The apostle to the Gentiles proclaimed the Gospel to a multicultural and embattled world very much like ours. Here are some things we can learn from him as we enter more deeply into a time of persecution.
We live in the crybaby age. The world is chockablock with people in need of insensitivity training. From people who gasp in anguish at the little leprechaun who is the Notre Dame mascot (insensitivity to Irish-Americans!) to the recent kerfuffle over the Dallas County official who complained that the term “black hole” was racist, we are up to our ears in overwrought victimhood. Catholics, too, can fall for this and start whining about “hate crimes” every time somebody looks at us cross-eyed.
St. Paul was not like that. His life was one of imprisonments, beatings and brushes with death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Simply getting dissed on the Internet would not have even raised his pulse. Being castigated as a mackerel snapper or otherwise mocked as an idiot by some disciple of PZ Myers would not have registered on the Richter scale. And from jail, he wrote, not letters of complaint, but “Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4-7).
So was Paul some sort of quietist who never dealt with injustice? Far from it. On numerous occasions, he made use of what he knew of the political and social situations in order to advance the Gospel.
So, for instance, he more than once appealed to the fact that he was a Roman citizen, not only to prevent the civil authorities from beating him, but also to protect those entrusted to his care. We can see an example of this in Acts 16. In Philippi, after preaching the Gospel, he was taken into custody and flogged by the city magistrates. Instead of nursing a grudge against the civil authorities who abused him, he preached to his very jailer and brought him and his family into the fold. When the magistrates of the city discovered, to their horror, that they had beaten a Roman citizen, Paul had a number of options. He could have cost his persecutors their jobs or their heads.
Instead, when they tried to hustle him out of town with profuse apologies and as little publicity as possible, he made a great show of going to visit the nascent Church he had just founded. Why? In order to spread his mantle of protection over them. His message to the magistrates of Philippi was clear: Harm them and this unfortunate incident will reach the ears of top people.
In short, Paul’s first concern was not himself, but the good of God’s people and the progress of the Gospel. We should imitate that. Instead of joining in our culture’s tendency toward hypersensitivity to personal slights, we should take the wrongs done us and hand them over to God, asking “Is there some way you can use this to glorify your name?”
Another point Paul understood clearly was “all things to all”(I Corinthians 9:22). This does not mean that Paul ever sacrificed core principles. He was utterly adamant about those. But it did mean that he knew exactly where those principles stopped and what was negotiable began. So, for instance, Paul understood that there was no excuse at all for demanding circumcision as somehow necessary to salvation. On multiple occasions, he bitterly condemned those who tried to force Gentiles to be circumcised in order to earn the grace of God. He knew that the love of God was not earned by works of the law, but was freely given in Christ.
But precisely because he was governed by the law of love, he also knew that those who were making their appeal to Jews should honor Jewish sensibilities, not for the sake of their own salvation, but to avoid giving unnecessary offense. So he circumcised Timothy, a Jewish Christian with a Greek father, lest his Jewish hearers suppose he was trying to destroy the customs of their ancestors.
In our culture, too, there are things which are offensive to God (like abuse of the human person and desecration of the Eucharist) and things which are merely cultural or aesthetic differences of no moral consequence one way or the other. For all his sound and fury against the Judaizers, it is important to remember that, for Paul, circumcision was morally neutral.
It only became an issue when some Christians insisted upon it as a necessary prelude to earning God’s love. As a mere custom, he saw no problem with it — and even honored the custom when doing so opened doors to the Gospel. We modern Catholics should imitate him in our battle for souls.
In our next and last installment, we will finish looking at Paul’s strategies for preaching the Gospel in a time of persecution.
Mark Shea is senior content editor