Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Defending Yourself: Speaking to the Soul, May 31, 2016
As part of my seminary training, I took a class this past spring in Biblical Studies entitled “Paul and His Interpreters.” We read the epistles actually believed to be written by Paul, the epistles written in the name of Paul, and the Book of Acts, where Paul was introduced in the New Testament. At the end of the class, the students in this class were required to meet with our professor to talk about what lessons in ministry we had learned from our study of these works. My answer began with “Never write a letter or email when you are angry and send it before you have a chance to cool off.” It also included, “Don’t try to constantly defend yourself, or you will never get anything done except talking about yourself all the time.” Both of those statements were lessons I absorbed from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Last Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary began a series of weeks devoted to the Epistle to the Galatians. It’s an unusual letter that violates most of the rules of the letter form used in the Mediterranean world at that time. As we heard on Sunday, it starts out with no personal greeting, no real thanksgiving or flattery. It just slams into rebuking the Galatians for abandoning the message Paul felt he had planted among them for a “perverted gospel” brought by others. It is obvious Paul also feels betrayed, and he lets that come through forcefully. This next Sunday, we will hear Paul’s long justification of himself and his bona fides as a Jew and as an apostle—twenty-four times we will hear Paul refer to himself as either “I” or “me” in Galatians 1:11-24. In this coming Sunday’s readings, Paul will attempt to emphasize the zeal that has characterized his life—first as a Pharisee, then as an apostle who, although not one of the original twelve, carved out a vital mission as the apostle to the Gentiles. This initial three year missionary journey helped those in Jerusalem accept the reliability of the conversion of one of the most notorious enemies they had thought they had among Jerusalem’s Pharisaic authorities.
One has to wonder if Paul’s relationship with the Galatians ever recovered from the forceful criticism and palpable anger that radiated from the opening verses of this letter. I imagine it probably never was the same—and I wonder if he ever regretted sending that letter. If the Galatians had already been persuaded by other evangelists, being angrily and bitterly denounced by someone who spends thirteen verses talking about himself right at the get-go is probably not going to make the Galatians smack their foreheads and admit that he had a point, human nature being what it is. One usually cannot persuade people by attacking them.
Defending himself is important to Paul in these verses. I was thinking about how ironic that fact was, in light of the fact that many Episcopal churches will also be talking about gun violence this Sunday as part of the call from leaders of Bishops United Against Gun Violence to wear orange on June 2 and June 5 and engage in conversation (and hopefully conversion, in some cases) regarding our moral obligation to address the scourge of gun violence roiling our country. The actions of some Episcopalians this Thursday and Sunday is part of a broader Wear Orange movement for Gun Violence Prevention Day on June 2. Many of the tragic incidents with gun deaths in our country begin with an avid proclamation of the right of people to be able to defend themselves, too—using not words, but personal weapons.
We began this week by remembering, on yesterday, Memorial Day here in the US, all those who have given their lives in defense of our country. Yet, according to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety, in the seven days between the start of Memorial Day and the end of next Sunday, 637 people (91 people a day) will likely die as a result of the use of a gun. Forty-nine of those people will likely be teens and young children. Adding further to the carnage, more than 1200 people will be wounded by guns but survive during that same week. How better to end the week than by remembering all those whose lives have been taken through senseless although often willful violence, made deadly all too easily through ready access to machines designed solely to kill other human beings? Sadly, and all too often, we see guns used not to defend one’s self from harm, but being used in suicides (two-thirds of all gun deaths), domestic violence, drive-by shootings, and incidents when children not only are the victims (about 100 a year) but also sometimes the shooters themselves, often of friends or loved ones.
Defending ourselves is a natural instinct. But when that instinct leads to far more harm than good, we need to try to find another way to feel safe—a way that doesn’t increase the danger that originally caused us to be afraid. The debate over guns in our society needs to be just that—a debate, with the willingness to listen. Too often, tragedies happen at the end of a gun barrel, and how many of those times would the people involved give anything to take back what had happened? Too often, like Paul with the Galatians, both sides have been prone to attack first and intractably defend their positions, rater than listening or seeking common ground. Let us try to reason together, starting with an acknowledgement that each of these precious lives lost through gun violence was entirely preventable. Then let us pray and work together for real transformation this week, and in the days thereafter.
(This was first published on the Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on May 31, 2016.