I like Paul. The more I study his life and letters, the more admiration and affection I have for him. In our LGBTQ+ Sticky Scriptures Series, I was impressed by his use of rhetoric in Romans to emphasize our common shortcomings and need for God. And I found our study of cultural issues, vocabulary, and lists in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy fascinating. Paul gets a bad rap, though. So as we enter the home stretch of our year in Galatians, I was delighted to find some of Richard Rohr’s thoughts on Paul in my inbox. I hope his perspective is helpful to you as well.
Paul offers a theological and ontological foundation for human dignity and flourishing that is inherent, universal, and indestructible by any evaluation of race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, class, education, physical ability, or IQ…. The Spirit of God is clearly democratic, unmerited, and inclusive.
Paul restored human dignity at a time when perhaps four out of five people were slaves, women were considered the property of men, prostitution was a form of temple worship, and oppression and injustice toward the poor and the outsider were the norm. Against all of this, Paul proclaims, “One and the same Spirit was given to us all to drink!” (1 Cor 12:13). “You, all of you, are sons and daughters of God, now clothed in Christ, where there is no distinction between male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).
No longer was the human body a cheap thing, degraded by slavery and abuse. Paul says in many formulations, “You are the very temple of God.” Paul’s teaching on sexuality (1 Cor 6:12-20) wasn’t a moralistic purity code, as most of us hear it now. Paul was saying that the human body has dignity, so you have a right to demand and give respect to it. Because of this understanding, a woman could claim her own dignity and refuse to give her body away to every man who wanted it. (This probably explains the early admiration of virginity in Christian circles.)
A man was told to respect and take responsibility for his own body-temple, which is surely a good thing. But many read Paul’s words as a guilt-laden prohibition on which our very salvation rests. It was surely meant to be a positive and dignifying message, not a finger-shaking, moralistic one. Some boundaries are almost always needed to create an ego structure with healthy self-esteem.
In Paul’s estimation, the old world was forever gone and a new world of universal human dignity was grounded in our objective and universal Christ identity. This was surely threatening to those with various forms of power (whose feeling of importance lies in being “higher” than others). Yet this Gospel was utterly attractive and hopeful to the 95% who were “lower” in status. It assured universal and equal dignity, made present through the Eucharist in the early church where all were equals. Sociologists think this was why Christianity spread so quickly….
Today we are witnessing a fear-based reaction in the United States from people who need their white (often male) privilege and superiority, who do not want to be told that people who are poor, any who cannot afford health insurance, refugees and immigrants, people of color, and individuals with bodily or developmental limitations have equal dignity. Power systems like to preserve a hierarchy in which some people are higher and some are lower. The Gospel has no use for it.*
May the radical Gospel that Paul preached continue to transform us through our relationship with Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
*Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis, disc 2 (Sounds True: 2010), CD;
and an unpublished talk (February 2015) at the Center for Action and Contemplation.