Thursday, February 25, 2010

Transgendered Paul

Wednesday I finished reading a new book, well new to me anyway, 'Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul's Mission' by Davina C. Lopez. Interesting read. Lopez begins by describing her intention, which is reinterpret the term 'ethne' or nations, which is found throughout Paul's work, specifically in this book in Galatians. In Lopez's reading of scholarship, 'ethne' is a term used to describe 'gentiles,' and therefore refers to the theological separation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul's work is purely a theological work. Lopez position's herself clearly in the 'Empire-critical' school of reading Paul;

In this mode of interpretation, Paul turns away from his previous life in Judaism and becomes a different kind of zealot, a politically oriented Jewish person encouraging religio-political resistance to the Roman Empire through declaring a crucified Christ as savior from the evil age. This opposition mainly manifests itself, according to Richard Horsley and similar proponents, against the Roman imperial cult, the primary religio-political system operative in Paul's context. Here the emperor was worshiped as god and called lord, benefactor, and savior. Positioning the God of Israel as the only and most powerful god, the best benefactor and law-giver, who guaranteed certain destruction of Roman-configured peace and security, constitutes the political view of Paul. Such a view positions salvation as not concerning individuals from the law or Judaism, but the whole of humanity from Caesar's world.

The first part of Lopez's project is to suggest and then prove that 'ethne' was not simply a term used by Jews to refer to Gentiles, but a term used by Romans to refer to all others. If this is true, and I find her argument compelling, then Jews, too, are 'ethne' for 'ethne' refers to all the nations that are subjigated to roman imperial power. This would suggest a significant shift in understanding Paul, for his mission would cease to be a purely theological one to gentiles, and become a political one, to all oppressed nations. So Lopez's first point is that scholarship that view's 'ethne' as purely a theological term used by Jews, has missed the larger or wider social meaning of the term.

Where Lopez seeks to explore new territory in this Empire-critical stance is in the area of sexuality and gender. Lopez goes to great lengths in the book to re-create for the reader the context in which to understand what the signifier 'ethne' would mean. She draws upon sculpture, coinage and other artwork in which the nations that have fallen under roman rule are represented and explains in detail the theology at work in showing Rome's superiority to the nations. She also draws upon literature of that same time, such as the Aeneid, to make the same point. This is where gender comes into play, because the defeated nations are described in artwork and in literature are feminized. Nations are represented as women in positions of weakness, about to be raped and/or killed. This representation continues in literature. The reason why the nations are attacked and brought under Roman rule is because of their femininity. They are weaker and lesser, and Roman rule, therefore is a gift to them.

Lopez's final point is to highlight those places where Paul feminizes himself;
Gal 4:19
19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,

Ge 1:1 - 1 Th 2:7
7 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.

1 Co 3:1-2
3:1 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.

Lopez writes, 'I aim here... to begin to re-connect Paul's appearance as a woman and (single!) mother with the transformed consciousness and downward mobility among the defeated nations in the context of Roman imperial ideology. The weakness and brokenness characterizing the Paul of just a few verses earlier in Galatians is here manipulated into an act of creation. But this creation does not appear to happen the proper or natural way, that is, with a man. It is a creation out of nothing, form the bottom, by a seemingly defeated woman.' (p 142)

Lopez's point, as I see it, is that Paul uses the language of Roman Imperialism in feminizing the 'ethne' the nations, but he does so with a particular eye to the prophets who also see Jerusalem as a woman, particularly Isaiah, who see sees Jerusalem as a barren woman who will give birth and sing. But it is also in Isaiah that we read that Israel will be a house for all nations. Paul takes the Roman language of the weak, oppressed feminine and combines it with the feminine language in the prophetic tradition so as to undermine Roman political theology. Rome's way of gathering the nations is oppression and violence. God's way of gathering the nations brings life. so Paul is undermining Rome's theological and political claims. Paul is also calling the nations to a new way of living, which, under God, leaves behind the ROman way of life which is violent and oppressive. Paul calls them to join together peacefully to anticipate the world that God will create, a world of peace and not violence and oppression.

I'm still thinking about my responses to this work. A small criticism I have is that I wish Lopez has devoted as much time to carrying through on exegesis as she did setting the historical context through art and literature. Still, having read it I think that I will find her reading of Paul very interesting as I work on issues of modern slavery and human trafficking. The idea that Paul feminizes himself, becomes one of the 'raped women' that is the nations oppressed by Rome, holds a lot of potential for biblical application to the issue of slavery and sex trafficking. I am also intrigued by the potential to see Paul as a pacifist, again, become one of the oppressed instead of fighting back against rome. Paul is certainly responding, but not in a violent way.

Lopez offers a unique reading of Paul, certainly one that I have never encountered before. but I think this might be a useful new reading that especially puts a new perspective on those who find Paul misogynistic. And it also opens up new areas of current ethics in which Paul can be looked to for guidance.

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