Like the first syllable of ‘shitake’
What would it take to make the Apostle Paul cussing mad? Fellow Jews or Christians maintaining barriers that kept others from full acceptance in the faith community — that would do it.
Harsh language about such exclusion in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi makes me consider how easy it is to raise the bar in the church today for people whose background, culture or life experience are different from mine.
Recently I asked a Mennonite genealogist to enter my name into his database and see what emerged. A few days later he delivered an 80-page notebook with charts and names of hundreds of my Mennonite Swiss and German ancestors.
My biological forebears were among early European Anabaptists. It was my ancestor, Hans Reist, who had the dispute with Jakob Ammann in 1693 that led to formation of the Amish church. I am a descendant of Hans Herr, the Mennonite patriarch of Pennsylvania whose 1719 house still stands as the oldest in Lancaster County.
Add to this Anabaptist family heritage the fact that I went to a Mennonite college, studied at three seminaries, hail from a long line of church leaders and am ordained.
Paul would not be impressed. In his letter to Philippi, Paul rehearses his religious credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All this status, of which Paul once was so proud, he now counts as “rubbish” (skubalon, Phil. 3:8).
Actually, Paul’s language is stronger than most modern translations allow. We should render skubalon in English like the first syllable of the shitake mushroom. Paul is frustrated enough to slip in a rude word that appears nowhere else in the Bible and only rarely in ancient literature. He is angry at himself and others whose legalistic or genealogical boundaries exclude Gentiles or make them feel like second-class members of the body of Christ.
Skubalon comes to mind when I find a Roman-era public toilet among ruins at ancient Philippi. Relieving oneself apparently was a social occasion in the Roman world: eight or 10 stone toilet seats, placed close to one another above skubalon pits, once lined walls of the small room. To clean themselves, users dipped a stick with a sponge attached into a little trough flowing with fresh water at their feet.
Skubalon also comes to mind when I find monuments to spiritual pride or legalistic boundaries in my heart or in my church. Let it be said that I do not look or act like the average Mennonite or average Christian on this planet. Today the median Mennonite in the world is a black African woman, and that is representative of the global Christian church.
That reminds me to receive and welcome people into my local congregation who come from the Global South or from cultural, educational or linguistic background different from my own. What binds us together is sins forgiven through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and lives transformed by the power of the Spirit.
As a historian, I find family history fascinating and instructive. I am grateful for education I received. But if I ever start to confuse all of this with status in the church, it is time to review Paul’s words about all the entries in his religious résumé: “I regard them as skubalon, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.
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