Paul and the Movement from Privilege to Solidarity
July 12, 2009
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
I want to thank you for letting me share with you today. Lately, I’ve been double-dipping here at Eighth Day and am so grateful for the time I’ve got to spend with you all. In the short time I’ve been with you, I’ve learned much about church as it was intended to be and been humbled by your radical, embodied discipleship.
Now usually when I give a message I try and stick with the lectionary so as to keep me from talking about any old thing I want. But this week I am going to break my rule and talk about the Apostle Paul and particularly his first letter to the assembly at Corinth. I recently taught a class at the Servant Leadership School in which nine of us did a “flying overview” of Paul’s letters and looked at his mission in the context of the Roman Empire. I really enjoyed the process, particularly being forced to read the Bible more attentively, and thought I would share with you some of our findings.
First of all, I want to acknowledge that often justice-seeking Christians have a pretty dim view of the Apostle Paul. I often here comments such as “I like Jesus but I really don’t like Paul.” Certainly I understand why people think this way. Paul’s writings are typically much more abstract than the Gospels, can be difficult to understand, and at times feel quite culture bound. More than this, the portion of the New Testament stretching from Romans to Philemon has numerous “proof texts” which have been brandished as ideological weapons against the weak and used in ways which clearly contradict the Gospel.
I think there are three things which can help us get beyond this dirty history to hear Paul’s word for the church today. The first thing to remember is that Paul, like Jesus, was a Jew. His message and mission stood within the prophetic, apocalyptic stream of Judaism. He was a Jew who had an experience on the way to Damascus that convinced him down in his bones that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah who he and many other Jews had been waiting for. He took this message of the crucified and risen Jesus to the Gentiles because of his deep seated belief that the Messianic age, in which all peoples would participate, had begun.
The second thing is to recognize that Paul wrote his letters on the other side of 2,000 years of history, to particular communities and within a particular socio-political context. He made references and used examples which meant more to those who first heard his letters than we can pick up by reading plain off the page. Although often read that way, Paul did not self-consciously write a universal and timeless message which is immediately applicable to any situation a Christian might face.
The final is simply the recognition that some of the words attributed to Paul in the New Testament are not his own. Many of the passages on women, slaves, and Jews which cause those of concerned for liberation to have a negative gut reaction were written by followers of Paul or inserted into his letters by editors. Whether these writers were trying to curb Paul’s socially radical Gospel maliciously so they wouldn’t have to share power or ‘benevolently’ to help an already persecuted church not stick out so much is unclear. Whatever there intention, the resulting use of Paul’s name to justify domination would have horrified the Apostle.
Given all these factors, which can make things quite complicated, the easiest thing to do is skip Paul’s letters all together. And if we’re really honest, we might be afraid of becoming too much like our Bible Belt sisters and brothers, who quote our brother Paul to no end. But I think we let these letters collect dust as museum relics to our own detriment. It is my belief that the Spirit would speak to us afresh through these old words if we would have the patience to listen. After a faithful reading of Paul’s letters and paying attention to their context, we might continue to dislike the Apostle. But I doubt it will be because we think he’s a conservative crank intent on killing Jesus’ groove. More likely, it will be because we take issue with the radical conversion and reorientation Paul calls us to.
To get a hint of what this transformation entailed in the lived realities of the early church, let’s turn to 1 Corinthians. Now the Greek city of Corinth had been completely destroyed by the Romans two hundred years earlier in 146 BCE, with its wealth sacked, men killed, and women and children enslaved. The Romans rebuilt the city as a colonial trading post a hundred years later, to which they sent a large number of Rome’s urban poor. Richard Horsley writes: “Populated by the descendants of Roman riffraff and [uprooted] former slaves, Corinth was the epitome of urban society created by empire: a conglomeration of atomized individuals cut off from the supportive communities and particular cultural traditions that had formerly constituted their corporate identities and solidarity as Syrians, Judeans, Italians, or Greeks….they were either already part of or readily vulnerable for recruitment into the lower layers of patronage pyramids.” To say it plain, the city was bustling with immigrants and refugees who could easily be exploited and were told they had to exploit each other to get ahead. And the patronage system served to keep people in their place, as those on the bottom were often forced to beg and praise the elites for their daily bread.
This crazy city is one of several around the Aegan Sea where Paul founded an ekklesia—a word which we translate as church but which is more accurately an assembly; that is, a counter assembly opposed to the city’s official Roman assembly. He had moved on to found another in Ephesus when he received word from Chloe’s people that there were numerous problems in Corinth. The letter he wrote in response to their questions and concerns is what you and I call 1 Corinthians. Apparently, as the ekklesia there began to grow it increasingly mirrored the dominant culture. It started to forget its earlier composition as a body of “have nothings” within whom God’s purpose was revealed and instead replicated Corinth’s power games and prestige quests. Paul wrote them to counteract this trend, asserting his authority as the community’s founder.
In the early portion of the letter Paul responds to those who were wrapped up in the pursuit of ‘wisdom,’ and saw themselves as having a special spiritual status which the others did not have. Likely they were waxing poetically about otherworldly spiritual matters and talking over the heads of the poor and uneducated in the churches. Paul urges them to unity through cutting them back down to size, reminding them that they are spiritual infants and their wisdom is foolishness compared to God’s.
In chapter 6 Paul responds to a report that one member of the ekklesia was suing another over an economic matter in the city’s courts. He is shocked that they would pursue Roman justice among one another and reminds them that it is the saints who will judge the world and not the other way around.
In chapters 8 and 10, we see Paul commanding the members of the ekklesia not to eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols. This was not simply a “me and God” rule about idols. It was a call to social non-cooperation and material solidarity with the poor. In making this prohibition, he rejects the Corinthian elites’ ‘enlightened theology’ which would have allowed them to participate in the imperial cult’s festivals and the ekklesia, effectively “cutting off the Corinthians from participation in the fundamental forms of relations in the dominant society,” according to Richard Horsley. Through refusing to attend the festivals they would have previously enjoyed, the rich would eat less meat and thus share in the experience of the “have nothings.”
In chapter 9 Paul discusses his rights to financial provision provided by the churches and his refusal to accept it. While the expectation would have been that Paul’s communities paid him, he chose to be in solidarity with the poor rather then to try and squeeze money out of them or become the “house prophet” of a wealthier member and be beholden to their interests. Instead he became “as a slave” and supported himself through a trade, which some Corinthians likely viewed as a sign of his unworthiness to be their teacher.
Chapter 11 makes clear that for Paul that the Lord’s Supper was a social as well as spiritual practice. It is to be common meal in which there is enough for everyone, and those who would recreate society’s divisions and let the poor go hungry bring judgment upon themselves.
In the following chapter he writes that everyone who is part of the church has been empowered through the Spirit and given a gift for the common good. There are a variety of gifts but none is to be held in high esteem over another. Each member of the body needs the other and the ‘weaker members’ are to be given greater honor. The ekklesia is to be a radically democratic space, as Christ is the head and all others in the assembly are equals.
At the letter’s close, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the collection he is taking up for the poorer and politically repressed church in Jerusalem. He urges the practicing of mutual aid across the Jesus movement, in stark opposition to the Empire’s top-down flow of resources through the patronage system.
So throughout the letter there is a consistent theme of renunciation of empire’s privileges towards solidarity and mutuality. Paul pleads with the assembly to “live out the dying of Jesus” as an alternative society in the midst of the not-so-peaceful Pax Romana. Their lives are to be cruciform, or cross-shaped, marked by the signs of suffering and struggle which inevitably come with birthing a new world. Essentially, Paul is calling them out and asking the Corinthians if they stand with Caesar or with Christ. As Cornel West said it on Bill Moyers last week, “How funky is your faith?” When it comes to the real stuff, the funk of life, the present reality of injustice and the Gospel call for transformation, where are you at? How much are you willing to risk, to give up?
Read this way, it is quite easy to see how 1 Corinthians relates to our present situation, and it is tempting to long again for those 2,000 years of cultural distance and our tendency to read Scripture with a spiritualizing fuzziness. We are the wealthier members of the Corinthian church, making sure we get our piece of the imperial pie while simultaneously trying to follow a radical rabbi taken out by Rome’s agents. We live in the first world and have inherited the privileges of empire. We are part of that 20% of the world which consumes 86% of the world’s resources. As David Hilfiker has brought to our attention, the American way of life which our society is hell-bent on maintaining and we all practice is fundamentally unsustainable. What would it mean to renounce some of our first world privileges and instead seek mutuality with the 2/3 world in our ecological practices? What would it look like to show solidarity to our sister assemblies struggling to survive in Port-Au-Prince, or suffering under the weight of political repression in Honduras?
My being a white, male, college-educated, and straight American citizen puts me at the top of the privilege heap. This isn’t a cause for shame, but perhaps some of these questions are more pointed for me and others like me. How much power am I willing to share with others—and particularly with those which dominant society labels “other”? Am I willing to be part of a constellation of voices in a culture which praises the monologue and expects one from me? My supposedly meager annual salary of $30,000 puts me in the top 7% of global wage earners. How deep am I willing to go in the practice of Sabbath Economics?
I commend Eighth Day for being a people who raise these questions and seek to be faithful to the Spirit’s answers. I think Paul would have recognized you all, and written favorably on your behalf. At the same time, I think he and the Spirit which so deeply animated his life calls you deeper, to a faithfulness not yet known. Looking around the room, I remember your life stories and see ample evidence that when done together cruciform living is an act not of despair but of great joy. In a world killing itself on its own wisdom, I pray you would continue to choose the folly and foolishness of the cross.