Apostle Paul

What Makes a Christian Argument?

Communication gap. Image courtesy jorgen mcleman/shutterstock.com
Communication gap. Image courtesy jorgen mcleman/shutterstock.com

In his famous passage on love, Paul shifts our attention from the what to the how:

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing."

He’s not talking about the content of our arguments. He’s talking about the process. For Paul, it is not enough that we do “Christian” sorts of actions, no matter how great they are. We must act in a Christian style — with love.

Christian arguments, then, should reflect this style. They should be patient and kind. They should not be boastful or arrogant or rude.

But the reality of our Scriptures and the reality of our God is that love can — and in some cases, should  —  be tough. This love sees that there must be space for righteous anger. It recognizes that patience can too easily become a luxury for the privileged. We believe in a God who gets angry on behalf of those he loves. We believe in a Jesus who overturns tables in the temple courts.

The problem is that most readers of this article will applaud at either the thought of a kind, patient argument or at the thought of a tough, angry argument. The trick is to deeply desire both.

 

ON Scripture: A Strange Summer Vacation

Candles lit at temple. Image courtesy Galyna Andrushko/shutterstock.com
Candles lit at temple. Image courtesy Galyna Andrushko/shutterstock.com

“What did you do on your summer vacation?” 

Even now students may be answering that question in essays at the start of this new school year. Maybe you wrote such a paper years ago. No matter what you did or where you went this past summer, it was almost impossible to escape the heaviness of the headlines. #BringBackOurGirls has become a distant refrain, almost forgotten beneath the crush of summer tragedies: 

Thousands of children traveled alone from Central American countries to enter the U.S. as refugees. Ebola deaths spread to more West African nations killing hundreds including many health workers. The forces of ISIS, intent on carving out an Islamic caliphate, took over major Iraqi cities and beheaded a U.S. journalist in SyriaRussia usurped Crimea and threatened the rest of Ukraine. The U.N. refugee agency announced in late August that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” Gaza has been reduced to rubble while Hamas rockets still fly toward Israeli cities. Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man who might have started college this week, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the waning days of August.  

After such a summer, how can we do anything but scoff at Paul’s words from Romans? 

On Scripture: Pressing On Toward Higher Goals

Atop a mountain, Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock.com
Atop a mountain, Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock.com

I have often wondered about the trajectories my life has taken. I was raised a Latino Pentecostal in New York City but educated in a liberal arts tradition at Columbia University in Manhattan. I was exposed to evangelical and then liberal Protestant traditions in seminary and graduate school. My theological views have changed over the years. I have moved from Pentecostal to Baptist to Congregational (United Church of Christ) church traditions. 

Yet at each step of the way, I have been able to build on the solid foundations of the past in moving to new understandings for the new circumstances in my life. These life transitions never started from “scratch.” Some of these same tensions might have motivated Paul in considering, at least rhetorically, his past a “loss” in comparison to a new way of living and being in Philippians 3:4b-14.

...

In these days, what are the sources of such life-altering “new knowledge?” There are many places for us to turn. Though I grew up without guns, I was surrounded by plenty of gun violence in my inner city neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the aftermath of the tragic losses of our children and educators in Newtown, Conn., I wonder if we have gained any new knowledge. Apparently, we live in a country that values the freedom to own guns, even overly powerful ones like assault rifles. “Second Amendment rights” are invoked as if our founders could predict the kinds of weapons that would be available to regular Americans today, even with the “militia” (local police forces) that we also have available to us. 

Paul’s Politics

Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock.com
Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock.com

The apostle Paul calls the church in Corinth a body — and that’s political language: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be …  As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).

As Dale Martin argues in his book The Corinthian Body, Paul gets his language about the social body, the political body, from other Greco-Roman speeches and letters. He uses a style of writing and speaking called a “concord” — homonoia in Greek. Politicians would give speeches or write letters trying to convince the diverse people of the city to unite in a common project, to share the same goals for society, to share a common politics. In these “concord” addresses, politicians would call the society a body, just like Paul does in his letter to the divided church in Corinth. We are one body, politicians would say, so we need to act accordingly. We are one — united, bound together. Of course, politicians only made these speeches when they needed to: that is, when dissatisfied segments of society wanted to revolt (see Martin, Corinthian Body, 38-47).

Paul's Letter to the 1%

Each Sunday, in many churches across North America, congregants hear these words preparing them for communion: “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread ...”

However, few churchgoers kneeling for bread and wine at the altar may know that these words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 are set in a longer section (11:17-34) that begins sharply: “Now in the following instructions, I do not commend you, because when you come together, it is not for the better, but for the worse!” Paul continues the attack in verse 20: “When you come together it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry, and another becomes drunk” (emphasis added).

What Paul describes sounds more like a food fight in a high school cafeteria than our solemn rituals. Have we missed something in this text?

This article isn’t mainly about food. It’s about inequality—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. But when you live in the Roman Empire where most inhabitants live at or below subsistence, earning enough daily bread is the main thing you think about.

A longtime friend, George McClain, and I are presently finishing a curriculum simulating a house church planted by Paul in Corinth during the years 50 to 51 C.E. We owe much to the research of biblical and classical scholars and archeologists on power relations in the Roman Empire. This “empire-critical” method examines the sociological, political, religious, and economic structures that underpin first century Rome. Such structures contrast starkly with the “kingdom of God” as proclaimed by Jesus and his apostle Paul.

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The Bible is Not a Public Policy Manual!

Folders image via Shutterstock
Folders image via Shutterstock

My pastor and I have a friendly tiff going on. He says that Jesus was strictly a-political; therefore Christians should abstain from politics completely. I say that Jesus challenged violent, poverty-inducing, socio-political structures throughout his life and ministry; therefore Christians have a duty to advocate for peace and to speak out for the poor and the oppressed. Both of us are hardheaded, and neither of us cedes much in our debates, but we always walk away as friends, because at the end of the day there’s a key component to the discussion that we both agree on: The Bible is not a public policy manual!

Waiting to Exhale

Lately, I’ve been holding my breath. It’s actually something I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. Many of my female relatives on the Irish side of the clan have this habit of holding our breath when we’re talking—or rather, listening—or concentrating, or thinking. And especially when we’re anxious.

Stress makes many people turn to comfort food, while others lose their appetite. Some folks chew their nails; some look for relief in the bottom of a cocktail glass; still others lose sleep or sleep too much. Me? I forget to breathe.

When I was a member of a college theater ensemble, our director often focused on the importance of breathing, not only for our physical persons but also for our souls. In the Bible, the Greek word used for “breath,” pneuma, is also used to describe the Spirit—our spirits and the Holy Spirit.

Breathing is, of course, essential to life. The air that moves through our lungs sustains us. But the Spirit also imbues us with eternal life and the true sustenance of our earthly lives.

Before rehearsals or performances, our college theater director would lead us through a series of warm-up exercises, all of them focused on breath. We began by lying flat on our backs with our eyes closed, letting go of all of the physical and emotional tensions we’d brought with us into the room. As we centered ourselves, body and mind, we’d pray the “Jesus Prayer,” silently. It’s a simple yet powerful prayer that comes from the practice of hesychasm, or contemplative prayer, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

It goes like this: (Breathing in) “Jesus Christ.” (Breathing out) “Son of God.” (Breathing in) “Have mercy on me.” (Breathing out) “A sinner.”

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The Way of Peace and Grace

THE DIVINE COMMANDS to commit genocide found in the Old Testament are some of the most difficult and disturbing parts of scripture. Consider God’s decree against the Amalekites: “Totally destroy everything ... Do not spare them; put to death ... children and infants” (1 Samuel 15:2–3). Such passages have been used repeatedly to justify bloodshed in the name of God, beginning with the Crusades and continuing right up through U.S. history, where texts were used in sermons to justify the slaughter of American Indians.

In seeking to defend the Bible, many well-meaning commentators have become inadvertent advocates for these atrocities. But do we really need to defend and justify violence in God’s name in order to remain faithful to scripture? Is that what God desires of us? I’d like to propose that there is a better way—a way found in learning to read our Bibles as the apostle Paul read his.

To understand how Paul read scripture, it is important to first understand his conversion to Christ, which Pauline scholar James Dunn describes as a conversion from a version of religion characterized by “zealous and violent hostility.” In other words, Paul did not see himself as rejecting his Jewish faith or Israel’s scriptures, but rather as rejecting his former violent interpretation of them. While Paul could boast that his observance of the Torah was “faultless” (Philippians 3:6), at the same time he describes himself as “the worst of all sinners” and “a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15). He confesses painfully, “I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). 

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Wallis and Mohler Debate Social Justice and the Gospel

What was most telling about the disagreement between the two men was their discussion of Luke 4. Mohler argued the passage should be understood in light of how he interpreted the preaching and teaching of Paul and the other apostles. This means that when Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor that good news was personal salvation.

Wallis argued that yes, personal salvation is one part of that good news, but that the other part is the Kingdom of God breaking into the world and transforming societal relationships as well. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is good news for a poor person's entire being, community and world -- not just his or her soul.

First, it was encouraging to hear Mohler spend a lot of time emphasizing that working for justice is essential to fulfillment of the Great Commission. Throughout the night he repeated his concern that a lot of Churches are REALLY bad at making disciples who actually do the things Jesus told us to do. As the president of one of the largest seminaries in the world, it will be interesting to see if he is able to train a generation of pastors who will do things differently. My concern is that he is missing the connection between his theology and the failure of Christians to actually do justice.

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