Saturday, January 25, 2014
In 2012 I wrote an article for Sojourners demonstrating how the Apostle Paul repeatedly deleted violence from Old Testament passages, instead using these very texts to proclaim God's grace.
To give just one example among many, in Romans 15 Paul quotes several passages from the Old Testament to make the case for showing grace towards Gentiles in Christ:
As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.”
Again, it says,
“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”(Romans 15:9-10)
Sounds lovely, but now take a look at the part Paul deleted from these above citations:
As it is written: “
I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—to the LORD, but he did not answer ... He is the God who avenges me, who puts the Gentiles under me... Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]
Again, it says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people,
for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” [Deuteronomy 32:43]
Paul is rather obviously using these texts to make the opposite point from that of the original biblical author. While the OT passage Paul cites calls for bloodshed, for the death of enemies, Paul instead calls for grace and love of enemies. As my article demonstrates, this is something Paul does over and over again.
What I'd like to discuss here is: What would it mean for us as Christians to adopt Paul's method of biblical interpretation today?
If we are going to do this, we need to realize that not only did Paul understand what he was doing, but so did his audience. Remember Paul's violent past of persecuting the church. It's not as if Paul was unaware of the violence in these texts he's quoting from, because Paul had in the past used these very texts to justfy his own acts of violence in God's name. Likewise, he is not addressing people who were unfamiliar with these texts. Rather he is deliberately taking texts that were understood by his audience to promote and justify violence in God's name, and instead using them to make the opposite point. It is intended to be confrontational, in your face.
A similar example can be found in the stories of Jesus. We often hear the stories of Jesus (like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, etc.) and think "Well, isn't that a lovely story about grace and compassion!" But the reaction of the religious leaders is almost always "at hearing this they wanted to kill him but he escaped into the crowds before they could." What's going on here is that Jesus is essentially saying "Let me tell you a heart-warming story where you are the jerk, and your enemy is the hero. Let's see if you'd enjoy that story."
In other words, Jesus is continually confronting and provoking his audience, and so it Paul. This really should not surprise us. After all, Paul is the guy who describes his past religious fundamentalism as being "$#!+" (Philippians 3:8) and tells those opposing them to "go to hell" (Galatians 1:9). I wont even mention what he tells people to do to themselves in Galatians 5:12. Our Bibles of course translate these into a more PG version, but that is what Paul actually says. Why does he get so pissed off? Because he understands first hand how religion can be used to endorse violence and death. It pisses me off, too.
Now, I am not advocating saying rude things to people we disagree with. It's understandable, but not very productive. Let's face it, our world already has enough nasty polarizing exchanges between conservatives and liberals, both political and religious. Comment sections, rather than fostering community, are often where people get unbelievably nasty. Frankly, Paul on his better days points us towards a superior way of "not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good." On my better days that the narrow road I try to go down.
But let me return to the real point I want to focus on: Paul, when he deliberately changes the meaning of these OT texts from violence to grace, is engaging in a form of critique. It was not intended or understood at the time as "What? That's just what it says... Good news for Gentiles!" As if the violent parts were never there. Rather, it was a way of provoking, an "in your face" deliberate reversal of the texts his audience has embraced as legitimate. These texts justified violence towards their enemies in the name of justice, and they had embraced these texts, just like our culture has embraced the idea that it's okay to torture terrorists since they are just monsters anyway (no need for a trial either). We have this idea ingrained in our minds from actions movies and TV shows like 24 and Chicago PD where the storyline is always "Sometimes the good guys need to use inhumane violence to protect us from the bad guys." That's the narrative we have in our time. Paul is confronting a similar narrative in his own time, confronting his audience's religious hatred by using the very texts that used to justify that violence, and reversing them so that they instead pointed to the fact that we all do hurtful things, and thus are all in need of mercy.
If we are going to get that, we need to realize that it's not the particular form, but the underlying substance that is essential. The forms Jesus tended to use are things like ironic stories, paradoxical statements, and clever word plays to engage in this critique. Paul uses other methods in his writings. Some of those techniques may work today, and some may not. That is, it may be so foreign to us in our culture that we just don't get it. But the point is not the form, but what they are doing with all this, the substance. That substance is a critique of religion, and in particular a critique of using religion to legitimize violence.
Therefore emulating Paul here would not mean we should read a particularly troubling passage from the OT and act as if it instead says something nice. To do that would in fact be to miss the provocation that both Paul and his original audience would have felt, in the same way as we often miss why Jesus' audience gets so mad when he tells them these nice stories of grace.
No, the real way we can adopt the way that Jesus and Paul interpreted scripture is for us to recognize that it primarily involves a critique of religion as well as a critique of Scripture, and for us to learn how to enter into that critique as well. In other words, we need to be morally engaged readers who can courageously question hurtful things in the name of compassion.
We may have different methods and styles (the form) for how to do this than Jesus or Paul, but we need to join them in the act of moral engagement and critique in the name of compassion. To do that will mean questioning things that are done in the name of Scripture, in the name of "what's right" in the name of "what justice demands" in the name of what "love of country" requires. It means standing up to authority when that authority is wrong, no matter what that authority is. That's what we see Jesus and Paul doing. They are calling us to become courageous moral adults with them.