It’s the evening of Ash Wednesday 2012. I’m sitting beside my friend Marsha in Luther Memorial Church in Madison, Wisconsin. Everything about the church’s architecture is NeoGothic, like an old European cathedral, its columns and spires pointing toward heaven.
Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another,
the presiding minister intones.
The assembly kneels or sits.
Silence is kept for reflection and self-examination.
As we pause in silence, I’m gazing at the intricately carved altarpiece, roughly two stories high, set behind the altar. There, with arms outstretched at his sides, as if ready to welcome us into his embrace, is a white, limestone Jesus, and I heard the Beloved saying to me, as if in a voice speaking from that carved stone. “I do not want your shame,” it said. “I don’t want your shame, Craig… You don’t need to give me such things. I do not require your shame.”
And then suddenly, all began to speak aloud their words of confession:
“Most holy and merciful God, we confess to you and to one another…” they said – but my own voice was stuck in my throat,
or even deeper still, in the heart –
“we have sinned by our fault, by our own fault,” they confessed,
“by our own most grievous fault…”
– but my own voice was stuck in my heart.
No, not stuck, but singing, I could have sang my own confession that night:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me,
I once was lost, but now am found; was bound, but now I’m free.”
There are portions of 1 Timothy that read like an epistle of grace.
“From Paul,” the letter begins, “apostle of Jesus Christ by the word of God our Liberator and Jesus Christ our hope, to Timothy, my true child in the faith…” (1 Tim. 1:1-2). First Timothy is written in the form of a letter sent from Paul to his disciple, Timothy, a coworker in the movement. As one scholar puts it, “It is a letter of paradoxes, with positive exhortations to some and negative judgments to others… It advances love and mercy as well as orthodoxy.” It is a troubling text—in instruction after instruction, it commends and valorizes subservience and submission. It presupposes a world that is deeply hierarchical (as if God ordained it so). We’re told to pray for kings and emperors so that law and order would prevail. Women are told to bear children, live in “modesty”, and stay silent. Slaves are instructed to happily serve their “beloved” masters with utmost respect and honor.
Certainly Paul’s other writings preserved in the Christian Testament suggest at times that he was never quite able to fully transform his earlier extremism. James Baldwin once described St. Paul as “mercilessly fanatical and self-righteous”. Howard Thurman’s grandmother, despite or perhaps because of her deep faith, had no interest in reading any scripture attributed to Paul because it was on Paul’s authority that the white master’s preachers would come around the plantation sermonizing on the rightness of being a good and happy slave.
Whether or not Paul actually wrote it, 1 Timothy builds upon his largely accommodationist views toward Roman imperial society to leave the status quo intact, no matter how oppressive. Time and again, many within the church have followed this path towards normalizing and even justifying the most unjust systems and structures of human society. And yet, there are also tucked away in 1 Timothy, seeds of radical grace and resistance that when planted in the church’s otherwise blood-soaked ground have also time and again borne good fruit. For all of the ways in which it would leave us behind to make do with the world that has been passed onto us, 1 Timothy also testifies to the possibility of transformation and a world made new. Particularly for historically white churches grappling with racialized trauma and the call toward reparations, there are fragments of 1 Timothy that speak into the wreckage of delusion, domination, and violence that have so marked churches past and present. Like they marked Paul’s past.
“Though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence…,” 1 Timothy recalls from the apostle Paul’s own life, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly and without faith…”
There is mercy for us too, because we have for so long lived in ignorance. We have lived amidst lies that were passed down to us. We received them and have been shaped by them not because we deserved them, not because we asked for them, and not because they constitute our fate, but because everything is passed like this, from one to another, because we are not independent individuals but instead parts of a whole, a collective body. Here, Paul’s insight even amidst his failures of imagination: we are members of one body—what affects one affects us all (1 Corinthians 12:26). Hatred and harm are contagious, but so too is healing and transformation.
“I did not know what I was doing,” 1 Timothy confesses (v. 13, The Inclusive Bible). Importantly, the ignorance that inflicts white bodies like mine is at least twofold. Yes, it is ignorance and sometimes a willful unknowing of our histories. But even now, as we behold our history with growing clarity, there is also the ignorance of not knowing what to do with it. James Baldwin observed that most white Americans seem to find themselves here, amidst enormous suffering—in his words, “impaled” on their history and “incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world”. He wrote, “They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it…” Yes, white folks have impaled ourselves and the world with us—we are crucified by our own histories that we fail to face with honesty and courage. We do not know how and cannot save ourselves. And into the void of our despair and self-destruction, 1 Timothy speaks: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to set sinners free.” We need not be heroes, and we cannot be saviors. Rather, our role is a simple choice, an opening to the overflowing grace inherent within us and all of God’s good creation.
God never wanted – never required – our shame. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving,” the prophet James Baldwin declared. Grace is no static salvation. Rather, the gift of God’s overflowing grace is our continual, endless undergoing of liberation.
“Larger, freer, and more loving.” May it be so.
- Baldwin, James. 2021. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction: 1948-1985 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021).
Menakem, Resmaa. 2017. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press, 2017).
Rohr, Richard. 2011. Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2011).