I have never been especially enamored of the apostle Paul or the Pauline letters in the New Testament. That may sound harsh or woefully simplistic (or just plain dumb) but it is true. I often find the first century apostle to be self-centered, sometimes aggrandizing, occasionally circular in his logic, and long-winded. *
My hope is that readers won’t see this as projection.
A recent meditation suggests, however, that I may have it wrong. Richard Rohr makes his point by stressing the apostle’s unwavering belief in the holiness of the entire human race. Paul, writes Father Richard, “offers a theological and solid foundation for human dignity and human flourishing that is inherent, universal, and indestructible by any evaluation, whether it be race, religion, gender, nationality, class, education, or social position.” That is clearly important, but Rohr adds, “we now believe the reason this one man enjoyed such immense success in such a short time is that he gave human dignity back to a world that had largely lost it.”
“One more god in Greece and Asia Minor would have meant little,” Rohr asserts, “but when Paul told shamed populations they were temples of the divine, this made hearts burn with desire and hope.”
We are at a time in this country when the presumed leader of one political party can go on national television and stoke racism, misogyny, and hatred for the “others” and be cheered by hand-picked friendly audiences. It is a shameful display by a party that claims the mantle of Christianity, only to use it — like the fascists we fought against in World War II — as a cudgel against those they dislike.
Rohr sees a different type of Christianity, and he points to the story of Pentecost — which Christians celebrate next Sunday — to make his point.
The theological message [of that day] is clear: God loves everyone! God’s love and favor are both totally democratic and unmerited. This was meant to be the end of all exclusive and elitist religion. Sadly, it did not last long.
I came across this meditation as I was reading Isabel Wilkerson’s national bestseller Caste: The Origins of our Discontent. Wilkerson’s message is that here in America we have turned that belief in human dignity on its head by establishing and maintaining a system which sets up rigid hierarchies of human worth. Rohr’s meditation suggests that America today could benefit from St. Paul’s hopeful message.
One of the reasons Paul’s teachings had so much influence in Asia Minor was that he restored human dignity at a time when the region was a key source of enslaved people, women were considered the property of men, temple prostitution was a form of worship, and oppression and injustice toward poor and marginalized people were universal norms. Most of the world was not yet aware that human rights even existed. …
This message was frightening to some people then, as it is today. They want to cling to power. But it is “utterly attractive and hopeful to the majority who had been given no dignity whatsoever.” Everyone wants to be told they are worthy and good. “Such an unexpected affirmation of human dignity,” writes Rohr, “began to turn the whole Roman Empire around.’
No matter how far short it has fallen, America was built upon the founding idea — reinterpreted by Abraham Lincoln in what historian Eric Foner calls the second founding — that all humans were created equal. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of our country’s greatest president,
“At Gettysburg, he challenged the living to finish ‘the unfinished work’ for which so many soldiers had given their lives — that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ At the Second Inaugural, Lincoln asked his countrymen ‘to strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.’ These same words nourished Franklin Roosevelt. He drew upon them, he said, because Abraham Lincoln had set goals for the future ‘ in terms of which the human mind cannot improve.’”
Because the voices that degrade others and spread hatred are so loud, we need to be consistent and persistent — no matter our religious affiliation — in returning to that fundamental belief and strong affirmation of human dignity.
Such work might be critical in turning another empire around in our day.
More to come…
*I am aware of the fact that the apostle Paul did not actually “write” his letters. Our rector at St. Alban’s just gave a quick history of the formation of the New Testament which I recommend if you’d like to know more.