Methinks the Apostle Doth Protest Too Much!
I highly recommend Tim Archer’s blog, The Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts. Tim is a better writer than I am, and a far more gracious human being. He can tolerate far greater levels of frustration and inanity without bursting into sarcasm and satire. He blogs about many things, mostly related to how we might live out the mission of God as aliens and pilgrims in this land. He’s also much better at writing short, punchy blogs than I am (although blogging via email might help me out where that is concerned).
Related to that, Tim’s been blogging more directly about the idea of “American Christianity,” Christianity and politics, and the dangers of wedding oneself too closely to a particular political party. Paul’s measured use of his Roman citizenship and his membership in the Pharisee party (see Acts 22:21 – 23:11) is often torn from its narrative context and used as a proof-text approving Christian pride in national citizenship and allegiance to a particular political party. To which I say, “If THAT is what Paul is doing, methinks the Apostle doth protest too much!” Here’s what I wrote over there.
Guys, look at what actually happened! Cover over the chapter break with your finger if it helps. Look at the drama! Look at the bookend verses (the end of the conversion narrative and the end of the trial narrative).
Of *course* he wasn’t advocating Pharisaism, although there is absolutely nothing within the lifestyle or doctrine of an orthodox Pharisee that would make it, in and of itself, anti-Christian. Being a Pharisee is no different than following the Rule of Benedict or making any other sort of vows. Neither one will earn you a penny’s worth of grace, but are both honorable ways of striving to live a pure and self-controlled life.
But back to the drama! Paul tells his conversion story and starts a riot. The Roman officer, thinking Paul is a Zealot, decides to use the 1st century version of waterboarding to find out the truth. As he’s being strapped down, then and only then does Paul whip out his Roman citizenship card (I’d have had that bad boy hanging around my neck like Flavor Flav’s clock
— Paul’s a better man than I am).
He uses his Roman citizenship only to further his life’s mission to preach the gospel to Caesar and beyond (remember how Luke bookends this story!).
Imagine a court scene where Paul is his own defense attorney (he hires a Roman lawyer by chapter 24, but here he is his own counsel), Tony Soprano is the prosecutor, and the Roman tribune is the judge. The tribune calls everyone together, and when Paul begins to testify, high priest Ananias (Tony Soprano) commands one of his leg-breakers to smack Paul around a bit. I guess he didn’t like his testimony! Unsurprisingly, Paul doesn’t appreciate this illegal treatment, and says so — in true Pauline fashion — “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
You don’t walk into Bada-Bing and smart-mouth Tony Soprano. It just doesn’t happen! So his cronies jump on Paul, shouting, “You dare to insult God’s high priest???” Paul, no stranger to sarcasm, pops off with something like, “I couldn’t tell he was high priest. He wasn’t acting much like a high priest. How was I supposed to know?” There’s no way that Paul, a Jerusalem-trained Pharisee who studied under Gamaliel, who earlier in the story got a warrant from this same court to go to Damascus and terrorize and arrest Christians, doesn’t recognize the high priest! “Brothers, I did not realize he was the high priest” indeed! I’m not saying he was lying — rather, as a brilliant lawyer and communicator, he uses sarcasm and double entendre to score a point.
Then he sets the two parties against each other, knowing that whatever anyone in the room thinks about the Christ Paul follows, the Pharisees will back him because of the resurrection of the dead (see 23:9). Because let’s be honest — is he REALLY on trial JUST BECAUSE he believes in the resurrection? That’s not even half of it — the Pharisees certainly don’t want him killed because he believes in resurrection, and it isn’t the prime motivator of the Saduccees either. To the Pharisees, he is a rabble-rouser teaching Jews to abandon their “sacred culture and heritage” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) To the Saduccees, he is a rabble-rouser whose penchant for starting riots will bring the Roman legion down from the Antonia Fortress once and for all. What Paul says isn’t UNTRUE, precisely, but it is a convenient version of the truth that serves the gospel.
Basically, he starts another riot! Paul knows that this conspiracy is tenuous at best, and he knows precisely where the fault-line is. Like a master sculptor, he sets the chisel, gives it one solid tap, and shatters this union of hard-hearted men who could have simply said, “No he isn’t! We don’t care what he thinks about resurrection! He’s on trial for sedition, for preaching another Kyrios!” But they foolishly argue amongst themselves, and the tribune is forced to carry him away. Like his Roman citizenship, Paul uses his membership in the Pharisee party only to further his mission.
My favorite part is just how savvy Paul is about how things work in the real world, and how he’s totally not above playing the sides against each other to advance the gospel. One more episode of “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
I think that instruction from Jesus, “Be ye wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” is undervalued, ignored, deeply subversive, and perhaps describes the Jesus-stance towards society and politics far better than the hypocritical morality of the box advocated by the right and/or the milquetoast niceness and inoffensiveness advocated by the left.
How can we be wise as serpents and yet innocent as doves in our kingdom lives? What do you think?
in HIS love,