Citizenship and privilege

Citizenship. The rights and privileges that go with it are easily taken for granted. I was born in the U. S., as were my father and children. But my mother and my wife were not; they had to go through the process of naturalization. The controversies of recent months are painful reminders of how fraught the matter of citizenship can be.

Over the years, I have had many “Dreamers” and international students in my classes and mentoring groups. These have always been some of the brightest and most delightful and motivated students I have ever had; they were dedicated Christians with a concrete vision of how God would use their training for kingdom purposes. That’s the background against which I perceived the fight over DACA, and the more recent threat (since rescinded) to deport international students if they tried to take all of their courses online, despite restrictions imposed by COVID. To me, therefore, these are not abstract matters of public policy; they have a name and a face.

The issues, however, are not new. Organized governments have always drawn lines defined by citizenship, lines that determine who has access to certain rights and resources, and who does not. That was particularly the case in the days of the Roman Empire, and the somewhat surprising fact that the apostle Paul, a zealous Jew, was a Roman citizen.

. . .

Paul, as we have seen, was beaten in the courts of the Jerusalem temple by an angry mob; a tribune from the Roman fortress next door had to intervene to keep order. Having taken Paul into custody and put him in chains, he tried in vain to figure out what was fueling the crowd’s murderous rage.

He listened as Paul addressed the mob in Aramaic, but didn’t understand a word of it. And when the crowd suddenly exploded with rage again, for reasons he didn’t understand, he deemed it time to take the prisoner into the barracks and conduct his own interrogation.

What did Paul say that so angered the crowd? After portraying himself as a notably zealous Jew, he said that God had sent him to minister to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21). That’s all it took for the violence to begin anew. Luke tells us that the crowd began “shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air” (vs. 23, NRSV). The original meaning of the behavior isn’t certain, but it seems they took Paul to be uttering blasphemy.

The tribune acted quickly. He ordered the soldiers to take Paul into the fortress for an interrogation. This would be done by the usual brutal methods: the truth would be beaten out of the prisoner using a scourge (Greek, mastix; Latin, flagrum).

The scourge came in different forms. All involved a wooden handle with leather thongs attached to one end. The least deadly of these bore only the thongs. The bloodiest damage was inflicted by those which included bits of bone or metal. When beaten with one of these, the prisoner could be permanently crippled and disfigured. Many died from their injuries and the loss of blood.

And that was just during the interrogation.

By law, however, Roman citizens could not be beaten this way. They could be punished by scourging, but only after they had been convicted of a crime.

Citizenship. You have to appreciate the perks. 

. . .

As I suggested in an earlier post, the tribune, struggling to simultaneously maintain order and determine what was happening and why, jumped to a quick and erroneous conclusion about Paul: This guy must be the Egyptian who caused so much trouble a while back and fled the city!  

Instead of being more cautious, the tribune soon made another, more serious mistake. Paul, at this point, was probably not looking his best. And though it was his responsibility, it never occurred to the tribune to ask if Paul was a citizen of Rome.

As we’ll see, it wasn’t long before that mistake too was brought to his attention. And when he realized what he had done, he was afraid.

Very afraid.

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