Pauline Universalism (Pt. 2)

Today’s post continues on immediately from yesterday’s. However I will post the final paragraph yesterday’s post as a refresher of what will be explored here – that is the peculiarly Christian consequences of this quote from Slavoj Zizek discussing radical universalism,

Radical universality “covers all its particular content” precisely insofar as it is linked to the Remainder – its logic is: “it is those who are excluded, with no proper place within the global order, who directly embody true universality, who represent the Whole in contrast to all others who stand only for their particular interests.” Lacking any specific difference, such a paradoxical element stands for the absolute difference, for pure Difference as such. In this precise sense, Pauline universality is not mute universality as the empty neutral container of its particular content, but a “struggling universality,” a universality the actual existence of which is a radical division which cuts through the entire particular content. (p109)

Paul and radical universalism

Paul, in conceptualizing the Christian faith as undergoing and participating in the utterly dispossessing and leveling nature of Christ’s own crucifixion, holds up that very event as the heart of Christian universalism. It is the way one must go to enter into the Christian collective. Its centrality is clear as it is employed as a radical socio-political division “which cuts through the entire particular content” of identities within Roman world.

This is at heart of what Paul is communicating when he comes out with something like this,

“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all [Jews and Gentiles] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all [Jews and Gentiles] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by
Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

For Paul the people of the Christian collective embodies true universality because they, in participating in Christ’s crucifixion and having been dispossessed of who they once were, are a people “with no proper place within the global order… who represent the Whole.”

This is inherent to the church’s geopolitical, ethnic, gendered and class diversity – all distinctions have been rendered moot and in losing the significance of these differences they in turn emphasize their “pure Difference” from the Roman Empire as a whole.

Universalism as political subversion

It is exactly in this way that we notice the truly political aspect of the earliest churches. Baptism (the ritual of entry) and Eucharist (the ongoing ritual of participation) marked out and defined this community politically as those who met, worshipped and remembered that they had a Lord who was not Caesar and a different way of life to the citizens of the oikoumene.

If it needs to be said again, this was entered into only through committing oneself to sharing Christ’s crucifixion; sharing in the same alienating, anonymizing, excluding experience Jesus underwent. In aligning themselves in Jesus’ exclusion, in his lack of place in the global order, they took up and entered into the universality of his crucifixion (and in this alignment, they also entered into the universal nature of his resurrection. I think it is more than possible that this radical universalism will only ever be quasi-Christian if we are silent on this).

Christians having entered into his crucifixion – in their being excluded from the social order – now represent the whole social order, they are humanity as such. They are the remainder, that which is leftover; that which is waiting to emerge, as all other identities are cut through and leveled by the introduction of this new cruciform division, “in Christ.”

Paul thought of the Christian collective as this universally representative remainder in the sense of 1 Corinthians 4:13, in which Paul writes that the Apostles are (and the Corinthians are to be) “the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.” As they are oppressed by others, they live as those who appreciate that, because of the Christ event, other identities are nothing; no longer significant, and therefore lacking both power and promise because in being the cruciformly existing “scum of the earth,” – those participating in this new socially excluded and suffering, as well as politically, ethnically and economically diverse collective ‘united by/in Christ’ and his crucifixion/resurrection – that they are the universally representative remainder (1 Cor. 1:18-31). The only place, they asserted, where life, hope and peace was to be found, as those who were nothing became the site of critique to the powers and a hub of solidarity for casualties of ‘civilization.’ Imagine just how upset Caesar might be about that…


We saw something of this radical universalism in Guor Marial’s statement during the Olympics – he was able to cut through the difference between all other identities because of his being dispossessed of his own. His words take us deep into the mystery and materiality of Christian universalism and how it takes form.

With that in mind we should note; yes, this message Christian’s believe is for everyone – and as such bears a universality. Sure, perhaps all may come to share in it at the eschatological fulfillment of all things.

The distinct power of Christian universalism is, however, in it’s utterly social and material dynamic – this universalism was lived as the utterly new and very political and economic society of the crucified and risen Jesus (defined by what Zizek dubs, ‘radical emancipatory egalitarianism’), within the Roman Empire. In becoming nothing with Christ they cut through and revoked Rome, denying its might as a socio-religious and political body; choosing rather to suffer under, love and embrace it into its own diverse Universality.

This radical universalism needs rediscovered and discussed if the church might take up its position as an all-embracive alternate political, social and economic reality; not to win in some strange spirit of competition but for the purpose of critiquing (as opposed to assisting) the dominant political, social and economic realities and arrangements that are complicit in creating so much injustice, exclusion, and suffering in the world.