Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Postponing Galatians 3

I remember when Paul's words about the egalitarian nature of life in Christ hit me for the first time. In Galatians 3, he writes, "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 was a second-year seminarian and was writing a paper on feminist theology. I had been asked to read about the contributions of feminist theologians to our understanding of who Jesus is and what he represents. In my reading, I had discovered contemporary giants like Coakley and Ruether and Soskice. They articulated a vision of Jesus the Christ who brought us under the reign of God in a way that liberated us from our particular gender (or race or class). I don't remember whether any of them quoted Galatians 3, but the feminist vision of belonging to Christ set me free from my own patriarchy in a way I had never known before.

But, of course, it didn't. While that fiery, confident, and necessary genderless, raceless, and classless eschatology was full and powerful, I shut my books and turned in my paper and went back to my seminary dorm room where most of the students were white and male and economically advantaged. Most of my professors were white and male and economically advantaged. I was studying in a church that, at the time, had been ordaining women for less than ten years and that wouldn't ordain its first woman bishop for another ten years. Sure, Paul's vision of the kingdom of God (note the gender-specific language inherent in that term) was egalitarian, but the manifestation of that kingdom in which I lived and in which I still live is far from egalitarian.

Race matters. Class matters. Gender matters. Sexuality matters. It isn't supposed to, but it does. We don't want it to, but it does. Just ask the residents of Hale County, Alabama, where the population is overwhelmingly black and for generations has been shackled by the vicious cycle of poverty, poor education, and substandard healthcare. Just ask my daughter, who, despite all the privilege she enjoys, is still labeled as "bossy" by the parents watching her assert herself as a leader on the playground. Just ask the victims of the tragedy in Orlando, where people were targeted and murdered because of their sexual orientation.

In one of my classes this summer, we read an essay by Rowan Williams on racism. In it, he wrote some words that surprise me: "Liberation has something to do with the presenting and owning in public of this reality of shared life behind and beyond the roles defined by the power-holders; and this means an accentuation, not an erosion, of difference--which is why racial justice and racial equality do not begin with 'treating everyone alike'" (from "Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgment Morning" in On Christian Theology, p. 281-82). In essence, that means that, for most of human history, those in power have been able to define those without it, and an end of that power-imbalance requires us to allow those without power to define themselves for themselves and for all of us. For those of us like me--people of privilege--to say to the world, "It's time for us to treat everyone the same," is to deny the sins of racism, classism, and sexism. For preachers like me to claim that Galatians 3 shows us that, in Christ, we are past all of these 'isms is to perpetuate the sins themselves.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul saw a radical reordering of society. He knew that access to God and participation in God's reign were not distributed on the basis of race, class, or gender. But he lived in a world in which all of those things still mattered, and we still live in that world today. We wait for that vision of God's egalitarian reign to be established here on earth. We believe that in Jesus such a reign is possible. But we cannot pretend that it is already here. It isn't. And it won't be until we stop pretending that it is.

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