But after they came, [Peter] drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.
Why was circumcision such a big deal? It certainly seems really foreign to us to have such a debate.
Circumcision was the traditional mark of the covenant. It was how Israel honored and remembered that they were a people created and called by God to be the ‘holy others.‘ They were called out of the world so as to be witnesses of Gods grace, love, mercy and justice in the world. At least, this is how I understand circumcision.
But there was a great deal of pressure, in Roman Palestine, for Jewish men to hide this very distinctive marker of their identity. I know that sounds odd too. But Roman’s installed public baths. This was where one went to establish one’s place in the community, to make business connections, to be in society so as to gain status and success. But in the public baths, everyone could see, well, everything. If you were Jewish, that Jewishness was obvious. Some Jewish men even underwent ‘medical’ procedures to hide their circumcision.
So, Israelites felt an on their heritage, ethnicity and religious identity, and it was an attack. Rome placed a public bath near the Temple. They were trying to assimilate Israelites to be ‘more Roman.’ This was an attack on their call, their role, to be witnesses to the nations. But some, such as Paul, responded to this attack by advocating for isolationism. Avoiding the other altogether. Even attacking the other. Paul probably saw the early church as a group of Israelites who were giving in to Roman culture. They were a threat!
Do you see what is going on here? The Romans are saying that Israelites are welcome in society as long as they become more like Romans. Paul, before his call and commission did not welcome anyone who was not Israelite, viewed all as a threat! The early church would welcome Gentiles as long as they become more like Israelites, by being circumcised.
This is a complex and important issue to consider. How do we deal with people who are unlike us? Should we jettison all roles, labels, allegiances and histories? Well, we can’t, and we would be left with little to guide us into who are, what are called to be, how we are to act in the world. Should we just pretend these differences don’t exist, ‘I don’t see color,’ kind of answer? No. Differences exist. Pretending they don’t exist denies the humanity of this other.
We will discover how Paul deals with this in the days ahead. For now, lets consider who the ‘others’ around us are. Instead of pretending they aren’t other, lets prayerfully acknowledge and give thanks for the beautiful diversity of the humanity God has created, even when it is challenging or hard to understand.