Paul the Apostle suddenly appeared on an American university campus and has spent three years with his good friend, Don, who is a professor of Hebrew literature. Now Paul is having discussions with different students on the campus.
Kevin: (A music major continuing his discussion) You just mentioned a little bit ago that you were “amused” by American concepts of tolerance. Since you have been in America for three years, what do you think of it? Is it better or worse than the society you lived in?
Paul: America is certainly different than anything I ever experienced in my previous life. It is as if all the values of the three societies I was involved in: the Jewish, the Christian and the Roman—were all put in a bowl and mixed thoroughly poured out, baked solidly and then covered with a layer of new technology. America has very little of what I call innovative, except the superficial significance of technology.
Kevin: Isn’t technology significant, though? The industrial revolution changed our way of life and the information revolution continues to change us today.
Paul: Well, it is certainly unique that agriculture isn’t a major force in most people’s lives in America. But that was mostly true among the urban minority in my day as well. America has urbanity as a national way of life that I understand has become pretty common throughout the world.
Kevin: Not everywhere, but you are right, it is pretty common. How does our urban life compare to ancient urban life?
Paul: Well, your streets smell better. But every time I am in a room with a bunch of Americans, like here, the smell of rotting meat is just disgusting. But I’m getting used to it.
Kevin: Smell of rotting meat? How do you smell that?
Paul: It comes off of your bodies. In my day, meat was a feast food, not a normal meal. Most of the time we ate vegetables or fish. But you all eat so much beef, that it seeps out your pores. You are all used to it—it is the smell of a “normal person”, but all I can smell is your bodies processing the meat. I hope I have not offended you with that.
Kevin: Not me. I’m just surprised is all. Your previous statement fascinates me, though. How is America a mix of Hebrew, Christian and Roman culture?
Paul: Your nation has a focus on the law much like the Hebrews. Your national law system is much more complicated and just as strict as the Jewish system—if not more so. Your purity laws are certainly as strict, especially in public serving places. Yet, like the Romans, there is a division between law and religion. That is unique. Somehow a group of men and women who do not live like the majority of people will determine what is good or evil without reference to God. Amazing and almost unheard of in my day. What is most like the Romans, though, is less the government, but the use of force as authority. America uses their military might to control not only their own cities, but also nations outside their soverign control. Only empires ever did that in my day. Of course, America is a modern empire.
Kevin: No, that’s not true. America doesn’t have colonies or control foreign governments—well only a couple, anyway.
Paul: An empire isn’t that which has only political control over the world. Babylon was an empire before they conquered the world, and Egypt was an empire although they rarely left their own nation. They were empires because they had control over every resource they desired, and the nations of the world served them whether the were specifically politically controlled by them or not. America desires economic control of the world, and most of the world serves them economically. Thus, America is just as much an empire as Rome was, and a very successful one, at that.
Kevin: So how is America influenced by Christianity?
Paul: The power of non-profit organizations and charity. Charity is really a Hebrew concept, but it was Christianity that turned charity into a force that could develop an entire civilization. In America non-profit organizations is a powerful force that has changed how one sees one’s nation and the world. The idea that one should have access to books or financial assistance as ones right simply because one was in need, or because one is a part of society is just amazing. In the ancient world, benefit is given to those who have authority or wealth. Much is made of Roman bath houses and sewers, but they weren’t available to everyone for free—only to the patrons of our world. The rest of us still survived on wells and buckets.
Kevin: But what about America, as a nation. Is it a good nation? Are you happy to live here?
Paul: America—by which you mean the United States, I believe—has many good characteristics, I believe. The best and the worst of America is found in the word used most frequently, “freedom.”
Kevin: That is the best AND the worst?
Paul: Well, let me remain positive. The most unique thing about America is what it borrowed from radical Christian sects—that even if one held to different values or beliefs than the authorities, one ought not to be harmed. There was a certain amount of this in Roman times. The Jews and the Romans had a political agreement, and the Romans tolerated the eastern mystic religions, as long as they remained personal and didn’t get involved in politics. But Rome was very much opposed to Christianity, of course, and the majority of people felt that it wasn’t just a possibility, but a responsibility to kill and persecute those who had different values than they. In America, law is not usually based on religious values, but only on the values of what is good for society as a whole. Interestingly enough, the main arguments in America have to do with who is included in society. Are blacks a part of American society? Are slaves? What about women? And today the argument revolves around the unborn and creation—do they have rights under the law? It is all interesting.
Kevin: Do you think then that America is fundamentally focused on the basic law you mentioned: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul: America has a very different understanding of that law than I do. That law, from America’s understanding, is, “Don’t do harm to anyone who belongs to our society,” and their law determines the perimeters of what means. When Jesus first spoke that law, he really defined it as, “Do as God would have you do to all people.” God is the one who defines what love is and what harm is, not a legislature, not studies, not one’s personal conscience.
Kevin: Isn’t there a problem with just saying “God” as well? After all, different people understand God or Jesus differently, and that creates conflict and persecution.
Paul: Yes, it could, and it has. I have suffered much of that, although I persecuted no one in my teaching of Jesus. And Jesus purposed to use this persecution to indicate who really understood God and who didn’t. He established a sect to be persecuted, but to persecute no one else. In this way, they showed true faith in God, trusting in Him whether they were harmed or killed or not. Thus Jesus used the lack of freedom as one tool to indicate God’s power and reality.
Kevin: Is this one of the weaknesses of freedom, that Jesus’ plan is circumvented?
Paul: It isn’t really, even in this society. It is just more subtle. And Christianity has been so corrupted over two thousand years, that the more acceptable forms are not the forms that Jesus presented. True trust in God isn’t encouraged, either by American society or by the church. So those who display true trust in God are still discouraged and persecuted.
Kevin: So how would you critique American freedom?
Paul: First of all, American freedom actually allows too much self-destruction. They have laws against drugs and driving without a seat belt, but not against the ideas that cause fear, lust, self-deception, pride and greed. And in not discouraging these items, they end up encouraging them, and so their society is destroying itself.
Kevin: How do these destructive agents show themselves in our society?
Paul: Lust in pornography and the sexual focus of your graphic-focused media. Fear in the news and local gossip that sees harm for the vulnerable around every corner. Self-deception and pride in encouraging children and adults to ignore their own weaknesses but only to speak “positively” or boasting about themselves. Greed in the very economic system that is the foundation of the country—to only grant to others what you will get an equal or greater value for, and to not give unless that value is granted.
Kevin: Do you think these things should be illegal?
Paul: No, I suppose not in an ungodly nation. Each nation chooses their own means of shame and destruction. America isn’t yet ready to be destroyed—their good will to the poor continues to make them useful to God. Eventually, however, their usefulness will be played out and it will be divided and powerless, just like every other empire that ever existed.
Kevin: Was there something else you wanted to say?
Paul: One last critique. You note that American freedom is really only a freedom of values and religions, not anything else. Because they emphasize the significance of everything but values and religions, they create an atmosphere in which ethics and religion is insignificant. If they are not spoken of, or they are marginalized, then it becomes insignificant. You will find that a society which accepts all ethical or belief systems ultimately has a belief system without ethics. That which you do emphasize becomes the reality, while all else becomes nothing. For this reason, true Christianity—the persecuted people who live our God’s values—will always have a place. America will become like the Romans, rejecting the godly because they emphasize that which they do not want to speak of. The true Christians will be persecuted in America again simply because they want to live for Jesus. A false Christianity will be created, and is already here, which guts the heart of Jesus out and leaves but an empty shell. But even as every society creates its own means of destruction, so does every society create its own way of marginalizing God’s true people—usually by creating a religion that meets it’s spiritual need, but still separating themselves from the true God of Jesus Christ.