Today’s post is my contribution to the blog tour for J.R. Daniel Kirk’s new book Jesus I have Loved, But Paul? (BakerAcademic, 2012). This post is part of a larger blog tour and you can read previous reviews of earlier chapters at the blog hub. Don't forget to click on the link to the left to enter a chance to win a selection of books from Baker.
I was asked to review chapter seven, Liberty and Justice for All? Overall I have enjoyed Kirk’s approach to Paul as he seeks to demonstrate the connections between the messages of Jesus and Paul via the story of Israel. I think he provides a fresh, accessible approach to Paul that will help many.
Kirk opens up this chapter by observing that students of the Bible who are interested in social justice don’t have much time for Paul. Jesus is all about proclaiming liberty and justice for the oppressed and captive. Paul, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get the job done.
One source of this dissatisfaction with Paul is the way his letters were used in the 19th century slavery debate. Paul’s letters were often used to support slavery and Paul has not always been loved by African Americans. By way of example Kirk includes the famous quote by Howard Thurman’s grandmother who refused to read the letters of Paul because of the way they were used to keep the enslaved enslaved.
“During the days of slavery,” she said, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters . . . as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”
But in spite of Paul’s rather checkered past in social justice circles, Kirk suggests that Paul does have a driving concern for social justice in his letters.
He begins by pointing out that Jesus’ synagogue sermon in Luke 4 contains a gospel message that is the very heart beat of social justice: good news preached to the poor, captives released, oppressed freed. Jesus’ sermon and his Isaiah 61 text proclaim the beginning of the Jubilee year. This is the “good news” of the gospel and it is a message that includes all people, not just Jews. How then do Paul’s letters relate to Jesus’ message?
Kirk starts by focusing on Paul’s inclusion of Gentiles in the church. He views this as Paul’s call for racial equality. He notes that Paul does not require Gentiles to become Jews, but he also does not require Jews to abandon their own identity. There is plenty of room for both in the church. And this, Kirk suggests, is a Pauline argument against raced based policies and practices that encourage racial superiority and/or subjugation. In the narrative of the gospel all of God’s people are set free.
But Kirk also recognizes that there is some counterevidence in Paul. He looks to the household code in Ephesians 6:5-9 where slaves are told to offer their service with “enthusiasm” as if serving the Lord and not their master.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. (Eph 6:5 NRS)
Kirk concedes that these instructions presume a social hierarchy that is regulated by Paul rather than offering a way out. But he also notes that it is a system regulated by the gospel. Jesus is looking over the shoulder of the slaveholder and is receiving the treatment meted out by the earthly master (p. 150). Kirk suggests that while “this passage does not call for an opening up of the full freedom of the gospel to those who are enslaved, it does plot a trajectory for the transformation of the institution of slavery within the church (p.150). Yet Kirk also notes that Paul is not suggesting that slaves simply stay as they are. He offers 1 Corinthians 7:22 as an example of how slaves should take freedom if the opportunity presents itself.
Moving on from race and slavery, he looks at other areas of social justice in Paul. In particular is his focus on economic justice. Paul’s collection in 2 Corinthians 8-9 is economic justice in action as the Gentile churches collect money to support Jewish congregations in Jerusalem. Just as Jesus’ sermon declared economic freedom for the poor so too Paul’s understanding of the gospel includes giving to the poor and helping to rectify the inequalities in the world.
The chapter closes with a return to the challenges faced by African-Americans and the hopes voiced in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Kirk connects King’s speech with the message of Jesus which is one that includes social justice. And he argues that Paul’s gospel message was also one of freedom. Paul, like Jesus, Kirk argues, is the same one announced by Jesus.
I want to begin my critique by stating that Kirk is to be praised for his efforts. Far too often Paul and Jesus are kept in separate theological corners. The problem of course is that we are only hearing part of what the New Testament has to say. I think this is a balanced, well written book. And there is much I would like to have heard Kirk say, but I also realize that deadlines, page limits, and target audiences are always major factors when publishing. So with that in mind I would like to raise a few questions that came to mind as I read this chapter.
My first question is where is the narrative thread in this chapter? In chapter one he does a good job of explaining the connection of Israel’s story with the gospel message of Jesus and Paul. He also notes that this narrative is the “backbone of Paul’s theology” (p. 27). But I am not seeing how Israel’s story fits in here. I understand the appeal to Luke 4 and Jesus declaring the year of Jubilee, but I wonder if there is more to it than that. Central to the story of Israel is the exodus from Egypt, Israel’s release from slavery. And I wonder how that story influences Paul’s view of slavery and the instructions he issues concerning the institution?
Looking at it from another angle, how did Christian slaves react to hearing the story about God freeing slaves, but then being told not to worry about their own enslavement? There seems to be a difference between the kind of freedom offered by Jesus in Luke 4 and that offered by Paul. Jesus is proclaiming a freedom which sounds very radical, especially in the year of Jubilee when all slaves were to be released. Paul, however, says to stay put, be good and only accept freedom if it happens to come your way. While there may be some move towards transforming slavery within the context of the church, it is not clear how comforting Paul’s words were to the slave. Moreover, Ephesians assumes that the Christian slave has a Christian master. What might be the perspective of the person enslaved and oppressed by an unbeliever? What does the story of Israel and Paul’s theology hold for that slave? At one point in the chapter Kirk suggests that Jesus’ agents of freedom could be sent to Thailand to free a woman from life as a sex slave or an Indian family from indentured servitude making bricks (p. 146). But I wonder what message Paul has for these people? Stay put and do your job as if you are pleasing Jesus? I realize these are tough questions, but they are important. My review of this chapter comes one day after we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King and one week after the national day of awareness of human trafficking. So these are timely questions as we consider the message of Jesus and Paul to the oppressed. And I think we need to do a better job of showing how Paul offers real freedom to the modern oppressed.
I also have some questions about Paul’s concern for the poor. True, he does organize a collection for the church in Jerusalem. But this application of giving to the poor is within the context of the poor in the church. Paul is not extending it to those who are outside of the church. I am not suggesting that Paul was not concerned with the non-believing poor, but with the letters we have the only evidence we have is of Paul telling us how to take care of our own.