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The letter to the Galatians may be Paul’s most important, representing the life and death struggle for the universal Church. It may have been followed by what may be the most important event in early church history, the Council of Jerusalem.
Paul also exhibits his most combative attitude in this letter. He does not open with any sense of gratitude for the church at Galatia, as was his custom. Paul, instead, must take on those other “teachers” who are presenting a “different gospel”, which undermines Paul’s gospel of justification by grace. Those other teachers were what Paul calls the “circumcision faction” (NRSV), who were demanding Gentile believers to observe the law of Moses, to become circumcised, which is to rely on Jewish Heritage.
Paul had met with Peter, had joined him at table fellowship with Gentiles, and later rebuked him for pulling away from that fellowship when those “Judaisers” arrived. Even Barnabas pulled back and joined in this “hypocrisy.” Paul calls into question the motives of those teachers; was it to avoid persecution or to gain some advantage?
It’s unclear exactly who those other teachers are that are putting Gentile believers under a “yoke of slavery,” but his words for them are as biting as ever. He claims they will “pay the penalty,” that they are “accursed,” and he wishes that they would “castrate themselves.”
Paul declares that the believers who have come under that “yoke” are “stupid” and “foolish.” They are by their actions denying the sufficiency of Christ, the gospel of Grace Paul preached to them. They are willing to “add” something, as if something more were necessary, to their simple trust in God.
Paul’s argument is that everyone, even Jews who do ‘works of the law’ in accordance to their heritage, must abandon their hope for a right relationship with God through trust in any other means, including Jewish Heritage. We must all find our hope and place our trust in Christ alone. Paul argues that Jewish heritage is more than adherence to Mosaic Law. Their father is Abraham, whose faith in God and not his adherence to any law. Therefore, Paul argues that reliance on law is finished for all Christians. The law does not and cannot foster the kind of faith and trust that leads to life. The Law was an imperfect agency, added as a kind of tutor, which identifies sin.
Followers of Christ are to emulate the trust of Abraham. The controversy called for the Council of Jerusalem. The consequences of this letter and this issue had divided churches, and if it had not been resolved, may never have allowed for Gentile believers without conversion to Judaism. The consequences would have dramatically hindered missionary efforts. The core of this issue may be the strong tendency of many Jews to place their trust in their ethnic and religious identity.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to eliminate all barriers to full religious participation based on race, sex, social status, etc. This is the challenge, I believe, for any cross-cultural transmission of the gospel. For that reason, if this controversy had not been sufficiently quelled, it would have done irreparable violence to the gospel of grace.
The notion of the “Cosmic Race,” popularized among Latinos by Mexican author Jose Vasconcelos, is a philosophical basis for pride in the mixture of races. González writes, there is “no single perspective or a single clue to ‘reading with Hispanic eyes.’” Therefore a people of varied backgrounds sharing a single identity is dubious. However, this is Paul’s vision and the message he preaches to the Gentiles. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul (or one of his disciples) writes that Jesus’ “purpose was to create in himself one new person.” He (or she) continues with the message of solidarity, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Eph. 2:15, 19 NIV) This “unity in the faith,” misunderstood by Paul’s contemporaries, has also been misinterpreted in every generation since.
Before meeting Jesus, Saul/Paul’s aim was to eliminate the threat that the new sect of Jesus followers represented to Judaism. Ethnic and religious purity, which was tied to the ultimate conquest of Israel’s Messiah over all nations, defined his worldview. Sadly Spanish missionary endeavors in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries interpreted the Scriptures envisioning a kind of religious purity through coerced conversion in Latin America, which appears to be an amalgamation of the purity ethic of Second Temple Judaism and the conquest ethic of the Roman Empire. Modern Protestant missionary endeavors continued a triumphalist interpretation, albeit separated from military coercion, by expanding into the “frontiers,” which implies redrawing the “borders” of Western civilization. Western individualism, informed by the Protestant Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith, which possesses an important “supporting role” in Paul’s gospel, became the central understanding the expanding Protestant missionary enterprise. Today, when Westerners read the stories of Moses at the burning bush (Exo. 3:1-10) and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-35), they read how the individual finds God, rather than a calling, “to go back to their people to do the work of God with and among them.” Westerners interpret the purpose of the Church (and of the Bible) to be a functionary agent to meet individual needs, rather than an expression of the gospel itself and a “foretaste of the kingdom.” This misinterpretation of the gospel message has resulted in a new form of “exile,” “a dislocation from the center,” as people are either left out, pushed out, or choose to remain outside the center.