Paul the Terrorist, David the Murderer, and other Redemption Stories

A scripture that has continues to disturb me:

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a steady rise in Pauline Studies at both the church and the academic levels. While Dr. Richard Hayes and NT Wright (J.R. Daniel Kirk’s book is equally amazing) have led the scholarly charge in the last few decades, in the mainstream church pastors such as Mark Driscoll and John Piper have, unfortunately, defined a very skewed version of Paul for a new Christian generation.  However, I am not about going after Driscoll or massaging Hayes here. Rather, I want to simply reflect on what the above passage could mean for those of us who don’t turn a blind eye to the disturbing reality of the pre-apostle Paul in Acts 7-8.

It is interesting that we often overlook these verses in our nostalgic and heroic notions of the Apostle Paul.  When we think of the Romans 8 Paul, does the fact that he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen cross our minds? When we read his beautiful exposition on love in 1 Corinthians 13, does the image of him “ravaging” the church overtake? Even though we know how the story of Paul plays out – his miraculous conversion and responsibility for half of our New Testament – we still need to reflect on what it means to have a heroic model of faith with such a troubled past in Paul.

First, some attention to detail. In the Greek text of Acts, there are two words pertaining to Paul’s actions that are particularly telling for our purposes. The first occurs in Acts 8:3, when the author states that Saul “was ravaging the church, and entered house after house, he dragged off men and women. . .”. The Greek verb for ravaging, lumaino, connotes an image of destruction and was used by the greater ancient world when speaking of Greeks raiding enemy cities (BDAG). Lumaino is also thought to be derived from the older Greek noun luma, meaning the “filth left from washing.” Although this verse is scary enough, I cannot help hear the same type of narrative that took place in the Holocaust. No doubt, the Nazis dragged men and women from their homes for the sole reason that the Jews were polluting the earth, the remaining “filth” standing in the way of Hitler’s ravage cleansing of Germany. Holding together these two images of these decisive moments in Jewish history is riveting, and, as it should be, nauseating.

The second particularity comes from the use of the Greek dioko in Acts 9:4 in which Paul is confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute (dioko) me?” Although persecution gets a softer meaning in the modern church, of the 44 occurrences of dioko in the New Testament, over half are associated with death ( Matt 23:34; Luke 21:12; Gal 1:13; dioko can also mean “pursue” in a positive sense, and is used quite often by Paul to infer a pursuit of faith or Christian living; Rom 14:19; Hebrew 12:14). Moreover, dioko can also mean “to cause to run or flee” (BDAG). Again, utilizing some heavy interpretive imagination, my first though of dioko in the “fleeing” and “running” sense is that of 9/11 and images of thousands of people running from the falling buildings in New York after the terrorist attacks. Again, although these connections are held together by a fine thread, we should not ignore them.

As we have seen, Acts makes no effort to obscure who Paul was before his conversion. The fact that the first encounters we have with Paul in the Bible included words like “ravaging” and “persecuting” should tell us something very important about Acts and its purpose in evoking such strong images of death and destruction. Of course, Acts wants us to focus on the new Paul post-Acts 8. This new focus, however, only makes sense in light of the author’s stark and intentional contrast to the old. This contrast can also be found the story David. David, one of the most respected characters of the Bible, was a noble young man. Unfortunately, after being crowned king and getting used to having whatever he wanted, he killed Uriah the Hittite after he found out that he was the husband of Bathsheba, a young woman he fancied through his binoculars one night. Let’s call David was he is: a murder and an adulterer.  But, as the books of Samuel want to illustrate, this is not who David is, but who he was. The same is with Paul. Paul changed. Acts 9 and on presents him as a new creation, one worthy to carry the torch for all of Christianity for centuries to come. But, I don’t think, we can expect that Paul and David, or anyone who knew them, forgot about the terrible things of their past.

I think you know where I was going with this from the beginning. What about modern-day terrorists and murderers and other criminal stories? From experience, I know the inherent difficulty of the church dealing with petty criminals, let alone murderers and those whom America tries for treason. It is an extremely delicate and wrenching conundrum even at the most elementary level of criminality. At any rate, Christian have to ask themselves, “if Paul and David can been redeemed, who can’t?” If they can change and be accepted as Christian exemplars, should we not reconsider those whom we have dismissed and pushed past the boundary of redemption? I can’t stress enough the delicacy and sensitivity with which I am writing this piece. At this very moment I am juggling situations of major pertinence to this topic. I will say that if we are to take the Bible seriously and if we are to proclaim a Christ who “died for everyone,” then we must consider these questions. Before we call in the drones or advocate for death row, we must open our Bible and cry, scream, and negotiated these issues with fear and trembling, as Kierkegaard would suggest.

The Bible does not sugarcoat the facts – Paul was a terrorist, David a murderer (Abraham a psycho; John the Baptist a nut-job; etc).  However, contrary to the popular belief that the Bible and its writers have a  subtle, misleading  way of covering up the social deformity of biblical history and the conspiracies within, The Bible actually operates  in an anti-Da Vinci Code fashion by being up front about the fallacies of its characters and the tragedies they commit. If we truly read the Bible, we would see a story about severely broken people doing extraordinary things; whether the extraordinary is inspiring or downright appalling depends on which part of the story you read. The Bible slaps us in the face with the reality of life in its embodiment of all that is joyful and tragic.

Who should, could, or would we add to our redemption stories?

Check out the poll below to weight in, or, please feel free to comment. I would love to hear your voice here, or through email.

4 thoughts on “Paul the Terrorist, David the Murderer, and other Redemption Stories

  1. Love it. Thanks for writing this Josh. It’s a great reflection with pertinent question. I’m reminded of the difficulty others have expressed to me in trying to find good examples of “godly” people in the Bible. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider what this pursuit means about our motives and imagination and what it means to be a “godly” creature.

  2. Geoff, as you know, I think our obsession with the godly has taken us to harmful territories in which it is impossible to live faithfully. Most of the time one either ends up walking away from the faith because of this godliness, or they develop some neurosis or psychosis. At any rate, I think you are right.

    Mandy, thanks for the comment. Hope all is well. Opinions and beliefs change when you are face to face with these people. I think we both agree that we can’t abstract justice from personal narratives and faces.

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