Monday, May 16, 2011

Paul as Apostle of Peace: a Quaker Perspective

In March, 2003, my wife Kathleen of blessed memory and I went on a cruise to places associated with the Apostle Paul. This trip was sponsored by the Methodist church and attracted over 300 Christians, of whom I was the only Quaker. As we traveled to places like Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Phillipi, etc. we heard the sobering news of impending war and our hearts were chilled. When the bombing of Baghdad took place, we were headed to the island of Patmos, where John had his revelations, and I burst into tears--tears of shame and grief for what my country was doing. One of the blessings of this trip was learning to appreciate "that of God" in the Apostle Paul. I saw his mission in new light--as someone whose life had been transformed by Love, and who became an aposlte of Peace. This is a talk I gave at a Quaker church when I returned to the USA:

Let me confess that I have never particularly appreciated the apostle Paul. Unlike Jesus, who healed the sick, fed the hungry, and told wonderful stories, Paul mostly went around preaching and trying to convert people, just like a modern-day evangelist. A lot of Paul’s letters are filled with notions that don’t seem particularly relevant or appealing.

Take, for instance, his advice, “Slaves, obey your master,” or “Women, keep quiet and listen to your men folk.” Not exactly the sort of advice that we Friends are likely to take to heart.

Unlike Jesus, Paul made homophobic statements that have been used by right-wing Christians to justify the persecution of gays and lesbians.

I also have a hard time with Paul’s concept of predestination. I can’t imagine why God would choose some people to be saved, and others damned, before their birth. Why would our Heavenly Father do permanent damage to unborn kids when an earthly parent would get prosecuted for trying to pull such a stunt? The idea of predestination was popular with the Calvinists who settled in New England. Being God’s Chosen People gave them an excuse to persecute Indians and Quakers. The idea that some people are Chosen and some are not still infects the thinking of many Americans. Our current leadership seems to feel that our American birthright is a divine Blessing which entitles us to do pretty much whatever we want, regardless of law and consequences. This is not an idea that Paul would have endorsed, but unfortunately, it is one of the negative consequences of believing in the concept of a Chosen People.

I also can’t believe that God required that His Son Jesus lay down his life in order to redeem man from the original sin of Adam and Eve. It seems absurd for God to hold against us sins that were committed by our great, great, great grand parents, and then require His own so to die to square these old debts.

Finally, Paul’s idea that we are saved by faith, not works, has been used by some to justify a brand of Christianity that emphasizes personal holiness at the expense of social responsibility. That’s why Quakers have generally preferred James’ epistle in which he says that true religion requires us to help widows and orphans, and that faith without works is dead.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. It is easy to find fault with Paul’s theology.

I also had some problems with Paul as a personality. He was raised to believe that he, as a Jew, alone had possession of the Truth. The rest of the world was wrong. This is not an idea that sits well with liberal Quakers, or Christians, for that matter.

When Paul heard about a sect of Jews who believed what he saw as heresy, he was willing to persecute and even kill those who disagreed with him.

These are the ugly facts about Paul’s life and upbringing. His beliefs had much in common with fundamentalists and religious fanatics of our time.

One of the benefits of going on the tour of places associated with Paul was that I decided to do what an old Indian saying suggests: Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins. As we walked in the footsteps of Paul, I began to see this man differently.

He didn’t stay the same person all his life. Something happened to him on the road to Damascus that changed him and the course of human history. He “saw the Light,” he had a vision of Christ, and he was never the same. He experienced physical blindness and realized that he had been spiritually blind all his life. Thanks to the healing work of Christ, his sight was restored and he was able to see not only the physical, but the spiritual world in a new way. As George Fox put it after a similar experience, “creation had a new smell.”

This is incredibly good news. If Paul could change, so can George Bush and Osama Bin Ladin. There’s even hope for you and me!

Paul remained passionately convinced that he had found the Truth, but he was no longer willing to impose his beliefs on others. Instead he became committed to building a community based on Love and forgiveness. He preached not just by words, but by example.

It was interesting to go to the places where Paul traveled. We began at one of the endpoints of Paul’s journey, Athens, a city of intellectuals where Paul was welcomed, but where he made few converts. We went to the hill of Ares, God of War, on the Akropolis where Paul was questioned by the Athenians. The Athenians were polite, but it was clear that they more interested in philosophizing about religion than in changing their lives. So Paul moved on. His job was to heal the spiritually sick, not to intellectualize.

Our second stop was Corinth, a seaport city known for its excellent brothels. There you still see ruins of the famous temples where the devotees of Aphrodite plied their trade. Paul was well received in Corinth, and it was there that he gave his famous message about love that has become so popular at weddings. Those acquainted with the debased forms of love found in the temple of Aphrodite must have been astonished to hear about the new kind of love that Paul advocated. A love based on forgiveness, patience, and self-sacrifice. Paul himself tried to model this new form of love, although it wasn’t always easy. He lost his temper with the Corinthians, but they forgave him, and he forgave them. That’s what this new kind of love is all about.

Our next stop was Thessalonica, in northern Greece. This city is very different in character from Athens, a seaport, industrial city rather than a tourist haven. Thessalonica is the gateway to the Balkans, and most of its old buildings date back to the Middle Ages, not to classical times. In Paul’s time, Thessalonica was associated with the Alexander the Great and the Northern Greeks known as Macedonians, a rough sort of people who loved to wage war. Paul was not well received at first in Thessalonica. He was basically run out of town, but he kept coming back. He was anything if not persistent. And his persistence paid off. He managed to help establish a Christian community there. Paul’s love, like Jesus’, was relentless. He never gave up.

From Thessalonica our cruise ship passed by Mt. Athos, the famous center of Orthodox monasticism. Mt. Athos is an interesting place. The monks at Mt. Athos basically live in another world. No females of any kind are allowed, not even female animals like cows and chickens. These monks have decided to follow the example of Jesus and Paul and live utterly celibate lives. But unlike Paul and Jesus, they have separated themselves from the temptation of women. (Not even teenage boys are allowed.) We cruised within half a mile of Mt. Athos and were able to see its marvelous monasteries at sunset. It was very romantic. We joked that we were not allowed to come closer than half a mile to Mt Athos lest some of the monks try to swim out to the ship and catch sight of our lovely Methodist women.

From Mt. Athos we went to Philippi, where Paul made his first European convert who was, interestingly enough, a woman. Lydia. He converted her at a stream outside of the city where there is a small chapel today. Many people from the formerly Communist Bulgaria come there to affirm their conversion to Christianity.

It was a Phillipi that I had the staggering realization that without Paul, Christianity might never have become a world religion. It may have simply faded away as a minor Middle Eastern cult. If it weren’t for Paul, you and I might be worshipping oak trees or Apollo or maybe even Aphrodite today!

We next went to Istanbul where we visited Top Kapi, the Blue Mosque, and Agia Sophia, the greatest church of Orthodox Christianity, but since Paul never set foot there, I won’t talk about it.

On the boat, my wife read to me the passage from Corinthians in which Paul describes how meeting for worship should be conducted. “This sounds just like a Quaker Meeting,” she said. You may recall Paul’s instructions:

When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.(27-33)
My wife wasn’t the first to note how closely Quaker worship resembled that of early Christians. Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary:

If there is any sect that recalls the times of the first christians, it is undoubtedly that of the Quakers. Nothing more resembles the apostles. The apostles received the spirit, and the Quakers receive the spirit. Three or four of the apostles and disciples spoke at once in the assembly on the third floor; the Quakers do as much on the ground floor. According to saint Paul women were allowed to preach, and according to the same saint Paul they were forbidden to preach; female Quakers preach by virtue of the first permission.

Yes, Paul contradicted himself. He told women to keep silent and not preach, and then quoted the passage from Isaiah in which it was said that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” He also said that “in Christ there is no male or female, slave or free, Gentile or Jew…”

Paul the mystic was sometimes at odds with Paul the first-century Jew. It’s Paul the mystic that I find most appealing. This is also what also attracted Rufus Jones to Paul.

According to Jones, Paul’s “Letters contain many testimonies of experiences which under girded his life and which explains his unique apostolic power. “God, who said in the beginning, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shined into my heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor 4:6). “Though my outward man decays, my inward man is renewed day by day while I look not at the things that are seen but at the things that are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.”

A great deal of what is sometimes called St. Paul’s theology is rather an interpretation (in terms of his Jewish and Hellenisic background of thought) of his profound personal experience” (p. 254). Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion

One of the most impressive places we went on our trip was Ephesus, a city on the coast of what is today Turkey. In ancient times, Turkey was called Asia Minor and consisted of Greek-speaking colonies.

The ruins at Ephesus are fantastic, some of the best preserved Greek ruins in the world. An earthquake covered up part of the city, and it’s been restored by archeologists so that you can get a feeling for what it’s like to stroll down the marble streets of an ancient Greek city. On each side of the streets are columns where there used to be porticos and various businesses, including a library and of course a brothel. Paul not only found plenty of converts in Ephesus, he also found strong opponents. Ephesus was very big in the idol business. Their chief goddess was Diana, not the virgin goddess of the Greeks, but a local fertility goddess thought to have awesome powers. The idol makers thought that Paul’s message would be bad for business and they ran him out of town. Thanks to the Ephesians, Paul was sent to Rome and his final martyrdom.

Our final gathering was in the huge amphitheater where the idol makers attacked Paul. There five hundred of us shared communion, sang hymns, and worshipped God together. It was a powerful experience.

All in all, Kathleen and I had a wonderful trip. It was a chance to hang out with over 500 Christians of every imaginable type, from California liberal to deep-Southern convervative. We were all on the same boat together, both literally and figuratively.

Our trip was overshadowed by war. We all knew that war was coming. I was the only Quaker on board, so I felt that it was my job to preach peace. Most of the Methodists were very grateful. Some said, “You said what I would like to say.” It was interesting to realize that we Quakers are expected to be prophets. That’s our job as Christians, to speak out about the peace that God intends for the world.

War broke out just as we were leaving Ephesus to go to Padmos, an island not far away where St John was exiled and where he wrote his Revelations. We were on a ferry to Padmos when I heard the news that we were bombing Bagdhad. I immediately burst into uncontrollable sobbing. A minister came up to me and said, “Are you okay? Are you sick?” I was crying so hard that I could hardly speak. When I finally was able to talk, I said, “Yes, I am sick. Sick of what our country is doing.” I later heard that Senator Byrd gave a speech on the floor of the Senate in which he said that he wept in shame for what his country had done.

We live in a time not unlike Paul’s. Only instead of the Roman empire trying to rule the world and impose its version of peace, the Pax Romana, we now have an American empire, a Pax Americana. Just as the Roman emperor felt that he had a direct connection with the gods, our current President feels that he has a direct line to the Almighty.

Those who support the American empire believe that peace can be imposed by force. Peace means bowing to American authority and doing what American interests require. But Paul, like Jesus, had a different vision of what peace means.

He saw humanity as ruled by selfishness and greed, vainly trying to control its desires through laws and ordinances. This approach doesn’t work; it only creates guilt and anger and conflict. We become “children of wrath.” And we end up hurting ourselves and others.

So God sent Jesus Christ to show us a better way. No longer would the world be separated into the Chosen and the un-Chosen. Those who were alienated from God would be brought home, brought back into the family of Christ.

While in prison, Paul wrote these words to the Ephesians—to the Jews and the pagans as well to the Christians:

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us….He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father, so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (1 Ephesians 2: 14-19).

Paul’s vision is one that I cherish. There is no “us and them.” There is only us, part of one family, united by a loving God who is willing to sacrifice everything out of love so that we can know peace.

Paul’s heart was changed by this love, and he came to know true peace, the peace that passes all understanding. The peace that transforms the world, one person at a time. Let us pray for that peace to begin with us.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to note that when Paul was blind he also did not eat or drink. I think this was because of the terrible remorse he felt for his previous career of persecuting the followers of the Way. As soon as Ananias spoke the words "Brother Paul"--indicating forgiveness from the community of his former persecutees--he experienced release.
    --Louis LeFevre