A while back, I wrote this response to the LA Times that got the Far Right all in a "twitter" about my evil liberalism. I have read comments and letters carrying such incredible venom, that I can hardly stand it. I have been charged with many things, perhaps the scariest is that I am a good Episcopalian! Oh the horror!
It is with this frame that I came across Paul's teaching to the Galatian church that got me thinking. In Gal. 6:12-16, Paul states:
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised--only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule--peace be upon them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. [NRSV]Of course, this wasn't what I read, but what I turned to after. This is the translation I read from The Message:
These people who are attempting to force the ways of circumcision on you have only one motive: They want an easy way to look good before others, lacking the courage to live by a faith that shares Christ's suffering and death. All their talk about the law is gas. They themselves don't keep the law! And they are highly selective in the laws they do observe. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side. That is contemptible!
For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. Can't you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do--submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God--his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them!
In reading this, I could not help but wonder about what causes the radical right such anger and begets such ire. I also couldn't help but notice the circumcision argument. The first great fight in the church, Paul vs. James over the notion of circumcision represents the greatest theological conversation in church history. In some ways, we are still dealing with its repercussions and ramifications.
On the one hand, you have Jewish law and scriptural-based traditions that required every Jew to be circumcised. Further, the practical rationales included the simple fact that Jesus, James, Peter, John, and even Paul were all circumcised. To be a follower of Jesus, from this view, was to be Jewish. Some might consider this to be orthodoxy before there was such a thing.
From the other point of view, we have Paul's ministry to the gentiles. Paul (rightly) recognizes Jesus's willingness to bend and break Jewish laws when they impeded the Great Commandment. This means that Paul's understanding of Jesus's teaching was to spread the Good News to all people, regardless of their heritage. By this, I think, we are still in unanimous agreement. Where it gets sticky, though, is in the part where Paul does not require circumcision of the gentiles, that new converts no longer have to follow the Jewish laws to which we previously adhered. This is a very different suggestion--and considering the current debate--one that we would not have an easy time today in answering.
And this brings up the root of the hypocrisy. If scripture is the central authority, how can we denounce Paul? It appears to me, that if we believe that the "orthodox" (James?) thing to do is to adhere to the law and the authority of Scripture, then how are we to respond to Paul's interpretation of the law? How do we teach this lesson? Do we then denounce Paul and throw into question or standing on scriptural authority? Or do we agree with Paul and, as the Pharisees, appear hypocritical in matters of theology? Or, as Sunday's gospel suggests, do we pretend that we don't know the answer?
As if that weren't enough, this was in the Psalm today (from The Message):
I said, "GOD, be gracious!"
Put me together again--
my sins have torn me to pieces."
My enemies are wishing the worst for me;
they make bets on what day I will die.
If someone comes to see me,
he mouths empty platitudes,
All the while gathering gossip about me
to entertain the street-corner crowd.
These "friends" who hate me
whisper slanders all over town.
They form committees
to plan misery for me.
Hey, with friends like these...