Today’s Our Daily Bread Devotional this morning featured Acts 17:16, which the passage provided in the small devotional book read like this, “While Paul waited for them in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols (ESV).”
I could not find this version of the passage in either the KJV, the NIV, the NRSV, or the NLT. But I found out it was the translation of the English Standard Translation. Although the ESV comes closer, it still seems to me that the English translations of the Greek verb paroxusmos, meaning to be angrily provoked or irritated, fall short. It seems that the idea that the apostle Paul (and included in that, Christians in general) could get angrily irritated over the practice of idolatry [much like the Judge Gideon ;-)] is non passe, since we believe in good things like niceness, tolerance and civil discourse. As usual, we can just pretty up the message of this first century Jewish rabbi, make him whatever we want him to be, as long as he is not confrontationational about anything.
In the same manner, this is how theologians responded to James Hal Cone, in the early days of development of Black liberation theology. The negative stereotype of the Angry Black man was used sublimely as a critique of his work (his theological project is not without its blind spots). Cone used his rage to go to war with the idol of race in its ugly U.S. American manifestation.
Somewhere I learned that the 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said, “for when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well,” and this rang true for the apostle Paul. For while Paul was angry, he did not resort to violence or insults, but he engaged the Athenian philosophers, managed to begin with a common ground (“the unknown god” & the one from which we have our being–Acts 17:28), while at the same time, teach about the equality of all humankind and the resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:26;31).
I get mighty suspicious of calls for “civility” because I would like to know exactly whose definition of “civil” we would need to play by. Honoring everyone, rather than just mere toleration, as Miroslav Volf has suggested is the appropriate path for believers, but that should not prevent Christians from speaking truth to power.