Recently my pastor admitted from the pulpit that, at least for a time in his life, he didn’t so much care for the writings of the apostle Paul. There were many understandable reasons for this, and in some circles, he is certainly not alone. Many scholars with misgivings about Pauline letters—potential misogyny, an emphatic insistence on doctrinal fidelity and church polity, and the potential for anti-Semitism—have articulated these issues with much greater depth and clarity than what I’m capable of here.
My point, however, is that some of these attributes of Paul’s writing—especially the pugilism—are exactly what I love about him. In Paul, I see a fighter. In a hip-hop vernacular heavily influenced by basketball terminology, some of my friends might say that in his writings Paul goes “hard in the paint.” His mission in life was to persecute and physically attack Christians, but after a significant encounter with Jesus, he kept going hard in the opposite direction.
That said, Paul is rather wordy and also fanatical, knowledgeable, and analytical. Many of his letters read as lengthy, complete arguments that build rhetorical and epistemological concepts, one on top of another, until an irrevocably vivid picture emerges, like a skilled litigator arguing in front of a jury.
But still, when I look beyond the layers of theological and historical analysis, what I see in Paul’s writing is passion. This is the same guy who publicly scolded another fellow leader for being a hypocrite, and who responded to critics blaming him for not insisting on circumcision as an essential prerequisite to salvation in Christ with the suggestion that those critics should “mutilate themselves” (RSV).
Honestly, that’s a pretty spicy comeback. I’d probably get in trouble if I wrote that in an email.
Many of his most famous lines and passages show a different side of Paul, someone more concerned about modeling the mission and life of Jesus than winning an argument. His eloquent treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is so beloved in certain literary circles that I was required to memorize it during high school, despite the fact that I went to the only non-religious private school in the entire state of Oregon.
Knowing this, I often wonder, how does “they should cut it off” Paul become “love never fails” Paul”? Like, how is it possible for both traits to coexist so strongly in the same person?
In a word: restraint.
Restraint is a Christian virtue, in part because it’s how we use our God-given intellect and the direction of the Holy Spirit to govern all the other virtues. Restraint is how a call for justice can be expressed through the tactical approach of nonviolence. Restraint is how exasperated parents show love by responding with dignity and grace when their children do something frustratingly ill-advised that they were just warned not to do. Restraint is how a coworker can feel festive and excited for the latest office birthday or work occasion but still choose to limit how many donuts they consume.
In the physical world, restraint contributes to public safety. Seat belts keep us safe in cars. Shoulder harnesses keep us inside roller-coaster rides in theme parks. Medical restraints keep our bodies from unnecessary pain or damage during moments of injurious emergency.
Crucially, restraint is lauded most when we exercise it on our own behalf. There’s a world of difference between a person reminding themselves that they’ve had enough donuts already and another coworker doing it for them. Even in the medical scenario, such restraints are only administered by trained professionals. In the physical world, restraining someone else is usually considered either assault or arrest, which is only supposed to happen in a moment of exigent circumstances where there’s an immediate threat to a person’s body or property, like a mass shooter or domestic abuser.
In May, the above photo began circulating in news media after this man, a Michael Jackson impersonator named Jordan Neely, died in a New York City subway car after an altercation involving US Marine veteran Daniel Penny. Witnesses say Neely had been behaving erratically and verbally threatening other passengers when Penny approached him from behind, put him in a chokehold, and held him there for 15 minutes. Neely was later taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Police questioned Penny after the incident but released him shortly thereafter. It wasn’t until after the local medical examiner determined Neely’s cause of death as a homicide that Penny was subsequently charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Since then, however, Daniel Penny has been lauded by some as a hero—despite the fact that the chokehold maneuver, also known as a carotid restraint, has been banned by many police agencies after a string of high-profile deaths. A fundraiser for Penny’s legal defense on GiveSendGo, an explicitly Christian alternative to GoFundMe, has collected more than $2 million. Many people are comparing Penny to Kyle Rittenhouse, an armed vigilante who killed two people during a series of demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was subsequently acquitted of murder.
What’s most upsetting to me about this story is not just that Neely, who was in obvious distress and needed mental health services, was unnecessarily killed. And it’s not that Neely’s death is being held up as an unavoidable byproduct of the need for fearful men to preemptively lash out with violent, lethal force any time they feel threatened, even though that trend is well-documented and terribly sad. Penny says he didn’t intend to kill Neely, but witnesses also say he kept the chokehold in place even after being warned that Neely was dying. Penny’s desire to protect others from potential distress from Neely’s outburst may have originated in a good place, but in no way do I believe Neely’s death was necessary or even inevitable. The reason so many police agencies have banned chokeholds is because they’re likely to cause death; ideally, they should be used rarely, and only in the most dire of circumstances.
What upsets me the most is that Christian leaders—people who should be extolling the virtue of restraint—seem to cast it off any time they perceive their rights to be even slightly infringed upon. By hailing men like Penny as heroes, they perpetuate false narratives of lawless cities and Black people as threats to be neutralized instead of people to be helped. All of this contributes to the climate of fear and distrust that violence needs to thrive. Like Paul in Acts 22:20, they see the carnage unfolding and stand there, offering their approval. In so doing, they probably don’t even know that they may be inadvertently giving permission for the next person to do something even worse.
In the critically acclaimed HBO series Barry, Bill Hader writes, directs, and stars as a troubled Army veteran named Barry Berkman who becomes radicalized into a lucrative career as an assassin but looks for community and redemption in a Los Angeles acting class. If that sounds like a gonzo premise, well…it is. But Hader’s portrayal is warm and authentic. He imbues Barry with a sense of pathos and naivete that contrasts heavily with the typical Hollywood persona of a cold-blooded killer. As a result, watching Barry’s story unfold confronts the viewer with important, weighty, existential questions. What does it mean to be a good person? Is it possible to outrun the consequences of bad behavior? How should we assess culpability in complex, morally gray scenarios?
[MILD SPOILER AHEAD]
In a recent episode of Barry’s fourth and final season, Barry reluctantly decides that he needs to kill someone—again—to protect his secret. In the process of preparing to do this dirty deed, Barry listens to a series of podcasts from Christian pastors on topics like sin, redemption, and murder. The moment he hears something from a particular “pastor” who appears to almost condone murder (or at least fails to condemn it strongly), Barry says, “Bingo,” and turns the podcast off. He was looking for something to justify his behavior and found it.
Now because Barry is both drama and comedy, astute listeners probably chuckled when they identified the pastoral voice as belonging to professional standup comedian Bill Burr. But as someone who listens to a lot of Christian podcasts and reads a lot of articles online from a variety of Christian thinkers across the theological and political spectrum, I gotta say—that little bit of satire was not too far off. I’ve never heard anyone on a podcast defend actual murder, but I’ve heard plenty of upstanding Christian leaders justify sex abuse, or spousal abuse, or vigilante justice.
Regardless of where you stand on the Second Amendment, just-war theory, or any other thorny ethical dilemma regarding violence, I think we can all agree that in our current climate of culture clashes and mutual hostility, we need more restraint, not less. We need people who will practice restraint first on themselves, who can measure the plank in their own eyes before trying to intervene on behalf of someone else. We need people who read all of Paul’s letters (I recommend Philippians 2 and 3), not just the hot-blooded parts.
In short, we need more people who can embrace restraint instead of weaponizing it.
If we as a collective cannot muster up enough people of goodwill to resist the easy path of culture warring that leads to more violence, then we have no right to denounce wickedness in secular institutions.
Like Paul, Peter was known as a disciple who lacked restraint. But as an apostle, he warned the early church not to cast off restraint in the context of suffering. “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:16-17, NIV).
See that? Judgment is not supposed to happen to them before it happens to us. So if we won’t listen to Paul, maybe we can listen to Peter instead.