Privilege. Most of us who read this blog are indeed among the privileged, certainly when we take in a global perspective. I appreciate though that we do not consciously live in a global environment but a local one – whether that be a geographic or social context, and so we often have a mixed experience where we are also disadvantaged in some ways. There were many privileged groups in the New Testament times, being a Roman citizen certainly set some apart as elite. It is though the shift of ‘status’ that took place through the Gospel that I am focusing on in this post.
This has come into fresh focus with some of the wider writing I am involved in and also as we have ‘zoomed’ into a situation where the predominant cultural view is that of male dominance, with Paul (and Jesus!) seen as favouring the male.
The great egalitarian text of Paul in one of his earliest pieces of writing is Gal. 3: 28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Written into the contentious situation where these non-Jewish converts were being subjected to the teaching that any follower of Jesus that was not in compliance to Jewish law was not a ‘full’ member of the community of God’s people.
This bit is strong!!
We even read of Paul confronting Peter face to face, and the strength of the conflict was very strong. There was a good (missiological) argument that had won Peter over. Those who came from James had a compelling argument: ‘how would they ever reach Jews back in the homeland if the Jewish followers of Jesus were fraternising and eating with Gentiles. For the sake of the Gospel you have to pull back, Peter.’ It does not get stronger than that, and if is or this reason I don’t think it was as simple as Peter was making a backward step but he felt compelled to take a compromising step for the sake of non-offence to the Jews, a step for the Gospel. That makes the conflict even stronger. The missiological argument could not overpower the fundamental Gospel one! (Think we have it hard trying to work out what is a godly redemptive compromise!) Back in the day, to be involved in a slave owning group who professed faith could have been argued for: a compromise for the sake of the Gospel… but eventually that compromise was not a compromise for the Gospel but a compromise of the Gospel. Deciding when that shift takes place takes wisdom and insight, and knowing what has changed in our society with respect to the Gospel likewise is very challenging.
Privilege… Either it feeds the demonic idea of elitism / above someone else; or it pushes us toward the ‘responsibility’ element. I consider that over centuries there was a downward trajectory in the life of Israel from the commissioned responsibility for sake of the nations to the elitism of chosenness. I have also been considering (of late) that maybe if we are of the ‘zionist’ bias (not one I can see in the NT at all) maybe there is also a knock on with regard to how we see the gender issue of male and female. Both seem to come from a way of reading Scripture that I find strange, but one I have to respect as I have no reason to suggest that those who read that way are not acting with integrity. I simply hope the reading is not being fuelled by any form of elitism.
With the household codes (the instructions on ‘husbands’, ‘wives’, ‘masters’, ‘slaves’, etc.) Paul follows the conventions of the day where philosophers and religious writers would lay out how their philosophy / religion would not at any level disturb the status quo of the Roman society. In our culture they are not too radical (understatement!!) but in that culture he carefully redefined them. He moved the dominant one from a position of ruling the roost to a place where they were to be an animated source of life.
There was an anonymous letter written to a person names ‘Diognetus’, mid 2nd Century, that suggested that Christians were to the world what the soul was to the body. They were to be present and animating. (The quote below is fairly long, the specific part I am referring to is in bold… so feel free to skip to that point… and apologies for the male language.)
Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
The explanation is somewhat hellenised, indicating how quickly there was a shift from a Jewish psychology to a Greek-oriented one, but nevertheless the description as an animating life-giving source is very clearly put.
In the Gospel the privilege of Jew over Greek was nullified (I count it all ‘dung’ said one very privileged Jew; the NT era Jews were basically given a generation to respond to Jesus etc.); the rich were always being slapped about – we do not read ‘woe to you poor!’ but we often read ‘woe to you rich’; and in the Gospel any male privilege that might be inferred from creation is totally cancelled. The Greek of Gal. 3:28 seems to deliberately use the same construction as we find in Genesis, but reversing it – no ‘male and female’.
No privilege, indeed we might suggest that there is a bias the other way because of the Gospel! And any privilege that society might give, or we find ourselves in is to promote life (the shift in Paul’s household codes), to work toward an egalitarianism with everyone finding true life, and a corresponding emptying out of the privilege. Privilege is to be temporal and can only be in order to move things in the direction of the new creation.