According to the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. This is a meditation on the political character of Paul’s conversion.
Before he was arrested and transformed by the exalted Jesus on the Damascus Road, Paul (called Saul, at the time) was a Pharisee. As such, he had a thoroughly political orientation and outlook. He was passionate about the God of Israel bringing about the resurrection of the dead, which meant God’s restoration of Israel, his justification of the faithful, and his inauguration of the long-awaited Kingdom—God’s own religio-political and economic order on earth.
How did he imagine this was going to happen?
For the Pharisees, this involved a political effort. They were seeking to present to God a nation that was passionately faithful to the Mosaic Law and its practices. After all, if God sent Israel into exile because of unfaithfulness to the Law, then renewed faithfulness at the national level would move God to act to deliver the Jews from their enemies (the Romans) and bring about salvation—the renewed national religio-political order.
Paul’s political outlook led to political behaviors of coercion, power, and violence, toward others and toward God.
He violently persecuted the church because their confession that Jesus was the Christ was an affront to God. Jesus was crucified by being hung on a cross, so he must have been cursed by God. The church’s very existence, therefore, was preventing God from bringing about the resurrection of the dead.
And he was coercing God, manipulating him to save Israel through attempts to enforce national conformity to the Law.
Which brings us to the question: Politically speaking, what changed for Paul after his encounter with the exalted Lord Jesus?
- The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio
After his transformation, Paul was still a Pharisee (Acts 26:4-6). He was still passionate about God effecting the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6).
That is, Paul’s political outlook didn’t change at all. He was still consumed by the arrival of the Kingdom of God into the world—the in-breaking of God’s holistic religio-political and economic order of shalom.
What changed for Paul was the mode whereby this reality was brought into being.
It does not come by coercion, power, and violence. It only comes through cruciformity. Participation in the Kingdom of God and the realities of resurrection come by participating in the death of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.
This reality leads to cruciform postures of weakness and humility toward God. We do not manipulate God into saving. We put ourselves into God’s hands in weakness, confident of his overwhelming grace, overpowering forgiveness, and magnanimous love.
And we embody participation in the Kingdom of God through cruciform postures of non-coercion and non-violence toward others.
It seems to me that there are at least two ways that modern Christians wrongly conceive of Paul and politics.
First, we might miss entirely that Paul had a political outlook, imagining that he only cared about “spiritual” matters. Paul is only concerned with each person’s relationship to God, not with the corporate church as a political organism that ought to behave in any purposeful way toward the wider culture.
A second error is made by those who might recognize Paul’s political outlook, but fail to grasp his political mode of cruciformity. They believe that God’s restored order and reign of righteousness is brought about through power, coercion, and violence.
We see this error when Christians adopt angry public rhetoric, applaud aggressive strategies of control and domination, and assume that the Christian cause is furthered through the agenda or this or that political party.
Both of these errors are capitulations of Paul’s political vision to the political agendas of our culture—the marginalizing of the political in favor of “the spiritual,” and the perversion of the political through surrender to the world’s way of doing things.
Paul envisions a body politic that is different, holy, a corporate body that embodies the character of Jesus in the world, that behaves creatively and redemptively in the midst of wider bodies politic.
Those who have been baptized into Christ cannot relate to the wider culture in ways that are coercive, manipulative, or violent. Christians enduring an election cycle would do well to keep in mind what our Christian identity requires of us.
We are people claimed by the cross and called to embody for the world the cross-shaped love of the exalted Lord Jesus.
That is a thoroughly political statement and ought to determine our political outlook and behaviors toward one another and others.