Universal Dignity in a Debauched Empire

Paul’s Life-Changing Teachings

Universal Dignity in a Debauched Empire
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Paul offers a theological and solid foundation for human dignity and human flourishing that is inherent, universal, and indestructible by any evaluation (race, religion, gender, nationality, class, education, social position, etc.). He brings a deep new sense of the inherent dignity of every human person. This is unheard of in history up to then—and unrealized even now! Remember that the Acts account of Pentecost goes out of its way to emphasize that people from all over the world heard the Galileans speaking in the pilgrims’ individual languages after the descent of heavenly fire and wind (Acts 2:5). At least 17 nations or groups are listed and “about three thousand persons” were baptized and received the Holy Spirit that day. The message is clear: The Spirit of God is clearly and completely democratic and unmerited.

One of the reasons Paul’s teachings had so much influence in Asia Minor was that he restored human dignity at a time when perhaps four out of five people were slaves, women were considered the property of men, temple prostitution was a form of worship, and oppression and wholesale injustice toward the poor and the outsider were the universal norm. Into this corrupt and corrupting empire Paul shouts, “One and the same Spirit was given to us all to drink!” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul levels the playing field: “You, all of you, are sons and daughters of God, now clothed in Christ, where there is no distinction between male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). This is quite amazing, considering the culture at the time! In his estimation, the old world was forever gone and new world was born. This was impossible and frightening to some people, but utterly attractive and hopeful to the 99% who had no dignity in that society. Recent sociological studies say this humanly explains Paul’s amazing success in a relatively short time. Who does not want to be told they are worthy and good?

No longer was the human body a cheap thing, degraded by slavery and abuse. Paul is saying, “You are the very temple of God.” This affirmation of dignity began to turn the whole Roman Empire around. When you read Paul’s teaching on sexuality (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), it really isn’t the moralistic message many of us were given. Paul is just saying that your body has dignity, so respect it! Because of this understanding, a woman could claim her own dignity and refuse to give her body away to every man who wanted it. A man could start respecting and being responsible with his body. This is a positive and dignifying message, not a finger-shaking, moralistic one. It gives the ego appropriate and much needed boundaries. Unfortunately, this morphed into guilt-based barriers and prohibitions, which happens in most religions, it seems to me.

Gateway to Silence:
I am the temple of God.

Reference:
Adapted from an unpublished talk, February 2015 at the CAC

Image Credit: Grotto in Ephesus, Turkey adorned with a Byzantine fresco of Paul and Thecla (c. 6th century).

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