Paul’s Riot Gear

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Dear Friends,

Paul writes from his prison cell in Rome to the Jesus community in Ephesus that we are at war. Paul’s intense language makes sense in light of the violent conflict he survived in Ephesus and our similar experiences of conflict today.

Paul was one of the pioneers who took the message of Jesus to Ephesus, perhaps the most famous city in the Roman Empire besides Rome itself. After just three months, Paul was painfully rejected at the local synagogue. So Paul started hosting conversations and healing the sick in public spaces around the city (Acts 19:8-12). For Paul, the message of Jesus wasn’t confined to religious gatherings; it belonged just as much in the street among strangers and the suffering.

The core of Paul’s message was metanoia: a call to a change of mind and practice in response to Jesus (Acts 20:21). Local sorcerers were so inspired by Paul’s ministry that they voluntarily burned the magical tools of their trade, which were worth massive amounts of money (Acts 19:17-20).

But a local silversmith named Demetrius was outraged by the success of Paul’s new Jesus movement in Ephesus. Demetrius’s livelihood depended on crafting silver shrines of the goddess Artemis, and now Paul was disrupting that economy by saying that man-made objects aren’t worthy of our devotion. If people stop believing, they’d stop buying.

So Demetrius calls a public meeting of his own and gives a rousing speech to his network of local tradesmen and business people:

“Paul says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” (Acts 19:26-27)

Demetrius’s speech, with his warning “there is danger,” brilliantly fuels that all-important emotion for mobilizing a base: fear. With this siege mentality ignited, Demetrius distills an extremely powerful cocktail: (1) Paul is challenging our culture’s religious identity; (2) he’s threatening the economy our culture generates; and (3) he’s undermining the political power that our religion and economy guarantee. Demetrius’s unspoken thesis is loud and clear: We will lose our greatness without Artemis on our side. We need to eliminate Paul! Notice how religious identity, economic wealth, and political power are tightly woven together.  

In many ways, Demetrius’s speech articulates the pillars of religious nationalism across time and place: (1) we are great because of our god’s greatness and favor on us; (2) if our religious identity is weakened, we will lose our prosperity and power; (3) so those who question our culture threaten our survival and must be eliminated as existential threats.

Intentionally or not, Paul’s public discussions and healings had triggered a culture war in Ephesus that quickly escalated into physical violence. Demetrius’s group mobilized a march throughout Ephesus with the defiant slogan, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). This slogan powerfully fused the greatness of their god (“Artemis”) and the identity of their people (“of the Ephesians”) and thus marked Paul as a dangerous enemy to both.

Soon enough, a chaotic riot was sweeping across Ephesus. Paul’s friends were captured by the mob and dragged to the city center. Hours of loud chanting followed: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34). It looked like a public lynching was about to unfold. Paul himself narrowly escaped. The scene is reminiscent of recent events in various places across the world. (Charlottesville in 2017 and Washington, D.C. in 2021 immediately come to my mind.)

So as Paul looks back on this painful crisis in his life and concludes his letter to  community born in culture war and violent conflict, what does he say to them? Unsurprisingly, Paul writes about an ultimate “struggle” and calls his community to armor up and stand their ground (Ephesians 6:13). But everything else Paul says about this struggle and how to stand firm in it is surprising and counter-intuitive.

First, Paul insists that our struggle is not against people. He refuses to personalize conflict or to describe other humans as enemies in an us vs them battle. Who could blame Paul for targeting Demetrius or labeling his business friends as “the enemy” after the violent riot they mobilized? But Paul resists this temptation to personalize and label others as enemies.

Second, Paul insists that our struggle is nonviolent. He writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but…against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Paul’s language is fierce, but it lacks the siege mentality that mobilizes religious aggression. He speaks instead of the intangible values and structures of evil that claim our loyalty and define the spirit of our society. To think violence can save us in this spiritual struggle would simply unveil that we’re still trapped in the demonic frameworks that fuel conflict (Ephesians 6:11). Paul writes elsewhere, “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Corinthians 10:3). No wonder Paul restricted his activities in Ephesus to public dialogues and healings. This is how “the spiritual forces of evil” are defeated.

Third, the armor that Paul calls us to put on in this struggle is refreshingly strange and worthy of contemplation — hardly the riot gear that one would expect in the face of an angry culture war surging toward deadly violence.

  1. Our security belt is truth (6:14a). For Paul, truth is what holds us together and keeps us safe in conflict — not insults and identitarian slogans that mobilize an angry base. He writes a few paragraphs earlier, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor” (Ephesians 5:25). Of course, seeking and speaking the truth has never been harder or more humbling in our polarized, “post-fact” times. But Paul sees truth — not arrogant opinions and aggressive talk — as the belt of God’s armor.
  2. Our bulletproof vest is righteousness (6:15b). Like the prophet Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul identified righteousness with care for the poor and vulnerable (see Isaiah 59:15-17; Matthew 6:1-4; 2 Corinthians 9:9; Ephesians 4:28). For Paul, our vital organs are protected when we clothe ourselves in just, generous relationships with others that reflect the character of God. We can’t control how others see and treat us, but we can control how we see and treat them. Righteousness is our breastplate.
  3. Our combat boots are “the good news of peace” (6:16). Paul’s imagination here is particularly counter-intuitive and profound. When we think of armor, we may think of heavy footwear ready to march into battle to defeat the enemy. But Paul envisions agile feet that are always “ready” to move toward reconciliation with others. Earlier Paul writes about how Christ destroyed the wall of hatred between ethnic groups and preached peace across boundaries for the sake of “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:14-17). Then he continues, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling… Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:31-6:1). Our strongest stand isn’t in intimidating and attacking others but in feet preemptively pointed toward peacemaking like Jesus himself. This is the only way that good news can overpower the depressing news cycle of hate, violence, and death.
  4. Our shield is faith (6:16). Humble confidence in God’s presence and power can extinguish the fire of evil. Fascinatingly, Paul doesn’t anchor our defense in money or a cultural base like Demetrius’s network or mobilizations of force to expel our enemies like the Ephesian riot. Trust in God is our shield, and God promises to preserve us in life and in death.
  5. Our helmet is salvation (6:17a). God alone is our Savior, and his promise of salvation keeps us sane in the chaos of conflict. We don’t look to human leaders, political parties, or cultural identities to give us ultimate security. We keep our head in conflict by thinking salvation thoughts, dreaming of new creation, and thus resisting despair (see Luke 21:25-28, Revelation 21:1-7).
  6. Our sword is the word of God (6:17b). This is another striking image in Paul’s vision of conflict. From Genesis 1 to the New Testament, God’s word is the power that created and sustains the whole world, the invisible sinew and sense of reality. It is the ultimate source of life and light for all things (John 1:1-5). For Paul, God’s creative power of life is our only weapon. Our stand finds its voice in speaking prophetic words of life and hope.

Paul’s experience in Ephesus was strikingly similar to our own today: a tense culture war infused with religious nationalism, rioting groups, and threats of violence. In the face of this conflict, Paul imagines another way forward for God’s one new humanity. We don’t fight against people as our enemies. We don’t replicate violence with a siege mentality fueled by religious nationalism. Instead, we stand firm in God’s armor alive with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s word.

This stand is our mandate from Jesus who reconciles warring groups, destroys the barriers between us, and “creates in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:14-17).

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