Like many people in "liberal", mainline churches, I used to have a very negative view of Paul.
My view was actually the byproduct of an attempt to have a positive view of the Bible. When I was a kid, the Bible didn't really seem to belong to Christians like me. It was the '80's, the time of the (so-called) Moral Majority and the rise of the tele-evangelist who (in my stereotype) made hateful comments about gays and feminists and non-Christians while holding a big black Bible in their hands.
Most of the time, these preachers were using a passage attributed to the Apostle Paul to back up their statements. I quickly learned to respond to the argument that homosexuality is un-Biblical, for example, by saying, "Well, Jesus never said a word about homosexuals. In fact, he actively sought out the people who were socially ostracized at his time." If someone told me, "The Bible says women should be silent in church," I'd respond, "Paul says that. Jesus never says such a thing. In fact, he honored women in a way that was very radical for his time."
In short, I learned to love the Bible by learning that Jesus trumps Paul.
The preference for Jesus among the Christian left is alive and well. Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo started a group a while back called "Red Letter Christians" after a popular version of the Bible in which all of the words of Jesus are printed in red type. A "red letter Christian" is a person who embracing the teachings of Jesus as the core message of the Bible and then evaluates the rest of the Bible according to its alignment with those teachings. Another group I joined recently calls themselves the "Beatitudes Society", making a similar point: the part of the Bible we honor is the part that comes from Jesus.
Now, the Bible is a very diverse document, and there is a lot to be said for having a "hermeneutic" (a good Divinity school word), a guide for reading it a making sense out of it. But over the past several years, I've begun to re-think my evaluation of Paul. I've come to believe that he has a lot more to offer than I had originally thought--to my personal faith life, and to the church as a whole.
I'll save my comments about how Paul has shaped my prayer life for another blog. The thing that has spurred me to re-evaluate his teachings for the church is the scholarship and writing of John Dominic Crossan. A few years back, I read Crossan's 2007 book, "God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now". More recently, I read his earlier, longer work, written with archaeologist Jonathan Reed, "In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom."
The central point Crossan makes about Paul is that the Christian movement he forms is deeply anti-imperial. Paul's most fundamental commitment, according to Crossan, is to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, arising in the world here and now, in opposition to the Kingdom of Caesar. At the heart of this opposition is non-violence--instead of bringing "peace through victory" as Caesar claims to do, Jesus brings "peace through justice", which is, in the end, the only way to peace.
When we understand Paul in the context of his opposition to Rome, his work becomes much more radical, much more political, and much more relevant to our own context in the United States in the beginning of the 21st century. What would it mean for us to have our primary citizenship in the Kingdom of God? How would that challenge or even change our relationship to the Kingdoms of This World (are what are those Kingdoms, anyways?)
We're going to begin to explore those questions tomorrow night beginning at 7:30 pm at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, the first of five Lenten Friday evening discussions. The series will make use of a DVD called "Eclipsing Empire: Paul, Rome and the Kingdom of God" featuring Crossan and his colleague Marcus Borg. A whole group of Columbia churches are coming together for this discussion--and its open to the public. You are welcome!