“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found. ‘Twas blind but now I see.” This ancient trope of being able to see after a time of blindness suffuses our own spiritual experiences. “Amazing Grace” is one hymn Americans, regardless of belief, all still know. This also has long been an idiom in the English language: “the scales fell from his eyes.” It signals a change in awareness—a change in understanding. A transformative experience. And even, a traumatic shattering moment. A rupture.
The text today serves as the founding story of the Christian experience of conversion. Especially the Protestant version. Even more so the American evangelical version. Billy Graham shared his story of being saved after hearing the gospel preached persuasively by “a fighting” preacher in Charlotte, NC. He was convicted of his sin, received forgiveness and came to “know” Jesus as his personal savior. The assuring certainty of his salvation engendered Graham’s lifelong success as an American evangelist.
The lasting power of Paul’s “conversion story”—as we have come to understand it—comes from its dramatic contrasts. Saul, empowered by the Pharisees, dogging the followers of Jesus and “persecuting” them to protect the purity of the Jewish faith. Watching the members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen stone and kill Stephen. Dragging Jesus-following Jews out of their homes and arresting them. Bringing them before the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin. Struck down on the road to Damascus by a vision of Jesus himself. Blinded and humbled and rescued by a disciple of Jesus. Brought back to sight and renamed as “Paul,” a most Roman name. Taught the new faith, and loosed upon the Roman empire as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Converting Gentiles all the way to Rome as he himself relied on the benefits of his Roman citizenship until the end.
Like the hymn “Amazing Grace,” Paul once was lost but then was found, was blind but then he could see. The old bad sinful beliefs and persecuting acts of Pharisaical Judaism were left behind and replaced by the true salvation found only in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. At least, this is the interpretation most Christians of the last 2,000 years have been taught, right?
But the problem with this understanding is precisely these dualistic, either/or, black or white contrasts. We tend to demonize one group and protect the sanctity of the other group. At some point, when applied to real people, a story can lead to genocide. Many Jewish scholars regard the traditional Protestant and Catholic understandings that Paul taught—freedom from the “oppressive” yoke of the Jewish law through faith in Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice—as responsible for the abiding anti-Semitism in the West.
Despite centuries of argument, here’s the thing about Paul we’re pretty sure about. He was a Jew, rooted in the philosophical traditions of the Pharisees. Taught by the great Jerusalem sage Gamaliel. He was a man of international experience and privilege, a possessor of Roman citizenship. An intellectual. A member of the educated class of the Jewish diaspora in what is now Syria and Turkey, of the Judeo-Roman elite. We have a brief description of him from the Acts of Paul and Thecla, one of many extra-canonical scriptures. There, Onesiphorus sees Paul as “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.” The apostle we call Paul did not check his Jewish identity at the door when he became a follower of Jesus. Paul was always a Jew. Paul was always still Saul of Tarsus.
In fact, one recent work of scholarship by Pamela Eisenbaum makes the claim that (and this is the title of her book) “Paul was not a Christian.”“Paul,” she writes “was unambiguously Jewish, ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally, and theologically.” In fact, Paul was far more inclusive than many Christians want to admit. (Yes, Pauline letters are problematic for women; that is a different sermon.) Paul worked out different paths for Jews and non-Jews to follow as they formed faith communities and spiritual paths together. The Jew can be a Jew—follow the Torah (first five books) laws and follow Jesus. The Gentile can be a Gentile and follow Jesus without first having to become a Jew. Eisenbaum’s scholarship reveals Paul as attempting to respect the different cultural and ethnic identities without making only one way supreme. So, in Eisenbaum’s view of Paul, Paul was not “converted” from one religion to another. Paul was given the insight that Jesus was initiating a universal hope, an inclusive view of the spiritual paths of Gentiles and Jews. But without privileging one over the other. Without the need to attack one group to protect the other. One group does not need to constantly defend a single identity. One group does not have to demand that all have a dramatic “born again” experience of knowing Jesus as your personal savior. One group does not need to demand that all become heteronormative to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. One group does not need to insist that all members profess a set belief to participate in the faith community. Pretty radical, isn’t it, allowing folks to just be who they are? I confess that I have trouble with this—just letting people be who they are. I think my way is the right way. I can get a bit bossy and irritable when folks don’t agree with my vision of righteousness.
Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher, who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, writes about letting the Other be Other without reducing them to the same. Ever had anyone give you advice that basically recommended: Be like me? I suppose you won’t be surprised to learn I am asked almost daily in my work as a hospice chaplain, “Where are you from?” I have a non-midwestern accent. Most times this question is among others in our conversation as families seek to relate to me as a supportive person. Other times, the question feels accusatory, as families worry that I am that poor ignorant hillbilly that their cousin did mission work for some place down south. Sometimes I get a story about their experiences visiting Tennessee or Kentucky where everyone they met had no teeth and they couldn’t understand a word they said. We are wary of others we don’t know. Are there some barriers between us that are just too big to breach? Do I have to be the same as you to be trusted? Do I have to confirm your cultural assumptions?
If you present as female, you know all you have to do is merely set a boundary, and you will be perceived as an “angry” female. I found out setting boundaries stops the other person from “reducing me to the same,” as Levinas would say. But it can often provoke defensiveness. If his culture teaches him that his boundaries are the only ones that can be asserted, it is a jarring experience when someone different asserts theirs. Why is it so many police officers can’t tolerate the simple assertion that “Black Lives Matter?” Why is it so many of us white people can’t acknowledge that we are, in fact, racist? Why can’t we stop defending against this truth, and shut up and listen?
So imagine the difficulties of Paul when he tried to respect the boundaries of different identities. Jews from Jerusalem, Syria, Asia, Africa, Turkey—and non-Jews from the same countries. From our perspective, this seems impossible. However, as long as the Jesus followers continued as a Jewish sect, without becoming detached from their Jewish roots, synagogues and churches were the same faith communities. They did not become separate for centuries, according to scholar Charlotte Fonrobert, because Gentile God-fearers had always been part of synagogues. Not until sometime after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, when the Gentile Christians got the upper hand politically in the Roman Empire, did they separate entirely. And this marks the beginning of when Christians began “othering” Jews in a persecutorial way. It is amazing how easily we are corrupted by emperors promising us power.
Scholars also tell us that Acts was written centuries after the events it claims to record. After Christians became separate from their Jewish roots and gained political power. Lots of Jewish persecution of Christians may never have actually happened in the time Acts claims it did. These events may have been telescoped backward in time in order to advance the power of Christian clergy writing these stories in the third and fourth centuries. Anti-Semitism, like misogyny, is written into our scriptures. And for Christians who treat the bible as literally the word of God, this can pose a faith challenge. Aren’t the scriptures supposed to be pure and holy? Isn’t “the Bible” supposed to “mean what it says and say what it means?” And can’t we research the texts and ascertain the “original” meaning (which, by the way, seems always to confirm whatever those in power want to establish)? So much defending and defensiveness! Such desire for certainty! Instead of justice.
Does the story of Saul’s conversion reduce him to a white Roman Christian? What happened to Saul of Tarsus?
Can we re-imagine the moral and emotional reality of this narrative? I wonder if Saul started out as a young naïve idealist. A gifted privileged student who soaked in the scholarly wisdom of the Jewish sages in Jerusalem. Who was recognized early on by the Pharisees as a leader. But after persecuting these Jesus followers for a while, I wonder if Saul began to question these methods of ensuring purity. The book of Acts says he stood by while Stephen was stoned to death. He participated in roundups of whole families—Jewish families—for prison. Perhaps after repeated experiences of moral injury—during which Saul acted against his own Jewish values—Saul was ready to hear Jesus ask him “why are you persecuting me?” Ready to listen to Ananias.
Perhaps Saul came to see there is no “purity.” There is only the mass of imperfect humanity struggling to live in a colonized world. To try and carve out sanctuaries of certainty leads only to more killing. Empires build walls, shoot you down with no consequences, and put their knees on your neck on purpose so you can’t breathe freely. Perhaps following Jesus became Paul’s way of challenging the Roman world with the Jewish morality of justice and peace. The Jewish morality of protection for orphaned children and widows of men murdered in their back yards, murdered while sitting in their cars, walking into their mother’s house or opening the door to help a stranger.
Today, we live in an empire that wraps the globe. Unlike Rome, ours does not even have a name, as it is not merely national. Capital markets hold the earth in thrall to “free markets” without regard for creation or any kind of morality. We seem so small and powerless in the face of this.
Yet, here we are. Loving and supporting each other. Using what power we have to covenant with each other to live out our faith through our daily lives, through what we commit our money to, our daily work in the community, our efforts to advocate for fairness and justice, our refusal to commit bystander violence by watching without challenging injustice.
No one has all the answers. We face daily the limits of what we can “know.” Only love—for our neighbor, for ourselves—transcends the constant stupidity and terror of evil. We love when we listen to those who suffer the worst. We listen to the Ananiases around us. Saul/Paul embraced all of who he was—Jewish, Roman citizen, Jesus follower, tentmaker, bald guy with a hooked nose, crooked legs, and unibrow. It is a dream of loving inclusion we struggle to accept. It is rarely achievable for long, because it requires so much humility to observe. We have to humble ourselves to hear. And it is so threatening to the powers and principalities. What if we laid down our guns, our stock markets, our weapons of whiteness, our desire to subjugate anything different?
What if we listened and the scales fell from our eyes on the road to Damascus, and we could see?
Before death, an observant Jew will recite or have another Jew recite what is called the Vidui—the Jewish confessional prayer before death (also recited just before Yom Kippur). When I recite it now, listen for how familiar the words and values are:
My God and the God of my ancestors, please accept my prayer and do not turn away from me. Forgive me for all the times that I have disappointed You throughout my life. I acknowledge my sins and misdeeds. Through my suffering, may I find atonement for my shortcomings. Against You have I sinned. May it be your will, my God and the God of my ancestors, that I sin no more and that you grant healing—healing of the body and healing of the soul—to me together with all those who suffer. I acknowledge before you, my God and the God of my ancestors, that my healing and my death are in Your hands. If it should be that I die, may I find atonement for all my sins, errors and transgressions before You. May you accept me into Your eternal kingdom. Protector of orphans and guardian of widows, may my family and all those who love me find comfort in your presence. In your hands lies my soul.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/1583027?seq=1 “The Description of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla” by Robert Grant
 From Totality and Infinity https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/levinas/
 There are many English variations of this prayer. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-text-of-final- confessional-prayer-viddui/