Because I an activist for women’s rights and for issues like gay marriage, I often find myself on the wrong end of a “deadly assault with Bible.” Usually that assault features the words of Paul, so people are surprised to hear me use St. Paul from time to time in sermons. Every ancient figure will seem flawed in retrospect. I love to read Thomas Jefferson, but at times I am stunned by words that are clearly racist by our modern standards. Every such historical figure should be lifted up, not as a model to be imitated, but as bridge humankind crossed to get where we are today.
Any defense of Paul must begin with the recognition that some of the books that bear his name were not, in fact, written by him at all. The label “Second Paul” refers to those books like Ephesians and Colossians that were written by latter members of his group. No one should be judged alone on how their words were later twisted and misused. Paul’s greatest ambition later in life was to bring Greeks and Jews together to form a new humanity. It is unclear how conscious Paul was that his great principle, “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” implied universal human rights. Would St. Paul not know that, when he said “the letter of the law kills,” that his own words would also be relativized? Is it possible that Paul did not realize when he called the church to freedom as an end in itself, that is own authority over others would be overturned as well?
No human being can last long on a pedestal. Even at his best, Paul was a mixed bag. When his words are used to defend racism, sexism or homophobia, we need not know if the sayings are authentic to reject them. But, we might also realize that we ourselves will someday will be judged in the harsh light of a wiser and more sensitive humanity. Paul, like all of us, was embedded in his time. We have a duty to disbelieve and disobey Paul when his words are untrue or unhelpful. But like Jefferson, and every other flawed figure of history, we should also recognize that, for many of us, Paul was a major pillar in the bridge that allowed us to outgrow him. It was he who gave us the torch that today allows us to see his own short comings.