Paul and Racist Language

Behind the Lutheran Church is a man named Martin Luther who said, “”First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn.” I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.” These are from Luther’s disgusting On the Jews and Their Lies.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.47.16 AMIn Paul Behaving Badly, Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien, after quoting the above and more from Luther, said, “After the horrors of the Holocaust and in light of ongoing racial tensions in the United States, we cannot consign racism in general or anti-Semitism specifically to the status of a personality quirk. If Paul was an anti-Semite, that creates a serious problem for Christianity.” What is racism? “For the sake of the present conversation, when we say “racism” we mean the belief that some races or ethnicities are superior to others.” Was Paul a racist according to this definition?

In a letter to Titus, a young pastor in Crete, Paul urges Titus to “rebuke” his congregation “sharply” (Tit 1:13). They are intractable people, Paul claims. “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons'” (Tit 1:12). … ‘This saying is true” (1:13).

In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul refers to them Wl
th what feels like another slur: “foolish Galatians” (Gal 3:1). The Romans named thai entire region of central Turkey by the generic title Galatia, a Roman mispronunciation of the word Celtic. … When Paul calls the church a bunch of “foolish Galatians, it would be a lot like calling people from the South (our home region) “rednecks,” “hillbillies” or “white trash.” Paul does this on purpose.

Colorful as Paul could be in his interactions with Gentiles, Paul reserves his harshest language for his fellow countrymen, the Jews. He calls them Christ-killers who have their hearts set against the things of God. Not only have they “killed the Lord Jesus” but also “the prophets” who were proclaiming God’s word, and most recently they “also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone” (1 Thess 2:15). … At his most virulent he even calls some Jews “dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh” and “enemies of the cross of Christ” whose “destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame” because their “mind is set on earthly things” (Phil 3:2,18,19).

Yes, these are his own words. But there’s another side to Paul that baffles anyone who wants to dismiss him with racist language.

[Yet] He poses an important rhetorical question to the Romans: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” (Rom 3:1). … “Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Rom 3:2).

[In using the terms two paragraphs back…] Paul is not calling all Jews these things. Rather, he is referring to a small group of ethnic Israelites — those living in Judea — who are followers of Jesus but are distorting the gospel by teaching that Gentile converts must behave like ethnic Israelites if they want to be saved.

Most often Paul is referring to Judeans rather than to ethnic Israelites; to translate “Judean” as “Jew” courts misunderstanding. Jesus was not a Judean; he was a Galilean Jew. This can be nuanced but it is a fair point from the authors. It doesn’t let Paul off the hook completely but we gain a more precise understanding.

There was plenty of racism in the 1st Century, not least Jewish racism:

The Greek poet Petronius ridiculed the Jews and their religious convictions by pointing out what he considered the nitpicking nature of their piety: The Jew may worship his pig-god and clamour in the ears of high heaven, but unless he also cuts back with the knife the region of his groin, and unless he unlooses by art the knotted head, he shall go forth from the holy city cast forth from the people, and transgress the sabbath by breaking the law of fasting.

There’s no denying Paul employed slurs and dealt in stereotypes that most Americans today, Christian or otherwise, would consider racist. 

The authors think Paul’s language about the Galatians and Cretans deserves more careful reading and that his words are not as strong or racist as they might appear. Even calling them Judean dogs can be read as (“friendly”?) fire from Paul for his own heritage included being educated in Judea. That is, this is how ancients spoke about and with those they disagreed. Yes, that’s right. But…

Let us be very clear about one thing: this may be one of those times it is best not to imitate Paul. We would not suggest that anyone incorporate racially insensitive language into personal or public discourse in an effort to enhance discipleship. If Paul were in ministry in the United States in the twenty-first century, we believe he’d avoid hurtful racial stereotypes and opt instead for rhetorical strategies more suited to his audience.

The irony of this about Paul and his rhetoric is that Paul is being used for the very opposite point of view:

However, in recent years the racist charge against Paul has largely vanished and his writings have been used to show that Christians should be leading the charge against racism because of the gospel. Just look at Paul’s cross-cultural ministry and you see at once the power of Christ to transcend the cultural boundaries of race and ethnicity.

As far as Paul was concerned, the gospel of Christ made Jews and Gentiles equal—not the same—and brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God, heirs of the promise. And sometimes it’s brothers and sisters, the ones who love you the most, who use the strongest language for your good.

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