Though I graduated from URI, I would often tell people I went to Penn State (which I did for three years). Especially if we were talking football. I followed the Nittany Lions over the years, but “Penn State Proud” has certainly taken a hit! Recently some of the worst penalties ever handed down by the NCAA were levied against the school for what is seen as the worst scandal ever in U.S. sports. In announcing the sanctions, NCAA President Mark Emmert said:
Penn State was guilty of “an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency…“ (emphasis mine)
We’re not surprised that there is universal condemnation for the actions of Jerry Sandusky and for the inaction of Penn State officials to report and prevent sexual exploitation. They failed to reinforce a culture of uncompromising integrity. The issues are framed in terms of “the values of human decency” (the clear assumption being that there are values that all can and should agree upon.) And rightly so!
But what does this have to do with the Apostle Paul? Please read on.
At the same time the Penn State scandal unfolded, I read a chapter called “No Closets, No Monsters? Paul and Homosexuality” by Sarah Ruden in her book Paul Among the People:The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Be sure to read this great review and interview with Ruden by Rod Dreher.
She represents great historical and biblical scholarship. Many who question the Bible’s stance against homosexual practice often point to Paul in Romans chapter 1 as being archaic, out of touch, homophobic or talking about something else altogether.
Sarah Ruden is blunt and quotes things that are indisputable but very disturbing, even to read. Paul, in Romans and elsewhere was clearly speaking out (or rather unapologetically shouting) against a culture in the Greco-Roman world that tolerated – among other things - pederasty (the word for boys being used and abused as passive partners in a homosexual act.) Another reviewer summarized:
Ruden unveils for us a world where slave boys were regularly used (and mostly abused) for sex, where families with money sent a slave along with their sons to school in the hope the sons would not be accosted… Ruden, deeply familiar with Greek and Roman literature, makes it clear that the world of Paul’s day was not some delightful 1960s sexual paradise love-in, but a world full of disgusting exploitation, in which both women and boys were objectified, regarded as low as animals.
Both her book and the book of Acts (in the New Testament) remind us that the beautiful statues and temples we associate with ancient Greeks and Romans were only part of the picture, that theirs was a violent, exploitive, slave-based society where most people’s lives were frankly horrible. She makes the case that Christianity, far from seeming restrictive or Puritanical, seemed like the very thing to liberate people from a morally rotten culture.
My point – it is ironic to me that many of the people who voice rightful outrage against the inexcusable actions at Penn State, will at another time, try to frame Paul’s outrage and clear teaching as though he’s an out-of-touch hate-monger! I would insist quite the opposite. Paul is challenging corruption in the culture in the name of a good and just Creator. A God who holds abusers accountable. A God who calls us to use God-given passions in an ordered, life-giving way. Paul is proclaiming Christ’s liberation and the restoration of the image of God for everyone. A restoration that comes from the risen Lord and the power and healing of the Holy Spirit! Ruden closes her chapter like this:
All this leads to a feeling of mountainous irony. Paul takes a bold and effective swipe at the power structure. He challenges centuries of execrable practice in seeking a more just, more loving society. And he gets called a bigot. Well, it’s not a persecution that would have impressed him much.
I value your comments. Is our culture as far gone as we sometimes think or hear? How does understanding the world of the first century help bridge the communication barriers we often feel in our stereotyped, soundbite world?