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Ufford-Chase: Paul stood with those excluded from the earthly empire of wealth and power

ALBUQUERQUE – In his younger years, Rick Ufford-Chase had a rocky relationship with the Apostle Paul. He bristled at some of what Paul had to say, finding him racist, sexist and opposed to gays and lesbians. “Mostly, I gave up,” preferring not to argue with those who saw Paul differently because, “frankly, I didn’t want to fight about it,” Ufford-Chase said recently.

But within the past few years, Ufford-Chase – who was moderator of the 216th General Assembly and serves as executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and co-director of the Stony Point Conference Center outside New York City – felt drawn to reconsider Paul’s teachings.

During a series of sermons he preached at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) meeting in early February, he traced his study of the early church leader – including the question of which of the biblical books attributed to Paul scholars think he actually wrote, the context in which Paul conducted his ministry and contemporary analysis of Paul’s writings.

The inquiry led Ufford-Chase to consider why Paul seemed to be in constant struggle with the political powers of his time – doing much of his ministry from prison.

What does Paul have to say about how the followers of Jesus should live in relationship to empire, the powers-that-be?

And what does that say to Christians today about their responsibilities and priorities?

“Paul spent much of his ministry in prison for what he believed and what he was trying to do,” Ufford-Chase told the APCE gathering, which drew to Albuquerque about 775 church educators representing Reformed denominations from both the United States and Canada. Paul stood for the creation of a community built on God’s values, and “didn’t succumb to the seduction of empire,” he said.

Through four sermons, Ufford-Chase drew a picture of what it means for contemporary Christians to stand against empire, as Paul did.

Ufford-Chase spoke, for example, of the “huge polarity of wealth” today – the gap between rich and poor that results in massive global dislocations of people who leave home to try to feed their families.

Not long after he moved to New York from Tucson – where he worked in the BorderLinks ministry with immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the United States – Ufford-Chase gave a ride to a group of homeless men, including three from Guatemala. He asked them in Spanish, “What took you north?”

One of the men told a familiar story. He left home because there was no work and no food. He rode atop a train, then on a bus, making his way to Altar, a jumping-off point for illegal immigrants. He paid $2,500, hiked for more than three days across the Sonoran desert, ran out of water after the first day, found a water station that Presbyterian volunteers (including Ufford-Chase) had helped install in the desert to keep the immigrants from dying of dehydration, and eventually paid more money to ride in a van with 28 others from Los Angeles to New York. There, he got a job building roads for the state of New York, Ufford-Chase said.

For Christians, he said, stories such as these raise questions about economic inequities and public policy on matters such as immigration reform – and about the willingness of Christians to speak out. “Will you stand with those excluded by empire?” he asked the educators.

Ufford-Chase also drew from his experiences as moderator, including conversations with church leaders from other countries.

In Colombia, American Presbyterians were asked to accompany Colombian Christians who were putting themselves in danger by speaking out against government repression and violence. When Ufford-Chase voiced his concern, worrying that “it feels we are turning up the heat on an already boiling pot of water” by making the Colombian Christians even more visible, pastor Milton Mejia chided him, saying the Colombians had already decided to live out the Gospel. The only question, Mejia said, was whether the Americans would join them.

In Pakistan, local church leaders spoke out against a violent attack at a local Christian school in Sangla Hill and worked for interfaith reconciliation.

Jammed into a church for a service of healing, surrounded by Pakistanis throwing flower petals and praying, “we agreed that we would be defined by reconciliation, by nonviolence, by standing against conventional wisdom,” Ufford-Chase said.

For American Christians, the idea of standing against empire raises hard questions – about racism, about how churches treat gays and lesbians, and about affluence, overly-busy lives and consumerism, he said.

There always will be moments when Christians will be called “to stand fast with Paul and with the early church,” when “we will find ourselves in conflict with the empire theology that surrounds us. It’s inescapable,” Ufford-Chase said.

“It’s the most powerful act of subversion imaginable,” he said, “to stand against empire in our time,” and to say that all are equal and welcome in God’s community.