About face

March 15, 2010

In this week’s epistle reading, Paul demonstrates that mix of humility
and pride that so definitively marks off his writing from any other
voice in the Bible.

Paul is proud of the fact that if anyone
wants to get in some kind of macho contest over the marks of
righteousness in Jewish tradition, he would win. He’s got it all, from
circumcision to full Jewish identity, Benjaminite lineage, knowledge and
practice of Jewish law, training and identity as a Pharisee and a
persecutor of the church to boot.

But Paul’s encounter with
Christ has led him to treat that entire heritage as excrement. It is
hard to overstate how shocking this choice of words is here. There is no
gainsaying how offensive it must have been and could still be to those
who continue to value the heritage and identity that Paul has rejected
for himself.

But Paul is not worried about them right now. He has
turned decisively away from every aspect of his former identity and
counted it as worthless. He has turned decisively toward a new identity,
in what Nietzsche would have called a revaluation of all values. The
one who fiercely persecuted Christ and his people has now come to value a
relationship with Christ just as fiercely, as the entire purpose of his
existence. Paul wants to know Christ,
and not just things about him but specific dimensions of him: the
experience of sharing in his sufferings and in the power of his
resurrection, in this life and the life to come.

This is the
ultimate about face recorded in scripture. Its radicality has challenged
Christians ever since, and not always in constructive ways.
Conversionist traditions such as my own Baptist brand of Christianity
have tended to lift up Paul’s reversal as setting the standard for our
own. The best conversions were the juiciest ones, involving the deepest
descent into sin in order to set up the grandest and most profound
conversion stories.

Pity the good little Baptist ten-year-old who
really did believe in Jesus and wanted to walk the aisle but had little
grotesque sin to repent. Eventually an incrementalist or
developmentalist kind of conversion narrative forced its way into
acceptance in churches rooted in a Pauline conversionism. But the latter
paradigm often resurfaced when that ten-year-old got off the straight
and narrow as a teen. Second and third baptisms, with real repentance of
real sin, sometimes followed.

Religious psychology aside, the
starkness of Paul’s move here does challenge those who claim to be
Christians today. It has not required much in the way of an about face
for most of us to fit together Christian faith and regular life in
American culture. We don’t have to count it all excrement. . .which can
be very confusing.

Additional lectionary columns by Gushee
appear in the March 9 issue of the
Century—click here to subscribe.