A reflection on the readings for Easter 6A: Acts 17:22-31, by The Rev. Margaret Rose
Paul in the Areopagas and the Arab Spring
This past week I attended the annual conference of Churches for Middle East Peace. CMEP is an ecumenical group whose mission is to engage churches in working for peace in the Middle East primarily in those places we often call The Holy Land. Attending were “the usual suspects” ( and I do not say that derisively as I myself fit that category) of late middle agers whose work in the church had been shaped by the events in Israel/ Palestine over the years. But this year there was a significant presence of young adults. The Episcopal Church brought a diverse delegation of ten young people. Their knowledge and commitment were impressive. They knew their history. Some had been to Israel and Palestine on pilgrimage and all were prepared to engage their Congressional representatives on the last day of the conference which was for lobbying.
Panelists at the conference, included young people as well. Christians, Muslims and Jews from various countries in the Middle East as well as Americans. The timing of the Conference could not have been better. Obama had just given his speech on the Middle East and Netanyahu was in Washington to speak to AIPEC and to address Congress. So the issues of the peace process were utmost in our minds, its urgency at the top of the agenda.
This year, many said, the conference conversation was different. While the Israel/Palestine discussion was still dominated by the question of borders and land swaps, right of return, boycotts and security, there was another dimension which shifted the conversation in a new direction and gave it hope. Young People. Young adults, Americans, Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, and more. And in the background shadows were all those who had stood up for a new way in what is now called the Arab Spring.
No one, no group was exempt from the scrutiny of the young: corrupt governments on all sides, dictators all around, organized groups who might take power—Moslem Brotherhood , or those who already have it—Hamas. The peace groups in Israel and more. Fed up with an “old guard” whose main work seemed to be to hang on to power, The message of the Arab Spring was that of open source democracy and a reform of corrupt ways.
Our discussions in Washington about these young people were inspiring. They were not naïve about the costs. But they had no doubt about the benefit. It would be too facile to say this is just another “Woodstock” , this is just young people living out the ideal or utopian way. Even the old establishment is beginning to see the result. Indeed, the living out of this spring is already leading to the hard realities of governing and the long hard slog of putting the new into place. But something new is happening.
And the speakers at the conference, young and old, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, secular and sacred, noted the hopeful possibility of conversion. And the prayer of all was that a way may be found for a peace filled road.
What, one might ask, does all this have to do with the texts for Easter 6? As I read Acts 17, Paul’s famous speech in the Areopagas, in light of the events in the Middle East and the discussion at the conference, I imagined Paul as a young man in another era of Middle East spring. He had experienced a fiery ( or rather light filled) conversion and had joined with zeal what came to be called The Jesus Movement. There is much discussion about whether or not this was a political movement, but aspects of it certainly were. Jesus was adamant against the rampant corruption which he saw among the leaders. From all accounts this was a reform movement whose consequences for Jesus and later even by Paul’s hand resulted in violence. But in the text today he is making a masterful speech in the Areopagas, the judicial court area. ( I learned that in the 4th century these were the courts that dealt with corruption in government, but that was not doubt not the case in Paul’s time.)
Paul’s speech to the Athenians was one of invitation and Good News. He who had so recently killed those who had followed Jesus did not turn to violence as he moved to the other side. Rather he saw an opening for the Greeks to engage Jesus. “What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you . The God who made the world and everything in it does not live in shrines made by human hands.” We are God’s offspring, he proclaims, therefore, God is like us and we like God with power to speak and love and engage one another and the world God has made. Here is yet another way of proclaiming that we as God’s children are made in the image of God.
I may be reading too much into Paul to imagine him outside his cultural context. He is a complex figure, so I do not want to simplify. Yet as I have often struggled to accept some of the literal interpretations of his “women must be silent” or “man is the head, woman is the body” texts, a closer reading allows Paul to come to life in ways that invite a larger view.
What would I say, I wonder, were I given the opportunity here in the US to have my own Areopagas? How might I seek a new way? Invite people to name their own unknown God as the one who made the universe and all that is in it. What does it mean to claim ourselves as God’s offspring? How might we engage in addressing the current impasses in our own government battles over health care, the budget and more? Is there a way which is less polarizing and more of an invitation? Thanks to Paul (much to my surprise! And gratitude!) I will pay attention not only to what I might say, but also to what the young people in my own world are calling for and claiming.