Friday, May 9, 2014

A Different Lord

I've picked up, this week, a densely written book called Paul: In Fresh Perspective, by the British scholar N.T. Wright.  One of this sabbatical's precious gifts is time: time to read and wonder, journal and wonder some more.  I treasure this time, and the penetrating insights of writers like N.T. Wright.  For me, there's something about reading, this kind of reading, that's akin to eating a great meal.  I'm fed in all the best ways.  I savor it.

Which isn't to say this one's easy going.  

On the wall of cave-church: Meteora
Wright locates Paul in the Jewish traditions of the first century (Second Temple Judaism) and the practices and ideology of Roman Empire.  On the latter point, he insists it's impossible to understand Paul's vigorous insistence on 'salvation' and the power of the 'cross' apart from his immersion in Roman language and symbols.  His argument's compelling.

Cicero had argued, a century before Paul, that Rome and its people were the natural home of freedom.  They had established a democracy, the pretense of which was kept up throughout the early imperial period.  So strong was Cicero's belief in Rome's freedom, and the responsibility to share this with the rest of the world, that when his political enemies had him banished and pulled his house down, his friends put up, on its site, a statue of the goddess Liberty.  Similarly, the Republic had long prided itself on its justice, and in the middle years of Augustus' reign 'Iustitia', too, became an official goddess: Rome possessed Justice, and had an obligation to share it with the rest of the world.  Augustus was hailed, following the civil war, as the bringer of peace--though cynics might comment that peace came from military exhaustion rather than virtue, and one Roman cynic did put into the mouth of a conquered foe, a century later, the accusation that the Romans created a wilderness and labeled it 'peace'.  Augustus was also hailed as 'Savior', in gratitude for rescuing Rome from civil strife and external enemies.  Freedom, justice, peace and salvation were the imperial themes that you could expect to meet in the mass media of the ancient world, that is on statues, on coins, in poetry and song and speeches.  (NT Wright, Paul, 63)

Traveling as I am this spring, I'm aware, in ways I'm not at home, of my American identity and citizenship.  I guess that goes without saying: when you travel, you show your papers, you rely on the goodwill and English skills of others.  You're an American on the road, a sojourner in foreign lands.  But I'm made conscious--every time I travel--of my American identity.  Whatever else I bring to the table, I bring an American education, an experience of American privilege and power, and (perhaps) a sense of American entitlement.  We've got the Statue of Liberty, after all.  Land of the free, home of the brave.  How does Wright put it?  "Rome possessed Justice, and had an obligation to share it with the rest of the world."

But reading Wright on empire, I feel something like an uneasy emissary of empire.  Among even the wisest of us, there's a sense of power and privilege: like Rome, we've seen things we are called to share with the world; like Rome, we're keepers of traditions the world may never know without us. 
Icon of Jesus, Thessaloniki
This kind of thing is almost in our DNA.  So we go to ball games, we grab our beer, and we stand every time for The Star Spangled Banner.  With our hands over our hearts.       

Now I'm clearly not renouncing my American life; I'm not burning my passport.  And Paul doesn't seem to insist on this either.  His God is no anarchist.  And there's a place for civic life and even national allegiance.  But Paul's faith requires vigilance, courage and transparency.  Our allegiances are always hedged by the gospel of mercy, liberation and love.  Being an easy emissary of empire doesn't cut it anymore.  

From here, then, N.T. Wright considers Paul's hymn in Philippians 2, a stunning hymn to the justice and freedom of Jesus.  Given everything the Philippians know about empire, and experience in the empire, Paul's poetry is striking and confrontational.  And profoundly, even unsettlingly, evangelical.

"Therefore, my beloved family," says Paul, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."  He is not at all talking about the performance of moral good works designed to earn ultimate salvation.  He knows that the Philippians live in a world where something called 'salvation' is on offer--at a price: where they are being invited to enjoy this salvation and live by its rules and submit to its lord.  He is urging them to recognize that, as they have a different lord, so they have a different salvation, and they must, with fear and trembling, work out in practice what it means to live by this salvation rather than the one their culture is forcing upon them.
Whatever else you want to say about Paul, he was totally committed to training up whole communities that lived by 'a different lord' and embraced 'a different salvation.'  This meant all kinds of tension with things as they stood and empires as they governed and values as they rowed merrily along.  It meant working out "in practice" what Jesus was all about and what grace was all about and what peace (not goofy peace, but Jesus' peace) really did for a community.

As I travel around these parts, some of the parts Paul himself visited and worked as teacher and mentor, I feel a little closer to the prophet, to his courage and his hope.  Just a bit.