The Apostle Paul and Race
When Paul declared in Galatians that
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28)
his former friends must have considered he'd lost his mind. For if there was one thing that Saul the Pharisee had known, it was that
"There is EITHER Jew or Greek..."
This distinction was the bedrock of the Jewish religion, the fundamental principle that must never be forgotten in any detail of life. What could Paul have been thinking to utter such nonsense? The whole point of Judaism, as Saul had learned it, rested on the division of mankind into two camps, the holy and the unclean. What mattered the noblest Roman, the most cultured Greek, when compared to the humblest natural-born Jew, let alone to a Law-abiding son of Benjamin? The former were nothing in the eyes of God -- abhorrent, rejected. There was an impenetrable wall between Jew and Greek -- a wall built by God Himself. Blood mattered! The true faith was also the holy nation, sprung from the loins of Abraham.
And now Paul, in some excess of mental enthusiasm brought on by his religious experience in Damascus, was not merely denying his upbringing, but asserting its opposite principle: "There is Neither..." Surely this was to threaten the very pillars of righteousness. No wonder many of his contemporaries sought to kill him (Acts 23:12-13). It was not a matter of his belief in Jesus as Messiah: rather it was Paul's assault on the racial imperatives of the Law:
They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, "Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place" (Acts 21:27-28).
In our own day, we find ourselves faced with similar racial, national and sexual absolutes : white, black, yellow, male, female, 1st world, 3rd world. These are not merely labels, but relational imperatives: the groups we belong to dictate our politics, our values. The modern "Christian" ethic is to advocate "tolerance" among these groups: to attempt to resolve their competing claims for power in peaceful and mutually respectful ways, devoid of prejudice and coercion. Does this ethic fulfill the Biblical mandate, the Pauline standard of inter-racial conduct? I don't think so. That standard outraged the status quo of his day, and offended the guardians of power and morality. If it were understood and applied correctly, it would do the same in our day.
But to understand Paul's solution, we must enter his thought-world and trace his journey, back to its roots in Judaism. We must understand why the wall between men was built in the first place, and under what conditions it can be taken down. We cannot afford to be day-trippers, because this will affect not just our knowledge of the ancient past, but our actions today, our relations to those who are not of our race or nationality. We must start, as Genesis itself starts, "in the beginning..."