The Apostle Paul is sometimes portrayed as a domineering zealot bent on imposing a rigid, narrow form of religion. Portraits like this overlook the fact that the letters of Paul found in the New Testament portray him as trying to hold together emerging communities which struggled deeply with, and divided over, matters of identity.
In Galatians, Paul argues against forcing a group of Others (i.e., Gentiles) to abandon their identities in order to conform to the group’s dominant identity (i.e., Jewish). At other times, Paul appears to cave under the pressure of holding these communities together and reinscribes socially constructed narratives of behavior instead of transforming those narratives in light of Christ’s resurrection. For example, what Paul says about women’s roles in 1 Timothy is far more restrictive yet socially acceptable in the Roman world of the first century as opposed to the more liberating yet socially controversial ideals Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians or the salutation in Romans 16. Looking at how Paul seeks to maintain different, sometimes conflicting identities in the churches of the first century can serve as starting point for contemporary conversations about identities and differences in the church.
Before moving forward to Galatians, I need to clarify my use of “Other.” Identity theories have long realized that groups often define who they are by emphasizing who they are not. Poststructuralist models of language push the point further by demonstrating that who we are, our reality, is not just expressed by language but also constituted by it. The Other is not just what I am not, but it is truly different since it is constituted and assessed by a different linguistic framework and contains the possibility of exceeding my own sense of the world. But when I conceive of the Other I deny her autonomy to define herself. However, encountering the Other moves me out of this “totalization” and into the shared, “generalized” world where I am responsible to acknowledge and care for the Other (Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Identity, 215-216). To encounter the Other is not to negate myself but to move beyond myself as Others open up new possibilities of knowing and being known in the world.
The letter to the Galatians, in particular, presents Paul arguing at a feverish pace as he attempts to prevent a community of religious Others from abandoning their identities, who they were when they first encountered God’s love. The reason that Paul pours his sweat and passion into every line of this letter is that he thinks that if the Galatian community abandons who they are they will consequently be abandoning God (Gal 5:2). But Paul pushes the issue deeper. It is not just necessary to retain your identity but also to be in community with people who problematize your identity.
The dialectic between retaining and jeopardizing forms a “queer space” which prevents any one identity from claiming the center.This is Paul’s vision of the church.
Although it might seem strange that the focus of the Galatians’ identity crisis centers on whether or not they should be circumcised, a little background from Jewish history helps illustrate the practice’s importance. Circumcision was the first sign given to the Jewish people to confirm God’s promises to them and signals their membership and participation in the Jewish community (Gen 17). The mark of circumcision effectively divides the world into Jews and non-Jews, or Gentiles. It also played a key and controversial role in preserving Jewish identity through times of oppression.
When foreign, i.e., Gentile, rulers tried to erase the identity of the Jewish people in order to control and incorporate them into their kingdoms, they would ban circumcision and other distinguishing marks of Jewish identity. One account has two Jewish woman who circumcised their babies punished by having their children killed and hung around the mothers’ necks while they were forced to parade around the streets before being thrown over the city walls (2 Macc 6). There are even reports of Jews undergoing surgery to “reverse” their circumcision in order to blend into foreign cultures (1 Macc 1). The regulation of foreskin was not just about tradition; it was about preserving who you were while others tried to destroy your identity.
Galatians confronts these issues but from the reversed perspectives. Paul writes to a predominantly Gentile community whose members are being told that they need to take on a Jewish identity through circumcision in order to really belong to the God’s people. The choice is not Judaism or Christianity, or even the law or grace, but of needing to first have the right identity, i.e. be Jewish, before being united to Christ. Jewish Christians are trying to collapse the identity of these Gentile “Others” in order to form homogeneous communities.
Paul uses several strategies to encourage the Gentile Christians to preserve their identities. First, he reminds them that they received the Spirit while they were Gentiles (Gal 3:1-5). Within some Jewish literature and broadly in the New Testament, people receiving the Spirit signals the dawning of a new age when God will set the world right (Eze 37:1-14; Joel 3:1; Isa 32:9-20; Enoch 61.11; Jub 1.23-25; Rom 8:23; Acts 2:15-21). Although there was some debate within Rabbinic Judaism about whether God would include “righteous Gentiles” in the new age (e.g., Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2), in this situation presuppositions about who God will accept and reject force Paul to counter the necessity of certain practices, most notably circumcision and certain food laws. Paul points out that God signals the acceptance of Gentiles as Gentiles into the community by giving them the Spirit, and that should be all the confirmation they need of the legitimacy of their identities.
But the importance of the Spirit does not simply entail abstract, cognitive assurance that a person is accepted by God. For Paul, receiving the Spirit also means participating in a way of life which aligns itself with God’s new age as opposed to the way of the “present evil age” (Gal 1:4). The people who are assaulting the Galatians’ identities epitomize the ethics of this present evil age because they simply want to use the Galatians for their own personal gain (Gal 6:13). Paul also describes this self-centeredness in terms “biting and devouring” and warns that self-centeredness will eventually “consume” those who practice it (Gal 5:15; cf., 5:19-21).
In contrast to the self-centeredness of the present evil age, Paul presents the self-sacrificing, serving love which inaugurates and constitutes God’s new age (Gal 5:13-14). This self-sacrificing love flows throughout Galatians but is manifest most clearly in the portrayal of Jesus “who loved me and handed himself over [to death] for me” (Gal 2:20; cf., 3:13-14). It is also seen in Paul abandoning his former life in order to serve Gentiles despite the fact that it put him in physical danger and continual suffering (Gal 1:13-16; 4:19; 5:11). Paul also points out that the Galatians manifested this self-sacrificing love by serving Paul when he was sick even though his sickness endangered the community (Gal 4:13-15). Paul’s references to the Galatians being willing to give Paul their eyes could indicate that Paul’s sickness was related to his eyes. In the Greco-Roman world, people with eye conditions were thought to have the “evil eye” which could bring sickness and misfortune upon those whom it gazed. Therefore, the community cared for him despite the physical and social danger his condition brought to the community.
In all three examples Paul points to a self-sacrificing love which serves until it hurts, until it bleeds for the sake of the Other. But the service was not just for the benefit of the Other. In each case the transformation of the person serving is directly connected with the self-sacrificing service they render to the Other. Jesus offers himself over to death for people who are Other to God and through this offering overcomes death and the present evil age (Gal 6:14; Rom 1:1-5). Not only does Paul’s transformation in Christ initiate his service to Gentile Others, but his ongoing service to them continues his own transformation (Gal 6:14; cf., Col 1:24). As mentioned above, the community first receives and cares for Paul with a self-sacrificing love as they were being transformed by God’s love. Paul also expects the community will continue to embody this love as they examine themselves and serve one another. But this service is not just focused in ward, this self-sacrificing love is also meant to reach Others outside their community (Gal 6:10).
The church represents a space where socio-economic, ethno-racial, and gender distinctions no longer divide but can exist together (Gal 3:26-28). But this encounter with the Other is not tangential to being transformed by and embodying God’s self-sacrificing love. By encountering the Other, God moves us outside of our self-serving narratives which seek to collapse the Other. We realize the face and work of God in the Other and, in the process, catch a greater glimpse of God’s love, of God’s new creation. And this, after all, is what Paul says the gospel is all about (Gal 5:6; 6:15).