ISIS and the Inexplicable in History (Day 30)

A reading of Romans 16

In a nutshell: Paul offers this letter of recommendation for the woman who probably carried his longer letter to the Rome. In it he greets numerous friends, kinsmen, and acquaintances.

I recommend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a leader of the Anointed’s people in Cenchreae, … and that you will assist her in whatever undertaking for which she may need your help, because she has provided help to many people, including myself.
—Romans 16:1, 2b

We. have. arrived. Welcome to day 30 of 30 Days of Paul!

Had I not kicked off this morning by reading the gut-wrenching “Mystery of ISIS” (NYRB), published anonymously by a former official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, tamer themes might have tempted me. But after all, there are many ways a small coup can become the status quo. It’s hard not to notice the disturbing parallel—a dark mirror of Paul—going on right in front of our eyes in the Middle East.

Briefly, Paul’s context: Cenchrae, mentioned in Paul’s opening line, was a seaport of Corinth. Paul, writing from Corinth, intended to travel north up the isthmus through Macedonia and Achaia to pick up a donation on his way to the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, to Jerusalem. He would hand over the collected resources to the communities of the Anointed there and then retrace his steps westward, to Rome and then to Spain (see also Romans 15:22–28).

At one of the first Westar national meetings I ever attended, I learned that any honest retelling of Christian origins would need to account for the story of whole communities rather than reducing the story to the actions of a few heroic individuals like Jesus, Peter, or Paul. It was collective memory and collective response that kept the Jesus movement going and growing—circles of friendship and collaboration, also broken circles of betrayal that evolved into the accusations and defenses that came to define the movement in its later years.

I have no vested interest in “proving” Christianity right or wrong, but even a skeptical bystander can see that the first-century Jesus movement was not ISIS, and Paul was not Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi certainly didn’t teach to bless, bless rather than curse, those who harm us. Far from it. I can’t even share photos of anything related to the man. Even sharing a single photo of his campaign simply reinforces his aim of spreading terror.

I may complain about Paul for his harshness at some moments in his letters, but at least his harshness is a matter of words. His communities may even have welcomed such harshness as a sign that he really had inherited the role of cantankerous biblical prophet. He once ordered a community to expel a man from their midst, but it was an order he may even have rescinded later (see all the Corinthian correspondence). Such small-scale censure is like pennies in a pool when compared with torture.

But how did the Jesus movement grow into Christianity, the religion of the Roman Empire? How did ISIS, through entirely different means, “tear off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq, shatter all these historical institutions, and—defeating the combined militaries of a dozen of the wealthiest countries on earth—create a mini empire?” About ISIS we are told this:

The movement now controls a “terrorist state” far more extensive and far more developed than anything that George W. Bush evoked at the height of the “Global War on Terror.” Then, the possibility of Sunni extremists taking over the Iraqi province of Anbar was used to justify a surge of 170,000 US troops and the expenditure of over $100 billion a year. Now, years after the surge, ISIS controls not only Anbar, but also Mosul and half of the territory of Syria. Its affiliates control large swaths of northern Nigeria and significant areas of Libya.

… We now know more and more facts about the movement and its members, but this did not prevent most analysts from believing as recently as two months ago that the defeats in Kobane and Tikrit had tipped the scales against the movement, and that it was unlikely to take Ramadi. We are missing something.

How inarticulate are our explanations of the present and the recent past! We are too quick to believe we can step outside our own time and place and offer up commentary on all those moving pieces. How bewildering must it have been, too, to observe the Jesus movement before it became Christianity! Even belonging to it must have been an exercise in questions and missteps. Who knew it would rise alongside and eventually come to mercilessly harass its brother religion, rabbinic Judaism? We think we know what accounted for it, and we may even be right, but quite a bit of distance was needed to begin to see which strands of explanation were strong enough to survive, embedded in the very fabric of the movement itself.

Yesterday I complained that Paul and I are not living in the same stage of life, and that means I don’t always like his advice. For instance, I don’t think saying, “Be more universal,” is always the right way to handle a local community’s problems. In a list of “take it or leave it” from Paul, top on my list would be this, along with his harsh comments about same-sex relations that are utterly utterly inappropriate to today’s world, and his use of imperial and militaristic language to describe what it means to belong to Jesus.

Nevertheless, today’s entry is a tip of the hat to Gene Stecher’s comments yesterday on the difference between supporting the sort of universalism Hitler offered and the sort of universalism that encourages us to view one another as united in spite of differing spiritual and religious practices or socioeconomic class. As Stecher wrote, “An analogy … would be a modern day Paul traveling the world to highlight the judgment and grace of the planet on human decision making, we either pollute to our destruction or conserve and manage to our glory.”

That is precisely not the message of ISIS. ISIS equate their power with Stecher’s more universal and impersonal notion of judgment. When it comes to personal Gods, I would rather follow Paul’s than Zarqawi’s any day of the week, and that has absolutely nothing to do with “Christianity” and “Islam” because you’ll find both Gods in both camps. The fact that I paused nervously in publishing anything about this subject speaks to the success of the carnivalesque horror of ISIS, where every death is a show meant for others.

Where have we seen this before? Ah yes, the Coliseum.

I’ve stood in that arena. The seats are closer to the action than I imagined. The deaths, hardly impersonal. Terror campaigns are ancient and they are effective. They follow the exact logic of the seductive power of corruption, which is fostered by the false hope of escape from the burdens of life by scrabbling for power over others. This is a failure in understanding the big picture. We all suffer and die. Only some inflict their suffering and fear of death on others. Upon such wretched beings, I “flinch and pray” to that uncomfortable presence the reality of which I so often doubt: “Lord, send Thy necessity.”

Roman Coliseum

Questions for the Road:

  • What does “God” mean to you, regardless of the religion you associate with that God? Is it time to divorce that God and find another?
  • Tomorrow I’ll be offering up my final, personal portrait of Paul. You might consider doing the same so that we can compare notes.

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

3 thoughts on “ISIS and the Inexplicable in History (Day 30)

  1. Observations: 15:7-16:27 is somewhat of a hodgepodge. Themes in the letter are repeated and new phrasing is introduced, perhaps by others who shared in the Pauline mission. The ending of Romans is unsure. There are no quotes from Marcion after chapter 14 (BeDuhn, The 1st NT), and there are doxologies at 15:7, 23, 33, and 16:25-27. The author of the last doxology sounds very much like the “wisdom” writer of 1 Corinthians 2. The greetings in chapter 16, since Paul never had visited Rome, were probably originally part of other correspondence.

    15:8-13, a paraphrase: I urge a welcoming party between Jews and Gentiles. The Anointed was a servant of the circumcised, revealing the truth of the promises to the patriarchs, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. The scriptures say…and also Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse…will rise to rule the nations.” So constantly abide in hope through the God of Hope and the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Romans 15:14-15:33 a paraphrase: I feel confident in your essential goodness and ability to instruct one another, but I admit to writing boldly at times due to the confidence I have in the good news of my ministry of priestly service, by word and deed, to the Gentiles. It is not me, of course, but Christ accomplishing the obedience of the Gentiles through me. And it has been my goal to spread the good news without infringing on another’s foundation, and this is why I have not yet made it to Rome across these many years. And still, there is one more thing I must do, and that is deliver the collection from Macedonia and Achaia to the saints at Rome. The Gentile associations feel that, having participated in their spiritual blessings, there ought to be a return to them of material blessings. Pray that it will meet their needs and that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea. That way I may come to you in joy and be refreshed as you then send me on my journey to Spain. Peace be to all of you.

    Romans 16:1-27, a paraphrase: I introduce to you the bearer of this letter, our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the association at Cenchreae. Greet Prisca… I warn you to be aware of those among you who are not genuine and thrive on dissension. Timothy…greets you. May the God whose wisdom revealed the mystery kept secret for the ages, which was found in the prophetic writings to bring about Gentile obedience through Trust, to Him be the glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.


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