Wednesday, July 30, 2014

William Wilberforce & Galatians 3

How would you describe yourself? I’m a thirty-four-year-old man, father of three, Episcopal priest from Alabama. The answer might change depending on the context, but usually it contains some collection of geography, gender, profession, and family. If I were in a room full of Episcopal priests, I’d probably be more specific in describing my job—“rector of a midsized Episcopal church in Decatur, Alabama.” If I were at a high school reunion, I might include some of my history since graduation—“I went to Birmingham-Southern College and worked in Birmingham for a year before heading to seminary in Cambridge.” If I were at a convention for Brian McCann lookalikes, I might include some specifics about my appearance—“I’m a right-handed man with moderately fair skin, a reddish beard, and blue eyes.” Still, the basics are there.

But for Paul, as he writes in Galatians 3, most of that gets thrown out the window. Those of us who are in Christ through our baptism have given all of that up. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I don’t live in a community where there is a large enough Jewish population for anyone to understand instinctively what it would mean for Paul to say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, but it might be a little like saying to Benjamin Netanyahu that there is neither Jew nor Arab. Although in places like Decatur, Alabama, there isn’t typically a religious divide made along racial lines, imagine if Paul had shown up in 1965 and declared, “If you are a Christian, there is neither black nor white.” Likewise, we can’t fully appreciate the abolition of the distinction between slave and free in a first-century Palestinian context, but imagine if Paul had said, “There is neither poor nor rich, working-class nor upper-class, illiterate nor educated, addict nor clean, etc..”

Paul picks the biggest, deepest, most fundamental descriptors. He chooses the most basic way of identifying oneself. He singles out the most profound points of contention in the community of the Galatians and declares that in Christ they no longer exist. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, or who your parents were. The only thing that matters is your identity in Christ. The challenge, of course, is taking that seriously.

Often, when we read the prophet’s descriptions of God’s reign, Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom, and Paul’s descriptions of the new life in Christ, we fast-forward in our brains to the eschaton—the end of the world—and say to ourselves, “Won’t that be nice…someday…when there really is no male or female, slave or free?” We take all of these prophecies and fling them ahead to that someday point in the future  so that they will no longer be meaningful to us. “When it all comes together, it really will be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.” But Jesus didn’t mean someday. And neither does Paul.

Today is the feast of William Wilberforce, the British politician, evangelical Christian, and staunch abolitionist. Although introduced to ardent expressions of Christianity at a young age, Wilberforce did not experience a conversion until his 20s, when he began waking up early every day, reading the bible, and writing in a journal. Soon, God grabbed a hold of his heart and mind in a way that led the popular, social political upstart to experience a crisis of conscience. There weren’t many evangelical Christians in polite society. Should he change careers? After enduring an internal struggle that he hid from everyone but a few confidants, he decided to remain in politics and let his newfound faith guide his work. The resulting career was astounding.[1]

In the latter half of the 18th century, Britain was fully engaged in the slave trade. Ships carried British manufactured goods to Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The slaves were sent to the New World, where they were exchanged for tobacco, tea, sugar, and cotton. The ships returned to Britain, where the desired items entered the economy, and the whole operation accounted for as much as 80% of nation’s foreign income. For Wilberforce, his understanding of the gospel and the horrors of slavery were absolutely incompatible, and he began his campaign to end the slave trade. Wilberforce began his work to outlaw slavery in 1783. Twenty-four years later, after unwavering efforts in the face of considerable social and political opposition, the Slave Trade Act became law in 1807.[2]

We are all one in Christ—not someday but now. If the power of the resurrection is real in this life, then we must take Paul seriously. How will that change us? We are no longer black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, southern or Yankee, educated or illiterate. We are one in Christ. If we stop taking our relationship with Jesus for granted, what might that do to us? How might our church change? What would matter to us? What causes would we support? Stop thinking of yourself as distinct. Stop labeling yourself in ways that you are different from others. Recognize the transformation that happens through Christ, and live into it.

[2] Ibid.

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