July 2021: Paul [Troublemakers]

Last week, we heard from [M] about Queen Esther and Mordecai and the power of knowing when to strike – knowing the moments for which you have the opportunity to wield influence and courage for good. The week before that, [S] talked about Naaman’s wife’s servant, who spoke truth to power as someone with little power. And the week before that, I talked about Naomi, whose courageous troublemaking inspired another’s courage.

Today we’re going to talk about another troublemaker, and we’re going to talk about the troublemaking that is betrayal. Today, we’re going to talk about someone who was a troublemaker with some power.

We’ll talk about Paul – but specifically his conversion into a follower of Jesus. And we’re going to talk about some contemporary examples of people who follow in that way, too, of a good betrayal. While Paul isn’t a minor character in the Bible, his experience of conversion makes him such a troublemaker that the story fits too well to leave him out just because he’s famous.

First, a little about who Paul was. Today, Paul is regarded as a controversial, layered, complicated individual whose letters might actually be attributable to three or four different people.

He was Jesus’ contemporary, probably a little younger than Jesus. He never met Jesus, and he lived in Tarsus – a big city in what is modern-day Turkey. And readers of the second testament learn about Paul for the first time at the assassination of Stephen, who’s frequently called the first Christian martyr. We learn that he approved of Stephen’s murder.

Acts 7:54-8:1 says:

Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died. Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.

We then learn that Paul zealously pursues and persecutes Christians, giving approval for their torture and deaths. But he has a dramatic, mystical experience of conversion when he’s in his twenties. And from then on, the same energy that he poured into persecuting the early Christians he then poured into spreading the message of Jesus. 

Acts 9:1-15 goes on to say:

Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.” Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!” He answered, “Yes, Lord.” The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.” The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.

Betraying Our Own Comfort

Paul’s distaste for Christians began with the fact that some of these early Christians spoke Greek and combined elements of Jewish religious tradition with Greek culture. But he has that conversion experience. And afterward, he takes that same zeal that he had toward persecuting Christians for the sake of religious fundamentalism – and he applies that zeal to taking Jesus’ message as far as he can go. His whole life gets turned upside down.

Before his conversion, Paul had a rigid view of religious-ethnic community. He disliked converts to Judaism and found them to be insufficiently Jewish. He didn’t like that Hellenistic Jews borrowed from the dominant Greek culture in which they lived. 

But he betrays his fundamentalism, his former convictions, and he also betrays the community of religious-ethnic fundamentalists he belonged to in order to join and conspire with the movement of Jesus.

What Paul’s conversion experience shows us is that sometimes, we get the chance to be troublemakers by being traitors to our own comfort or belonging.

A good betrayal requires us to have some level of comfort with things we’re taught not to do: we may have to disappoint people, betray the things that shaped/raised us, anger people, or let people down.

One example of good betrayal you might be familiar with, especially those of you who are involved with HopeGateWay’s Anti-Racism Policy Group, is what American historians Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey call being a “traitor to whiteness.” Not to be a traitor to white people, but to the structure of whiteness, which is a relationship to power and a way of being in the world that can entrance any of us. And because white people are born closer to whiteness, Ignatiev and Garvey, who are both white, invite white folks to be traitors to whiteness by slashing the boundaries between the powerful and powerless, being in solidarity with people of color and all people experiencing poverty, and being in full, equal relationship with the human family.

Good Betrayals

A good betrayal doesn’t have to end with persecution, imprisonment, or execution like Paul’s did. Many don’t. I want to share some more contemporary examples of good betrayals.

This last week, I learned that a dangerous white supremacist terror group called the Proud Boys has been meeting regularly at Mathew’s, a bar in the Old Port of Portland. I used to walk by this bar every day on my way to and from work.

You may know the Proud Boys as the group that reality show star-turned president of the United States Donald Trump told to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys were also a part of the January 6th riots at the U.S. Capitol.

I learned about the Proud Boys’ meetings in Portland the same way lots of Mainers learned about them this week: because of a bartender at Mathew’s who recognized what was happening, told the truth, and lost his job for it. 

The man’s name is Pat Hogan, and he had experienced deep hardship in his adult life. This job at Mathew’s gave him income and stability after a long period of financial instability. 

Not long after he started bartending at Mathew’s, Pat met the woman next door to his apartment, a refugee from Rwanda. They got to know each other well, and Pat said that his friendship with his neighbors fueled his courage to stand up to his boss – the owner of Mathew’s – and refuse to serve the Proud Boys.

The owner of Mathew’s took issue with Pat’s stand of conscience against this notorious, violent hate group. And Pat was fired from his job. Soon after, he gave this story to Mainer magazine. And because of his decision to be outspoken about the presence of out-and-proud white supremacists, he betrayed his workplace. He betrayed the place that gave him the security he craved.

The next example I want to share is right here. As you all know by now, HopeGateWay, Chebeague Island UMC, and Tuttle Road UMC in Cumberland have been approved to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. The pastors of these three churches, Sara included, took a very public stand in front of all of their colleagues against the anti-LGBTQ discriminatory policies of The United Methodist Church. 

None of these pastors are LGBTQ. All of them knew that this would be costly for their careers, their sense of belonging in their communities, and literally costly for their churches. All of them were in solidarity with LGBTQ people in their communities and churches. And all of them suffered slander and harassment.

They betrayed The United Methodist Church in exchange for a safer and freer church here.

Peter Norman, the Third Man

And lastly, because the Olympics are taking place in Japan now, I want to share an example that comes from the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico.

There’s an iconic photograph of three Olympic track athletes: two Black Americans holding up their fists with black gloves on, and one white Australian with his hands down, looking straight ahead. They’re standing on a medal podium, where winning athletes receive medals and get photographed after they’re done.

The story of the two Black American athletes is a story of bravery and authenticity. Their stance at the podium told the story of Black Americans’ plight back in the U.S. And they’re the most obvious subjects of the photo. It is their struggle and their courage.

But the story of Peter Norman, the white Australian beside them, is also a story of bravery. And it’s a story of betrayal, too.

See, Australia in the 1960s was also in the midst of a deep struggle for racial justice. There was a lot of “White Australia” policy then, including heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against its indigenous aboriginal population, including separating Aboriginal children from their birth parents and giving them to white couples for adoption.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two Black Americans who won first and third place at this race, asked Norman after the race if he believed in human rights. Norman said that he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and Peter said that he did.

Said John Carlos: “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and Peter Norman said ‘I’ll stand with you.’ I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”

Smith and Carlos had decided to get up on the stadium wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, a movement of athletes fighting for justice.

Peter then donned an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge when he went up to the podium. And because of that symbolic gesture, he was ostracized from athletics, from his community, and from employment. 

As John Carlos said, “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.” Australia invited Peter to condemn John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracized him. But he refused to condemn the Americans. Said John Carlos: “Peter was a lone soldier. He consciously chose to be a sacrificial lamb in the name of human rights. There’s no one more than him that Australia should honor, recognize and appreciate.”

In his own words, Peter said: “I couldn’t see why a Black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man. There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it. It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory [day-ess] dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it”.

Our Invitation to Betrayal

I know. These are stories that highlight the courage of those who have – or did have – power, rather than those who are brave even though they have no power. 

[M], [S], and I preached earlier in this series about people who mostly had little power but were good troublemakers nonetheless. It is so important not to over-focus on courageous allies at the risk of forgetting about the courage of marginalized people, themselves, living in defiance of systems of power.

But it’s also important to consider the invitation Jesus issues to those who do have power. Because sometimes that’s us, and we need to be able to recall these stories when opportunity knocks on our door – when our invitation comes. 

And that invitation is to a good betrayal. A betrayal like Paul’s, like Pat Hogan’s, like the pastors of queer- and trans-affirming churches here in Maine, and like Peter Norman’s.

Paul’s life and story are unique in scripture, but his message is consistent with that of many others. It’s not the only message, but it’s one that’s repeated. It’s the message of Jesus: the one Paul gave up everything to emulate. Jesus, who betrayed the comfort and power of deity when he became one of us.

It is good troublemaking to betray the way that things are in service of the way that things could be – for the kin-dom of heaven still in formation. 

We get taught from a young age that betrayal can be deeply wounding, deeply hurtful, to the one who’s betrayed. But that’s precisely why a good betrayal can be so powerful against powers and principalities.

Nice guys don’t betray, we may have been taught. Nice guys are loyal to what formed them and raised them. But Paul wasn’t a conventional nice guy. Through his life and ministry, he sought to wound oppression, to fight against the chasm that humanity cleaved between itself and the Divine – in the way of Jesus.

One of the ways we can be troublemakers is by betraying systems of difference, division, and destruction. And to some extent, each of us belongs to power and also to powerlessness. 

And so the invitation of Jesus, the invitation that Paul accepted, is an invitation to us, too – and to you. 

We are called to be traitors to death, traitors to the status quo, so that we can join with what the Spirit is doing. 

Our invitation is coming. Or maybe it’s already here.

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