Friday, July 13, 2012

The Narrative

The Narrative

Most Latin American Countries gain their independence during the 19th century.  Puerto Rico was one of the few that did not.  Most Puerto Ricans were afraid of independence; partly because of Haiti.  Early in the 19th century slaves in Haiti revolted against their French masters, and took over Haiti.  Some of those French ended up in exile in Puerto Rico, of course they told their story.  After this, independence was equated with slaves subverting against their European masters and taking control of the territory.  Puerto Ricans, who owned slaves, did not want that happening to them.  This narrative lasted for years.

When I was growing up in Puerto Rico any talk of independence was shut down with, “Do you want us to be like Cuba?”  In 1959, the Cuban revolutionaries entered Havana marking the end of the revolution and the success of Fidel Castro and his forces.  Many Cubans were forced to leave the Island.  Some landed in Puerto Rico.  Soon after that Castro declared Cuba a communist country.  So, somehow independence now became equated with the Cuban experience.  This meant to Puerto Ricans that, the Communist would take over and force everyone else to work in the sugar cane field.  Puerto Rico had long since transformed from a sugar cane economy to more industrial one.  The prospect of going back to cutting sugar cane to Puerto Ricans was terrifying.  This narrative still exists. 

Whether the narrative ended up being true or not, it did not matter.  It accomplished its purpose: to instill fear in the masses so they would not pursue that option.  This is similar to what Paul went through in Thessalonica. 

Paul spent three week in Thessalonica reasoning and proving the Jesus was the Christ from the scriptures.  Many accepted Christ, but his success incited opposition from local religious leaders and from a gang of thugs. Paul was finally expelled by the city council, which also sought to prevent his return. When someone preaches new teachings and people get excited, the leaders and teachers of other religious groups may become jealous.

Attention that was once placed upon them is now directed to others.  As a result, they may behave in irrational ways in order to try to reduce the influence of the new teacher.

According to Acts 17:5, Paul’s success in Thessalonica infuriated some of the Jews who were not persuaded by his message. Jealous of Paul’s success with the Gentiles, and certainly not very happy that some of their fellow countrymen had joined him, they decided to enlist the help of “some wicked men of the rabble” (ESV) to stir up trouble. In Greek the phrase “wicked men of the rabble” literally means “men of the marketplace.” It refers to a group of unemployed ruffians who hung out in the marketplace looking for something to do. 

What a contrast to the people who responded to Paul’s gospel.  According to Luke, these hooligans barged into Jason’s home in order to drag Paul out to the crowd (17:5). The Greek word translated as “people,” or “crowd” (demos), can also refer to the public assembly of citizens who had authority over local legal matters. Unable to lay their hands on Paul, they decided instead to haul Jason and others before the local magistrates. When they arrived, they laid two accusations against Paul: (1) Paul was an itinerant troublemaker with a track record of causing problems in other cities; (2) Paul was guilty of sedition for claiming that Jesus, not Caesar, was King.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, shortly before the events described in Acts 17, conflict arose among the Jews of Rome over a man Suetonius calls “Chrestus.” This term probably reflects a Roman misunderstanding of the Jewish concept of the Messiah or, in Greek, “the Christ.” Apparently someone’s preaching of the gospel had just split the Jewish community of Rome.  To Roman officials, debate over the Messiah sounded like preparation for the installation of a new king on the throne of Rome (see Acts 17:7). Probably for that reason the emperor expelled all Jews from his capital city (Acts 18:2). Some of these exiles probably settled in or passed through Thessalonica, bringing knowledge of these events to the city. Because the gospel had turned the world of Rome’s Jews upside down, religious leaders in Thessalonica were determined to prevent something similar from happening there.  Notice that it was not their main concern.  They used that story in order to drum up the charges against Paul and gain favor with the rulers of the city.  Sufficiently alarmed by these charges, the magistrates banned Paul and Silas from their city and required Jason to pay some kind of fee in order to ensure that the two men would not return.

Thessalonica itself was ruled by a city council of perhaps five or six “mayors” who made decisions as a group. This arrangement allowed for a considerable amount of independence from Rome, which they would be loath to give up. So, the behavior of the city officials in this matter was quite impressive under the circumstances. The similarity to recent events in Rome could have led to severe physical punishment for the new Christians. Instead, the city leaders responded evenhandedly (contrast Acts 16:22–40). They took a significant amount of money from the new Christians as security so that they would not be the cause of further disturbances. Then the leaders let everyone go.  The narrative worked. 

But, what is disturbing is that it was those who professed to be defending the law of God actually broke it in order to accomplish their goal.  Could we be caught in the same trap?  Not unless we are converted.  So, when we are dealing with accusations, we should ask ourselves: is there something else?  Is the immediate accusation being used to cover the real reason for the attack?  It is how the Jews dealt with Christ.  Could we be fooled into falling in this trap?  Not unless we are converted.