"Saul, Saul, Why are you Persecuting Me?"
At some point I came to see many of the biblical stories as operating on an archetypal level. By this I mean that the stories of certain individuals could be seen as something of a model for every person. The stories that are most interesting to me are stories of transformation and the courage it takes to live out this transformed life. Most frequently Jesus serves as the archetypal man, the man who pours his life out for others and in so doing receives new life from God. But this week I have been thinking of another biblical archetype, that is St. Paul and his conversion.
Most of what we know about St. Paul we derive from the Book of Acts as well as reading his several epistles to the churches he established in his ministry. Some have sometimes found his argumentation too complex and arcane. Others find him moralistic and antediluvian when it comes to sexuality and the role of women. Nevertheless, beyond and beneath those cultural encumbrances there is the story of transformation, enlightenment and liberation that make his story and writings fascinating.
We read about Saul’s conversion (not yet renamed as Paul) in the 8th and 9th chapters of the book of Acts. There he is described as a fire-breathing persecutor of the nascent church. His task was to root out and destroy those following Jesus. He could not let this Christocentric heresy stand. Then, in a familiar story, Saul is overwhelmed on the road to Damascus by a great light. There he also hears a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” From here he spends three days in darkness before receiving his liberation and transformation.
There is much to be said about this experience and its implications. But the point that I am focused on today is the voice that he heard...
In this archetypal story, Jesus confronts his persecutor with a profound and pivotal question. First, we notice that the text makes clear that Jesus is identified with those that follow him, they are basically united as one. Secondly, Jesus and his followers are identified as victims, that is they are persecuted. In this sense, I believe that in this archetypal (universal) story, Jesus shows his solidarity with all victims. Finally, Jesus challenges all persecutors, those who victimize in the name of one holy cause or another and shows them the inner darkness that comes from participating in these acts of victimization.
Saul, becomes St. Paul. He finds new life that allows his energies to help create a new way of being human, that is a new way of seeing the world through the eyes of the forgiving victim. The conversion of St. Paul tells us that sacred violence, is still violence. It tells us that God is interested in siding with all those who have been cast out, exiled, shunned, scorned, humiliated, shamed, tortured, imprisoned, scapegoated and sacrificed. This story tells us that our gospel is concerned with lifting those rejected ones up so they can join in the universal banquet feast, where love names evil for what it is and celebrates the sacredness of our common humanity.