Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pauline Marxism

Borg and Crossan proclaim the revolutionary nature of Paul's version of Christianity

I've enjoyed a short book (The First Paul) by a couple of liberal theologians (Marcus Borg and John Crossan, or B&C), reconstructing the history of Paul of Tarsus and his message. Their readings of Paul seem a little strained in places, but on the whole, the book is very convincing and also quite uplifting. Little of what they say is new (liberation theology and all that), but it is very well presented with penetrating historical insight, and also worth remembering in this time when the most vocally religious among us bleat about the horror of socialized medicine, among other communitarian evils.

B&C write quite concisely, so I will follow them and summarize some of their main points:

- Only about a third of Pauline writing in the new testament is authentic. Later writings diverge increasingly with time, until they become diametrically anti-Paul.

- Paul reached an agreement with his fellow apostles in Jerusalem that he should preach to gentiles without the requirement of keeping Jewish law, while the others (Barnabas, James, et al.) would convert Jews and maintain the law.

- Paul's mission ended up being a systematic approach to gentiles who were already "attached" to synagogues in large cities of the eastern empire. About half of Antioch's synagogue attendees, for instance, were counted as gentiles not keeping the law, but interested in the god of the Jews. How they were attached is not entirely clear, though this may have something to do with the Essene and Therapeutae movements mentioned in a prior post. Gandy and Freke liken these relationships to Madonna's latter-day dalliance with the Kaballa.

- Paul did not preach Jesus's sacrificial atonement for individual human sins, nor for original sin. Instead, he preached the horror and injustice of Jesus's sacrifice- that it held a mirror to the injustice of the world, contrasted with the new world possible through love.

- Paul's core teaching was a rejection of the ambient Roman ethic of peace through violence, terror, and hierarchy, in favor of peace through egalitarian distributive justice and love, arising from what B&C term "a spirit transplant" from Christ crucified.

- Communities that Paul founded were "share" communities, where all were supposed to help others in need, share equally in sacred meals, and contribute what they could. Freeloaders became a problem early on, exemplifying the classic economic problem of monitoring who is freeloading (who is truly a widow, for instance).

- Paul's gentile communities were supposed to contribute monetarily to the Jerusalem-centered Jewish Christian communities that represented "true" Christianity (characterized as "utopian" by B&G). A falling-out between Paul and his Jerusalem colleagues at the Jerusalem temple seems to have resulted in his being packed off to Rome for imprisonment and eventual execution, eerily echoing the fate of Jesus himself, though B&G only piece/surmise this together- it is not reported directly in Acts.

Most striking of all this is the proposition that Paul's agenda was strongly social and explicitly revolutionary. Not only were the reigning gods and emperor of Rome left by the wayside with the repeated and insistant cry of "Jesus is Lord", but the reigning power-ethic of Rome was turned on its head, with slaves and women given equal status in the new communities. The Corinthian community, with substantial inequality of wealth, found this quite hard to swallow, leading to heated remonstrations from Paul.

It is this agenda that explains why the new Christian community was persecuted so consistently. Their doctrine as well as practice was an ongoing rebuke to the powers that be, whose reply was to use their default ethic of oppression and expurgation to blot them out. Yet it also accounts for the attraction Paul's communities held for the rootless and exploited of the urban empire (the alienated proletariat, one might almost say), especially when he dropped the need to follow Jewish law in all its own oppressiveness.

Paul's program (partly channeling Jesus), was a critique of the ambient Roman system, much like Communism was a critique of our ambient capitalist system. Rome's hierarchy reached from the emperor-gods at the top to the most cruel mining slavery at the bottom. It depended on military conquest to get slaves, to subjugate competitors, to gain resources and markets. And it was unthinkable to change this system which combined church and state with an antique, time-honored ethical system. (Though as I have discussed, gradual amelioration was also happening in the empire, apart from Christian influences).

In our own day, Communism has been the most radical and sustained critique of capitalism. Heaven knows that capitalism needs a critique- it is cruel and heartless, alienating to its workers and destructive of social decency. The elevation of greed as its outstanding moral guide is repugnant, and the relentless gravitation of every sphere of life into its maw of commercialization is also disturbing, if not appalling. While through a great deal of work and struggle for amelioration we have arrived at a more moral point than the Roman ethical system of antiquity, (with depressingly frequent backsliding in the antebellum American South and elsewhere), we still live mired in a system that divides our souls and fails to give us the elemental happiness possible in the most primitive family/tribal settings.

Yet economics must have its due. The communist/socialist critique, however trenchant in the hands of Marx, Jesus, Paul and others, has not provided a replacement to take us to the promised land. Communism was particularly deficient in this regard, and one might make a similar point about Christianity. As early Christianity spread, Rome's economic basis was shrivelling from ongoing corruption / concentration of economic power by leading landholders and from lack of new resources via conquest. While Constantine, Theodosius and successors saw Christianity as a new hierarchical glue to hold the empire(s) together, it was not a helpful economic glue. Quite the opposite- its preoccupations were doctrinal and otherworldly, leaving this current world largely to rot. Its charities ameliorated in some small degree the harshness of economic failure, whether ancient or modern, but its doctrines were and remain disinterested in, even antithetical to, vibrant economic activity (excepting, perhaps, the controversial Protestant view of salvation through hard work).

Squaring the circle of morality, ethics, communitarianism, and economic performance remains the great pending work of modern political economy, and this work is actually becoming more and more interesting as we learn more about man's irrationality and basic unsuitability to classical economic theory.

  • The New Yorker does Judas.
  • More on those death panels.
  • Gawande reinforces his message on health costs.
  • Health care in the larger picture.
  • The WSJ (John Mackey) does health reform. Most charming quote: "Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?"
  • Leading "Intelligent Design" scientist William Dembski asks students taking "Christian Faith and Science, masters course" at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to (and I am not kidding): "provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade)".
  • Jerry Coyne writes another dispatch vs religion, in TNR.


  1. Burk~ sounds like an interesting read. I'll have to pick up a copy and add it to the growing pile.
    Something that I think has definitely been "corrupted" within the Christian Church is the historical aspect. Jesus was a Jew, and not only that, a "messianic Jew," who believed the scriptures about a coming age when God would lead his people once more. This is really a cultural thing, and while Jesus' message (and, apparently, Paul's as well) rang true in its quest for justice, righteousness, equality and love, it needn't be a distinctly (or exclusively) spiritual message. Reminds me of Monty Python's Life of Brian.
    In all my readings of the Bible, I'd never liked Paul's letters (perhaps Ephesians, if I had to choose the best), and the more I learned the less I liked him. It seemed like he had taken advantage of a growing socio-cultural-political movement for the dissemination of his own ideas (the way conservative Republicans get everyone riled up over abortion, and then can sneak the low-income tax hike in while no one is looking). But perhaps Paul's not to blame, if the later writings weren't Paul at all.
    If you haven't already, you'd enjoy reading some Conrad Noel (a Christian socialist). Robert Woodifield is good as well.

  2. Hi, Kelley-

    Hey, wasn't Jesus blonde? I'd agree that B&C seem to have cleaned up Paul substantially in their presentation. The original reads far more small-minded. But after centuries through the text-grinder, who knows? Thanks for the suggestions- the red catholic tradition is fascinating.

  3. "- Paul did not preach Jesus's sacrificial atonement for individual human sins, nor for original sin. Instead, he preached the horror and injustice of Jesus's sacrifice- that it held a mirror to the injustice of the world, contrasted with the new world possible through love."

    hi Burk,

    Great blog - I have the book, but haven't read it yet. I agree with all the points you have presented. The one I copied above may be the most problematic for some to accept, and I must admit that the theology of Paul is very murky at times. I blame some of this on our lack of context. We don't have letters or ideas in front of us that he was responding to, etc. We don't clearly understand his assumptions.

    I can see how Paul preached that God's favor (grace) was on Christ because of Christ's righteous life. Christ's death would be seen as an extension of this righteousness, since he never backed away from his righteous life even in the face of this death. The death itself may not have been required by God, but was rather the natural way that an unjust world would respond to true goodness. Therefore Christ "died for us".

    Romans 5 is an interesting read on this topic.

    Anyway, great points. I think Paul gets a bad rap, despite certain weaknesses in his writing. But as you pointed out, only around 7 of the letters are considered genuinely Paul's, and even within those there are possible later scribal interpolations (especially the 1 Corinthians passages on women keeping silent in the gathering.......which occur AFTER Paul gives women rules for how to speak in the gathering (prophesying).

    He was a man of his time, and considering that makes his positions quite exceptional. I recommend Gary Wills' book "What Paul Meant" - another great read.

  4. Steven, Burk:
    The death itself may not have been required by God, but was rather the natural way that an unjust world would respond to true goodness. Therefore Christ "died for us".
    This sentiment is echoed quite eloquently in Robert Woodifield's short text, Catholicism: Humanist and Democratic. He wrote, "Our Lord's... response to God, and his consequent striving for God's Kingdom of justice and brotherhood and freedom on earth, brought upon him suffering and violent death at the hands of unjust and greedy and tyrannical men. But the essence of his sacrifice was his response to God, not the suffering and death to which, in the circumstances, that response inevitably led."
    I'm interested to know, which letters do the authors directly ascribe to Paul, and which do they unquestioningly ascribe to others?

  5. Hi, Kelly-

    The wiki site gives the consensus rundown. Fine sentiments, all!

  6. Why do people take all of this "paul" stuff so seriously in 2009--it is a "theological" (logical???) growth industry.

    In Truth & Reality we have no real idea as to what happened way back then, or even at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon.

    Does any of this nonsense help anyone at all to understand themselves in 2009?