a lack of compassion for and a denial of help for the poor.
Elliott says that Paul has been made an agent of oppression in our age (p. 9). “The usefulness of the Pauline letters to systems of domination and oppression is nevertheless clear and palpable.” [even though it can be argued that certain deeds were done in Paul's name, centuries after his death].
My experience with Paul, prior to my membership in the church, is exactly as Elliott has outlined. My father was a protestant minister, conservative and right-wing in his beliefs, and he quoted Paul a lot. Additionally, my teen-age brother left the church of our childhood after a youth-oriented discussion of Romans 1:24-27, in which it became apparent that homosexuals were viewed as hateful, hated, full of evil. Decades later he would express to me, “I could not go back, because I realized they were talking about me.”
My experience with Paul since I’ve joined the church (years ago, in 1978), is somewhat more benign, mostly because, I think, our membership does not really read Paul. Nevertheless, I have heard and read Pauline verses quoted in the context of the list above, or certain BOM passages quoted that seem also to agree with the interpretation given in that list, specifically regarding the Jews bringing their murders on themselves.
So this was why I said to Mack Stirling in 1996 that sometimes – often – I wished all the Pauline letters had been lost, because no matter how good they are, so much evil had been done in their name it would be better if we never had them. Mack, who loves Paul, was appalled, and just asked that I continue to attend class, and let the Spirit teach me.
Neil Elliott also loves Paul, and in his book he tackles these issues, looking at the specific verses that have done damage, and reads them for us differently than the way they been used in “systems of domination and oppression.” I would like to share some of those readings here because I find his arguments interesting, exciting, and yes: liberating. Nevertheless, what does the group think? If you think I can go forward with this, I will keep the comments scripture-focused.
But if the consensus is that this discussion should not move forward, I am perfectly happy to withdraw.