From Saul to Paul

I feel a sermon coming on, but I don’t think I have the courage to deliver it from the pulpit. It has to do with the criminal background and psychology of that greatest of Christian pioneers, St. Paul.

It all started when I read an article by Peter Worthington in “Saturday Night”, outlining interviews he had had in Kingston penitentiary with mass murderer Clifford Olson, and another, earlier, profile of Victoria’s Darren Hunenmann, murderer of his mother and grandmother.

Olson appeared much as I expected him: a nauseatingly self-satisfied criminal, provided by a grateful government with the services of the prison staff as the reward for his series of horrible crimes. Somehow, even the loneliness of his solitary confinement had been mitigated by a cellular phone that he had smuggled into his cell, tolls charged to the prison number.

Olson talked quite dispassionately about the feature of his character that has attracted most public interest—the horrible murders he had committed. One casual remark, however, caught my eye. It appears that around the age of four, he had been sexually molested by an uncle. Far from appearing angry or resentful at this instance of child abuse, Olson seemed to make light of it all as a triviality—“these things happen in households all the time.”

Hunenmann was the tightly controlled son of a well off mother, whose funds came from a grandmother who had, by business ability, economy, and hard work, built herself into a millionaire from severe poverty. Knowing that he was the beneficiary of the family fortunes when these two persons died, he arranged for schoolfriends to kill them with a crowbar while he was at a safe distance, alibi provided by his girlfriend.

It’s easy enough to follow up the psychology. The adult, in the child’s eye, is bigger and stronger and understands right from wrong. The child’s inner sense of what he likes and dislikes is suppressed, and replaced by a new ‘law’ based on adult behaviour. The child’s personality is split into two parts: one part is the child who has been forced to disown his natural feelings, which yet, when he is away from adult control, spill out in re-enactment of the original trauma—either suicidally against himself, or homicidally against others. The other is the correct, agreeable, manipulative and civilized ‘front’ that the psychopath has learned to assume, which he may well think to be his true character, as a macho ‘man of the world’. As former prison doctor Guy Richmond says: “It seems as if the psychopath has chopped himself into sections, which are then glued together, but insulated one from the other …”

How then does St. Paul, a.k.a. Saul the murderer, fit in? The fragments of his life as we gather them from his letters and the book of Acts gives an interesting picture. The privileged political status of Roman citizenship. Upper middle class background. An extremely strict religious upbringing, including circumcision, right from the cradle. University theological education from the most qualified professors. Excellent academic record. Racially, a genuine Jew, immersed in Jewish culture while living in the territory of the despised Goyim. As good as a conformist to what he had been taught was politically correct as was Adolf Eichmann. Well furnished with suppressed and probably unconscious rage at what he had been compelled to put up with as a child, as so many mass murderers are, he systematically went into the execution business.

Perhaps we ignore too much the degree to which religious zeal is associated with murder. Sometimes, as in the case of the ‘Satanic Verses’ persecution, Hitler’s Holocaust, or the Inquisition, it is sanctioned by the State in collusion with religious authorities. At other times, for instance, as when Jack the Ripper hunted down prostitutes, or Muslim fundamentalists and German terrorists or animal rights activists use explosives and kidnapping to destroy evil and bring in their version of the New Jerusalem, it is carried out contrary to the will of the governing authorities. Either way, there’s a lot of blood on the floor. It’s not hard to imagine how the strictly conformist Saul, scandalized by the attacks made by an uneducated carpenter from Nazareth on all he held sacred—the temple, the law, the priesthood—(but also, like many mass murderers, anxious to make headlines and curry favour with his superiors) launched into such a violent crusade to extirpate Jesus’s blaspheming followers.

Fortunately, the process halted and reversed itself when a blinding light struck him on the Damascus road. Internal or external? Who knows? But certainly, hearing voices and seeing visions are commonplace in the world of the psychologically disturbed. What did emerge from all of this was a man now as willing to suffer and forgive as he formerly was to persecute, and some of the most penetrating insights into the psychology of successful living and the theology of the Christian message that the world has ever seen.

Apart from an immense sense of gratitude to a God who was prepared to forgive him and let him start again, the most remarkable aspect of Paul’s message—and prescription for success—was his condemnation of the Law. Telling people “Thou shalt not” is effectively a recipe giving people a post-hypnotic suggestion to do the very thing that is forbidden. That’s why ‘New year’s resolutions’ practically never succeed. That’s why the super-religious, ever so perfect guys who put themselves on a pedestal so often explode into orgies of hidden misbehaviour. That’s why Paul himself says “I do not understand my own actions… I do the very thing I hate.” Instead, says Paul, “Walk in the spirit”. Go back to being a child. If the Law, the priests and the politicians were together stupid enough to put Jesus Christ to death, then something is wrong with the Law, the priests and the politicians, not with Jesus Christ. Go with the spirit of loving God, yourself and your neighbour, and forget about the whole raft of petty rituals.

As I look around the church scene today, with laws, rules and self-righteousness and condemnation of non-conformists springing out both from the Left and from the Right, I begin to wonder if anyone there has really ‘got the message’. The simple message that trying or pretending to be perfect gets you nowhere—and using violence to try and make others perfect, your own children included, is a major ingredient in the senseless criminality and violence of the present day social and economic scene.

Of course, this isn’t a popular message with those whose living depends on persuading unsophisticated people that they are all at sea, to induce them to pay the freight on their particular political or denominational road to heaven. But there really is this ‘more excellent way’—and I think this is what the whole Gospel message was about in the first place.

One day perhaps even Olson will understand….

– Gemini, September 1993