Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Who stood up for Stephen?"

"For many of us, the center of a new moral or religious life is the image of some evil act we have done and cannot undo. In many cases it is a cruel act. The realization that we have caused helpless suffering is a special shock and creates an especially vivid memory." So writes Sarah Ruden in Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Ruden goes on to assert that "for Saul the memory was of standing over a pile of outer robes, guarding them from petty thieves," as the owners of those cloaks stoned Stephen, the Greek-speaking Jewish follower of Jesus Christ, who asserted that those who did not now Jesus were uncircumcised in their hearts.

Ruden goes on to point out that ancient literature nowhere provides us with a detailed account of a stoning. However, because this extremely cruel and inhumane practice persists even in our own day, as the sad case of Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani, the Iranian woman now imprisoned and sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, we have a pretty good idea of the traumatic cruelty of this practice, which is so at odds with our Christian faith. She goes on to write that "it would have taken Stephen some time to die; a stone small enough to throw from a few yards away usually cannot cause much damage. There is little bleeding, mainly bruising. The victim screams and tries to get away. After awhile, he shrinks down and covers his head with his arms. Impatience, pity, or self-disgust my cause someone to come up closer, raise a larger stone with both hands, and slam it straight down onto the victim - but that may mean looking into his face as he hears the approach and lifts his head..."


Ruden continues her thought: "Saul, as he was called then, saw something like this. As he went about afterward, inflicting his culture and education, his self-righteousness, his arguing, his politicking, and his networking on more Christians, he had in the back of his mind what such things had done to the body of Stephen, yet how, when the young man went down, it was to kneel and cry out words of forgiveness. It was all in the back of Saul's mind as he set off for Damascus, but if he wanted to make any peace with it, anger and ego still did not let him."

Ruden in correct that Paul "never overcame his touchiness, his fussiness, or his arrogance." She goes on to speculate that the famous "thorn in his flesh," about which he writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7, is likely anger and not lust. I love this, Paul "keeps his worst faults in bounds, sometimes with charming irony, and the knowledge of how destructive they could be was of great use to him."

Indeed, my favorite passage from Paul's writings is just this passage from 2 Corinthians because it shows what Ruden asserts about Paul, at least his arrogance and his Pharisaical fussiness, but overriding these is his deep need, which he recognizes as constitutive of his very human being. Weakness is precisely where the greatness any Christian lies: "Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:6-10- ESV).

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