What St. Paul Has to Do With Americanism

News: Commentary
by Chris Plance  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  September 25, 2023   

Our world, Paul's world, and the Letter to the Ephesians

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Saint Paul didn't grow up in Jerusalem: He was a Jew living outside of the land promised to his fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Paul, this meant several things at once. It meant that as he became more familiar with a world conquered by Rome, his sense of exile increased proportionally with the strength and status of the Roman Empire. It was, after all, less and less feasible that Israel's exile would end by human means — indeed, God would have to do something new and dramatic. He was aware, more acutely than most Jews, of the sovereignty that was "not yet" Yahweh's.

St. Paul

This allowed Paul to take in a bit more, perhaps a lot more, of the Greco–Roman world in which non-Jews were living. What did they think? How did they act? What did they pray for? Who did they pray to? And, most importantly, what was their view of history? The answers Paul gathered to himself while living outside of Jerusalem under the yoke of Rome would be of good use to the cause of the One God of Israel.

But we also know that Paul lived just north of Jerusalem, not far from the city itself, in Cilicia's capital, Tarsus (see Acts 22:3; 9:30; 11:25; 21:39). So, although part of the diaspora (the contingent of Jews living outside of Jerusalem), Paul had occasion to travel to Jerusalem for formal training as a Pharisee (see Acts 22:3; 26:4; Philippians 3:5–6; Galatians 1:14).

If we can imagine for a moment the two stories told of the world we are living in as modern American Catholics, we could quite possibly begin to grasp the complexity of the world Paul himself was living in.

On the one hand, there is the story of American independence and sovereignty. The founders of our great nation announced a "novus ordo seclorum" and made sure to stamp it on our dollar bills and silver coins. That is, a whole "new order of the ages" (a new age, no less), in which America's founding had ushered in a peace, which, after the American Civil War, was more and more expressive of America's exceptionalism, summarized in the phrase "Pax Americana." 

Here is how American foreign policy professor Zbigniew Brzezinski at John Hopkins described it in 1997:

In contrast [to previous empires], the scope and pervasiveness of American global power today are unique. Not only does the United States control all the world's oceans, its military legions are firmly perched on the western and eastern extremities of Eurasia. ... American vassals and tributaries, some yearning to be embraced by even more formal ties to Washington, dot the entire Eurasian continent. ... American global supremacy is ... buttered by an elaborate system of alliances and coalitions that literally span the globe.

Expanding this peace throughout North America, many thinkers today believe it is America's divinely ordained destiny to police the world and bring peace among the nations. And however ironic their origins might seem when placed alongside each other, certain images were brought to bear on this destiny: a city set on a hill (from Matthew 5:14) or images of the eagle of Rome flying with his wings outstretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all of which gave Americans (and still does today) a purpose for our place in the world.

Already in 1894, the Forum would issue this statement: "The true cause for exultation is the universal outburst of patriotism in support of the prompt and courageous action of President Cleveland in maintaining the supremacy of law throughout the length and breadth of the land, in establishing the pax Americana."

But what would happen in 1945 with the end of the Second World War, when America, having come out 2–0 in "world war" victories, suddenly felt itself the center of new representative forms of government arising from the ashes? And this would only be compounded by the organization now called the "United Nations" taking up residence on 405 E 45th St., New York, New York! What did all this mean for America's "manifest destiny"? What does it still mean?

Presidents Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy

The answer? The nations will be united, and America will be at the heart of it. So we're told.

The Pax Britannica, having collapsed during the outbreak of World War I, has now given way to the Pax Americana. Woodrow Wilson, for example, made his case for America's involvement in the world war based on his expansive view of America's purpose in the brave new world. "To vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world," argued Wilson, America must combat "selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles" (emphasis added).

No doubt, Americans have always fluctuated back and forth between imperialist and isolationist tendencies. The question has long been, Should we police the world or should we not? Already in 1960, President John F. Kennedy was resisting the provincial Pax Americana common in his own day that saw America's involvement in Vietnam and foreign entanglements as a new kind of imperialism. Kennedy once proclaimed,

I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

One could perceive President Kennedy was alluding to certain passages of Old Testament texts, only without any reference whatsoever to Israel or Israel's God. But he wasn't. 

Whatever the case, whether one fancies himself an isolationist or an imperialist, what has never changed is the feeling, the sense, we Americans all get that, despite our ups and downs, something special is going on with this great country of ours — wars fought and won, great freedoms secured, peace among all 50 states, technological and scientific advancement unparalleled, patriotism unmatched, and, above all, sudden providential events that have occurred that are seemingly out of our own grasp. What are the chances that this or that would happen in the way it did, without any human notice, without the intervention of God himself? Who is pulling the strings from behind the scenes? A strong sense of a divine-like calling ripples before our eyes with every fresh burst of wind that waves itself across the stars and stripes of our nation's flag. The Fourth of July was more than the birth of a nation. It was, as the Founding Fathers told us it was, the birth of a whole new age.

We are told that America is destined to be the leader of the free world, to bring peace among all the nations on earth. Either by example or by force (or indirectly through the supply of rockets and missiles and tanks and jets in Ukraine); that American exceptionalism is destined to unfurl itself across distant lands (and possibly even galaxies). Although articles have been written signaling the end of the Pax Americana, like one written in 2012 by Christopher Layne entitled "The End of Pax Americana," there is still the story itself, calling America to fulfill its manifest destiny to be a city set on a hill, ushering in the destiny that was once Rome's (think Pax Romana).

The Vortex: Catholic and Republican

To hear all this today is to say, I know what this feels like. I know what this looks and smells like. I can see it with my very own eyes: my X/Twitter feed, my group messages, my daily conversations; and the politicians debating and preaching and suing and scheming. I know this from my network of friends and the articles I read. What has just been described about America, I know it; I know it very well! I can feel this in my very bones. Hardly a day goes by when I don't think about these things, that I live in the greatest nation on earth and that there is a great responsibility thrust upon us as Americans to fulfill our destiny and to expand the Pax Americana. It consumes my life and makes me think that this is all there is, even if at times it all seems to be slipping away.

Welcome to the world of the Roman Empire, the world in which St. Paul lived and moved and wrote his letters. Welcome the world of the empire, not of America, but of Rome.

Make America Great Again gear

To feel all this is to place oneself within a world similar to ours. Americans, no less American Catholics, feel this deeply, not just as an argument, but as it has been presented to us, as a story. This is where history has taken us, and we Americans have a special, if not dominant (as well as predestined), role to play within that story.

Yet, while all this is felt with real force, American Catholics have something pressing them from behind, moving them a bit forward, to look a bit higher, to step around the corner to see things from yet another story lurking in the background. There is this one story of America that presses us on all sides, and yet there is the story of Jesus and the Church, of the mission, and of the Creator's plan to rescue His creation in Christ. When faced with both stories, the picture we get of ourselves, no less of the world itself, is not entirely unlike that of Paul.

Imagine now, a person 2,000 years from now trying to grasp the world of A.D. 2023. They'd wonder what this generation thought about, what made us feel the things we feel, what we meant when we talked about "making America great again." What did we mean by "again," they might ask. What did we mean by "great"? When was it great before? What story were these Americans telling themselves about their nation's past? What kinds of things would a person living 20 centuries later think are important?

What did we mean by 'great'? 

Would these future journalistic investigators feel the need to research the name "Donald Trump"? Would they — should they — know about such persons as, say, Obama, Bush, Clinton and Reagan? Would they even have to know such names reaching as far back as Jefferson and Hamilton? Did Americans living in the 2020s have those names readily on their minds and hearts? Looking back all these centuries later, July 4 seems to be an important day for ancient Americans living in the 2020s, as archeological digs seem to suggest; would they need to know about the importance, and the history, of this exact date? What exactly happens on July 4 anyway? And does it really even matter for understanding the American people living such a long, long time ago? The name King George II turned up as well — what was he all about?

Maybe we can't say much about any of these names because we've lost many of the host-servers from this time period. Maybe articles and pictures have been lost, and few were printing hard copies of either during this time (they completely relied on digitals, which were on servers that were all destroyed). But the bit we do have is useful in some ways in imagining the world these 21st-century Americans thought they were living in. And that is our task as historians: to piece together what we do have and to imagine a world in which Donald Trump and Joseph Biden played the role they played in the minds and hearts of Americans who were telling themselves a particular story about how the world worked, where history was going, and America's role in that history.

Ephesians Masterclass

This is not unlike the task we have in reconstructing the world that served as the setting for Paul's first-century letter to the Ephesians. We study history to know what words and phrases meant and what it felt like to say such things in the world in which they were first used. When Paul called God the "Father" of us all or when he called Jesus "Lord" over all things or when he spoke of the "peace" of Christ in the Church of Christ, what kind of reactions would citizens living in and around Ephesus have to such statements?

The Bible study I've partnered with Church Militant to provide, starting on Oct. 22, raises and answers these kinds of questions. Many Catholic and non-Catholic commentaries have done a nice job explaining basic meanings of words and seemingly plain meanings of passages from Paul's letter to the Ephesians. But there is a whole world missing from these books. What of the larger stories Paul was living within and the parts of those stories he pulls forward by citing this or alluding to that? Many a Bible study will tell you about Paul's letter to the Ephesians. But only this one, and others like it, will explain to you why it is that Paul wrote it from prison. A dangerous resistance, this letter is indeed.

Chris Plance is a Catholic educator with about a decade of experience teaching the Faith. He holds a theology M.A. from Franciscan University and has long dedicated himself to evangelizing Southern California, especially the city of Los Angeles. 
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