Hi, again, readers! Your resident Catholic and Scripture nerd here! I know that Catholics often get a bad rap about not knowing our Scripture as well as we should, but I think people are really surprised to find that we know more than we even realize at times!
I’m not here today to talk about Catholics and their relationship to Scripture, however. I am here to talk about someone else who also gets a bad rap but happens to have written much of the New Testament:
My love for St. Paul is well documented. I have a personal blog that I have kept updated on my love of him for years. I also think that I mentioned previously that I lived for a year in religious life in a convent. The religious order that I joined took their mission and name from St. Paul. So perhaps I am a little biased, but please hear me out.
Paul was certainly a man of his time and far from perfect. He was a devout Jew who did not understand or appreciate Christ early on. In the book of Acts of the Apostles, he is mentioned as consenting to the execution of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen (Acts 7-8). He also is perhaps not beloved because of some phrases like this one from Ephesians that he wrote and are very much of his time (and often taken out of context):
” As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word…” (Ephesians 5: 22-26. It goes on, but another one of St. Paul’s flaws is also his love for run-on sentences, so I will spare you some of the rest).
I see the problem with the items about Paul listed above, but I don’t consider him a problematic character myself. Paul himself is the first to admit that he is flawed. One of my favorite passages of his, happened to be read at Mass yesterday:
“Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Paul, I believe, is one of the success stories of Scripture. When he finally encountered Christ for himself in a powerful and tangible way (as described in Acts 9), he has a complete change of heart. He completely abandons his old ways of persecuting Christians and becomes a faithful one himself. And not only is he baptized, he meets with Peter and the other early Christians at Antioch and becomes imprisoned for his newfound faith as well as instructs and encourages other new Christians with his letters. He goes on to say that it is “no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). He essentially renounces his entire self for Christ. How many of us can say that?
I want to go back, however, to the passage from 2 Corinthians listed above because it is one of my favorites. It also happens to be so completely contrary to what our idea of success and strength are today. I have many “thorns” in many “sides” of myself that humble me and I believe keep me going back to God. I, however, unlike Paul, constantly go to God and beg Him to pull them out! I am not grateful for these wounds or weaknesses as Paul is, because I am very much a product of our culture.
I think this idea of strength in weakness is so counter cultural to our world today. Just look at our government leaders and their approach to those considered to be “weak.” Instead of seeing those considered “weak”- like the poor or the immigrant or the elderly- as a strength to uphold and elevate, our approach is to keep them down so that the “strong” can appear even stronger. Those on top never want to be seen as weak.
From one perspective, I can see how Paul’s theory does not maybe play well in global politics. As a country, we don’t want to be seen as weak. But how much stronger might we seem if we were a country who embraced our so called “weaknesses” rather than exploit or oppress them?
This, of course, is so much easier said than done, and may seem complicated. I have been reading “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser (which I highly recommend. It is amazing how a book written in the late 90s is so scarily relevant today) and Rolheiser addresses many issues with our society, but particularly pertaining to social justice. He describes social justice as differing from charity: “Charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, while justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none.” (Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, pg 169). To enact social justice in this way, would be to admit that there is weakness. It would be to say that our system is unjust and that some are seen as “weaker” than others. Too many people right now do not want to fix our systems because they perhaps like having power or want to seem superior to others. If we fix our seemingly weakest spots, though, and help to make others strong, wouldn’t that help increase the strength of the whole over all?
I may be over simplifying things, but I think another one of our problems with our society is that we over complicate things. Justice could, perhaps, be much simpler if we didn’t complicate the system so much to begin with. Another thing that Rolheiser points out in his book is that justice has to be more than an ideology: “…for a Christian, the ultimate motivation in working for justice may never be a simple ideology, irrespective of how noble that particular ideology may appear. Rather both the truth that inspires the quest for justice and the energy that fuels it must ground themselves something beyond an ideology” (Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, pg 173). For us Christians, that truth is Christ. For others, that truth may be peace, equality, or that energy that Rolheiser speaks of.
For me, one of the hardest things about this most recent administration and state of our country has been that I have felt this divide between ideology and building the Kingdom of God. So many Christians that I know, chose an ideology, I believe, over working on building the kingdom that the Gospel refers to, which includes building up the weak.
St. Paul continues to be an encouragement for me in these tough times. As the author of Hebrews says (some scholars say that the author was St. Paul as it has a similar tone to the rest of his letters, but this is debated by others):
“Consider how he [Christ] endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” – Hebrews 12: 3 & 4
It is true that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice so that I might not have to shed my blood. However, much blood has been and is being shed by those who suffer from injustice. I pray that we can move beyond charity, and work for true justice, even if that means admitting our weaknesses. For in our humility and weakness, we can be made strong, if we are allowed the freedom to exercise our own strength.