From: Paul
To: Trump

Editorial by Art Dewey
Download the PDF version

From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 2
March – April 2017
Order this issue

Ten years before he won an Academy Award for playing the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins took on two curious roles. In 1981 he ranged from the apostle Paul in Peter and Paul to Hitler in The Bunker. There are many who would see in his two roles very much the same maniacal character, thereby providing some preparation for his Oscar-winning part. Moreover, many scripture commentators, both supporting and opposing Paul, would agree that Paul was a dominant, if not a domineering, personality who brought the institution of Christianity into the Greco-Roman world. Paul comes across to so many as an arrogant, bombastic, misogynistic “winner.”

It may not then be too surprising that the only scripture Mr. Trump cited in his campaign was from Paul. Is there some lingering correspondence between the two? Before a student audience at Liberty University, Trump cited “2” Corinthians with this commentary on 2 Cor 3:17 (“Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” RSV): “that’s the whole ballgame.” Despite the laughter caused by his bungling of the citation, the audience applauded this Pauline endorsement to the Republican campaign.

However, critical readers of Paul, perhaps made aware of the more recent Pauline research found in the recent translation of Paul (The Authentic Letters of Paul) or the masterful study of The Real Paul by Brandon Scott, know the traditional image of Paul is an outdated stereotype. Paul was never “converted” to Christianity; nor did he “found Christianity.” The second-century reconstruction of Paul’s image from the Acts of the Apostles can no longer be used to build an historical profile of this figure. In fact, two particular points should be noted. First, Paul’s breakthrough was the discovery that the God of Israel had accepted the crucified Jesus. Second, this insight pitted Paul directly against the ongoing regime of the Roman Empire. Rather than being a stooge for the status quo, Paul presented a radical contrasting vision for life.

Rather than being a stooge for the status quo, Paul presented a radical contrasting vision for life.

Let me underline the first point. Paul originally saw the crucified Jesus as a disgrace. Roman crucifixion stigmatized the victim in an attempt to wipe out his very memory. Paul saw himself as an outstanding performer of the religious traditions of his people. He assumed that the competitive vision of life that underlay all of Roman society was sanctioned by the divine. He could rest confident in his superiority even over his fellow Jews. But then he had a breakthrough moment (Gal 1:13–16). We do not know what happened. (The elaborate stories in Acts are a later cover-up). In Paul’s own words, he had a prophetic experience where he saw that God had accepted the one who had no advantage whatsoever. And from that vision Paul saw that his task was to go to those nations whom the Jews saw as inferior to themselves. Just as the God of Israel had accepted the loser, so Paul would go to those whom the Jews considered “losers.” His message was that this God of Israel was accessible to everyone through the simple act of human trust.

Are you enjoying this article? The Fourth R magazine shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience (6 issues annually).

This insight runs directly into my second point. Such a vision of how Reality works—that life is not a competitive struggle but a surprising discovery of the lost—stood in marked contrast to imperial propaganda. Paul could declare that a new regime (2 Cor 5: 17–21) was already underway. His opening lines in Romans 1:1–7 would sound like sheer treason when they were uttered to Roman communities. In fact, Paul saw each community as a base camp of mutual solidarity that provided hope to all. Each member of the community offered to each other what was unique as they breathed in the very power and presence of God, embodying together the life of the Anointed. We cannot forget that this meant a resistance of the very few against the many imperial forces in place.

Rather than the stereotypical image of Paul as a blatantly superior figure, we find that Paul urges everyone to discover the mysterious action of a God who refuses to give up on the lost, the disfigured, the marginal, and the ugly. Paul urges his listeners to detect the surprising presence of God in places where they never could have imagined. He upsets all those who would imperiously dictate what is good, valuable, and beautiful. He finds strength not in might but in weakness, wisdom not in know-it-alls but among fools.

Paul urges everyone to discover the mysterious action of a God who refuses to give up on the lost, the disfigured, the marginal, and the ugly.

So perhaps, as the Trump administration begins its triumphant first one hundred days, will Mr. Trump or any of his acolytes return to Paul? Would they dare to listen to an older, wiser brother? Would anyone of his administration take the risk of being surprised instead of carrying out the tired script of maintaining the advantage? It is so easy to presume you know how the game is played (“that’s the whole ballgame”). But so much unknown rests with these coming decisions. Will Trump risk learning more than he fantasizes? Will other voices finally disturb his universe?

Sadly, history does not support such hope. But we do know that the ancient Jewish prophets were a minority report. They did not win the first encounter. Nor did Paul succeed. By the late first and into the second century he was redirected by those who wrote in his name (Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians). His “brand” became a tool for the patriarchal revanche. The real Paul serves as a forerunner for those who would hunker down, resisting the imperial power sweep. Keeping hope alive has always been a minority occupation, from the tenements in Corinth to the slave shacks along the Underground Railroad. Whisper it if you have to, but pass the word along. It will keep us marching on.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.