If you Google ‘Paul in prison’ and check out the images you’ll see a host of inspired artwork of a pensive, well groomed man, frequently gripping a quill as he stares off into the distance recalling stories which he then presumably scribes for you and I to read in our Bibles today. You’ll also find colouring book pages for those of us with less artistic prowess to indulge our creativity. I wonder if it was really like that.
My thinking about Paul was spurred by my husband’s arrest a couple weeks ago for supporting striking public sector workers in London, merely with the intention of distributing tea and biscuits. As Christ-followers involved in the activist scene locally, we have friends from both spheres who have supported us via text messages, emails and social media in this time. Rob’s activist friends who have a great deal more familiarity with the process of being arrested, either having been there themselves or having supported others before were unflinching in their ability to provide information and ensure that we were well looked after.
Our Christian friends, while very good at sending message of support and offering prayer were not so great at offering practical help. I hope that this experience of ours will serve to enlighten our Christ-following friends in ways that they can help out in a more hands-on way where possible, but that’s for another day and another post.
Along with offers for prayer we were overwhelmed with statements comparing Rob’s arrest and 12ish hours in jail to the apostle Paul who was also imprisoned and wrote much of the New Testament letters during that time. I wondered why with every new message sent comparing Rob to Paul I went from shaking my head in good humour, knowing that this was an example of Christians taking experiences totally out of context, to becoming increasingly frustrated with the comparison. I just couldn’t put my finger on why I was so annoyed as I know that every person who sent such a message did so intending to give encouragement and identify with the experience in possibly the only way they knew to do so.
We escaped to the seaside the weekend after the ordeal and sat on the beach talking about why I felt so miffed. As we talked on, I realised that my issue with this comparison stemmed from the fact that Rob was arrested with 36 other people also doing good in their community. Maybe they weren’t doing it as an act of love for their neighbour explicitly following Christ’s example, but nevertheless they were doing it equally. It seems like a real double standard to select the Christian for a biased pat on the back, neglecting the others who were unjustly repaid for the same good deeds.
This is one of the real problems we’ve got with the church right now- the near inability to see or acknowledge Jesus values that are embedded all around us. Perhaps if we did so others would feel a closer kinship with Jesus rather than an increasing sense of alienation.
I also realised that this is a great example of an unhealthy tendency I’ve seen the church charged with before – the tendency to align itself more with Paul than with Christ. Listen to Christians in Bible conversation and you’ll probably hear more reference to Paul than Jesus. We spend more time studying his letters than the gospels and life of Christ. I wonder why people felt compelled to compare Rob’s arrest to Paul instead of Jesus who also was imprisoned without cause. Who exactly are we following? A guy who, I have to be honest, at face value seems like a real sexist jerk sometimes* or a guy who we confess to believing lived a perfect life?
Not to seem thankless to those who have offered their support and been inspired by a fellow Christ follower who ended up charged with violence by following Jesus’ call to love his neighbour. Just to challenge and provoke thought.
* When I first started reading the Bible for real I actually crossed through some of what Paul said about women because it infuriated me. I could think of several things to call him before ‘apostle’. Having studied a bit more and getting a cultural context for what he said and looking into the way things were badly translated I know that he has been misquoted in most of our translations and isn’t such a bad guy after all and actually quite pro-women. But I have real empathy for anyone reading the Bible without this understanding.