No Distinction

Following the previous post, Luke-Acts, we will look at the dichotomy between notions of civilization and barbarism.

The Romans, a highly refined civilization, practiced crucifixion, a cruel punishment. The British, in the heydey of the Pax Britannica, invented the concentration camp; the United States used depleted uranium against Serbia and Afghanistan, not to mention the use of atomic bombs against a civilian population.

Civilization can be such a broad term, and barbarism, well, misunderstood.

In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that he is “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1. 14). Greek here is not meant to refer to a culture or an ethnicity — it is a stand-in for any civilized people (like the Romans). Barbarians, on the other hand, are those people, both within and outside the Roman Empire, both conquered and unconquered, who were considered unlettered and uncultured. Their speech might also be seen as unrefined and their dress and manner uncouth.

But for God, no distinction is made between these two groups. So why does Paul make this distinction? He does so because it is a common social denominator in Roman society — in other words, this is how the Romans divided the world (us and everybody else).

So, in speaking of the “Greeks and barbarians,” he is addressing a salient point of how the Romans saw their empire and its mission to bring civilization to the barbarians — slow down, Paul says, because your civilization includes behaviors that are truly barbaric. The pageantry of the empire simply masks those behaviors.

Who fought in the Roman army? People from the lower ranks of Roman society, including slaves. People who had no rights.

On the other hand, barbaric cultures, as they were called, had established tribal notions of honor and acceptable behaviors within the society.

Paul calls on the Romans, who had a refined culture, to look at their actual practices, and he calls on the barbarians to forego their tribalism as the identity marker to share fellowship with the nations.

So, at table, there is no distinction by God and there should not be any within the church as well.

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