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Politics of Scripture

Farewell to the Flesh

Paul’s “Flesh/Spirit” dichotomy is not an overly-spiritualized, anti-body othering (i.e., a devaluation of the body against supposedly holy disembodiment) but an ethical cleavage with profoundly political repercussions.

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:1–11, NRSV

Paul begins this chapter by powerfully proclaiming the liberation of the believer from the power of sin and death. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in the sinful flesh condemned this pervasive regime, with its own law (verse 2) and law-weakening power (Romans 7:7–12). Now one can have a new existence united with Christ, according to the Spirit, providing assurance in the future resurrection of the mortal (verse 9–11).

To further characterize those who live according to the Spirit, Paul contrasts them with those who walk “according to the Flesh.”* This dichotomy is not an overly-spiritualized, anti-body othering by Paul (i.e., a devaluation of the body against supposedly holy disembodiment) but an ethical cleavage with profoundly political repercussions. Nor is the dichotomy just an internal struggle between sinful and holy desires. Those who live by the Spirit form an alternative political ethic marked by peace and mutual interdependence, communal needs over capricious wants. In contrast, the Flesh marks the prevailing mode of political power, defined by domination and individual gain. It is vital to highlight the political meaning and implication of the Spirit/Flesh dichotomy. As Katherine Goheen remarks, the historical and current reception of Romans 8:1–11 features undue “spiritualization and depoliticization” (27). Past and present readers approach Paul’s words to suppress bodily needs and desires while ignoring real-world oppressions of all kinds.

To emphasize: the Flesh is not our body, our skin, or our physical being. Paul is not engaging in “body shaming,” nor does he believe bodies themselves are lesser in significance to our spirits. The New Testament letters usually attributed to Paul’s own hand by biblical scholars attest to a positive view of the body. In 1 Corinthians, Paul remarks that our current, natural bodies are “temples” for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Later in the Epistle, he attributes “splendor” to both pre- and post-resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35–41). Catholic theologian Christopher West writes that a misreading of Paul’s notion of Flesh in Romans 8 leads many to “grow up thinking of the physical world (especially their bodies and sexuality) as the main obstacle to the spiritual life as if the physical world itself were ‘bad’” (7). When one arrives at Romans 8, they should not read Paul’s disparagement of the Flesh as a condemnation against our own “flesh and blood.” Nor is it a tool to suppress (with divine intent) diverse forms of sexual and bodily expression.

What, then, is Flesh? In Romans 8, we read that Flesh brings death, sets one in hostile, rebellious opposition to God, and does nothing that pleases God. Flesh is therefore a way of being, a comprehensive mindset, one totally at odds with the plans and purposes of God. It conditions a mental orientation affecting (i.e., debasing) every aspect of one’s existence. The qualities of a Fleshy life can include forms of sexual immorality (cf. Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9), but these do not constitute the consensual non-heteronormative relationships that we see in our contemporary era (see Dale Martin’s lucid article on Paul’s dismissal, not of homosexuality, but problematic Roman sexual practices).

Paul more frequently indicates Fleshy behaviors that are non-sexual, as he does in Romans 1:29–31. He writes, “They [are] filled with every kind of injustice, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” The ethic of the Flesh is one of violence and illicit acquisition. It destabilizes individuals, relationships, and communities, leading people towards paths of harm to themselves and others. It is the opposite of what Aristotle describes as eudaimonia (that is, human flourishing). Flesh annihilates the conditions for any lasting flourishing for persons and groups.

The Spirit, by contrast, is not a person’s non-physical spiritual existence. It is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God/Christ, sent to the community of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of the resurrection and ascension (according to Acts 2). Consequently, those who live according to the Spirit are liberated from the law of sin and death and walk in accordance with God’s will. While Flesh is forever hostile to God, the Spirit—being God and from God—is always in the right relation.

Recent political readings of Romans concur that Paul’s view of Flesh is not merely (or even primarily) an oppressive anti-body, anti-sex conservatism. It is a posture defined by the domination of others for greater power, privilege, and prestige. The Flesh, Douglas Hinkman argues, is “the desire of a people to control, impose, and dominate. Sovereignty and law become instruments of Sin and Death” (113). Those “habituated to Flesh” are quick to participate in systems of domination, like politics and lawfare, “becoming rulers, governors, judges, and CEOs… managing, maneuvering, and manipulating social, judicial, and political forces….” Their methods of resolving conflict are “aggression, invasion, war, conquest, and punishment” (117). It all boils down to “practices that seek control… result[ing in] competition, coercion, violence, and death” (120). It is no surprise, for their path is one in conflict with God, who is a God of peace (Romans 16:20). The hegemony of the Flesh in individuals and groups leads to the development, sustenance, and support of hegemonic empires, nation-states, and multinational corporations.

Thus, the polity of the Flesh⁠—an organization that abides by the values of Flesh⁠—is a hierarchical, top-down system of power and privilege. The strong wield instruments of violence and destruction to: foster submission against the weak, procure ill-gotten gains, and aggrandize their stature. All the sins listed in Romans 1 are inscribed in the polity’s actions, bureaucracies, laws, and unspoken/implied social codes. In turn, the masses at the bottom perform all the lurid behaviors listed as well. The attitudes of the Flesh run rampant, devastating bodies, persons, and communities of dignity and worth. While such a polity may construct lasting marvels and wonders, this regime produces one sure product: death.

The manifestations of the polity of the Flesh are ever-present throughout history. The Roman Empire was a Fleshy polity par excellence: a political unit designed and legitimized on vociferous conquering and staggering inequality. As per Philip Friesen, “Paul wrote to the Roman church around the time Nero became emperor… [Nero] exemplified the hypocrisy of a regime that claimed to have brought peace and justice to the world, but could not control its own hatred and greed” (2). Regardless, the most radical implication of a political reading of Romans 8:1–11 is that all political orders premised on hierarchy, power, inequality, and the like, are hostile to God—be they in the suburban home, local church, or the Kremlin. While they exist under divine sovereignty now (Romans 13:1–7), eventually, those who promise false “peace and security” (1 Thessalonians 5:13), while terrorizing and oppressing, are doomed to face God’s justice.

However, Paul is not contrasting between the converted and unconverted. Even with the assurance that there is no condemnation and that the forces of sin and death are destroyed, the specter of the Flesh is always present, through temptations, false beliefs, and our Adamic nature (verse 10), not yet redeemed in the resurrection. As Annette Potgieter notes, “[Paul’s audience] have a significant choice in determining what controlling influence will establish that dominant state of being.” Therefore, Paul’s dichotomy is provisional, not absolute. Many who call themselves “devout Christians” will concede to the Flesh and enter into positions of dominating power—facilitating death in their wake (cf. Matthew 7:21–23). Even when one does not desire nor intend to live amidst the Flesh, they can still find themselves bound up within it. 

Are people powerless against the Flesh in their own lives? Is fighting against Fleshy political and economic powers futile? Those who possess the Spirit of God within them⁠ (and I make no exclusionary theological claims on who can receive this Spirit) are allowed the gracious opportunity to walk according to such a Spirit. Their bodies are indestructible against the defeated forces of sin and death. Such people are “spiritual” people, guided and protected by God’s spirit towards an existence that is life-abundant and life-producing, now and in the future. They have the power to fight Flesh, inside and out.

This power is found in the behaviors and attitudes of one indwelled with God’s Spirit. Spiritual life leads to life and peace, achieved by a set of habits and practices Paul lists, not only in Romans but also in 1 Corinthians and Galatians. Pertinent to this letter, Paul explicitly elaborates in Romans 12:9–21 what living according to the Spirit entails. Paul writes that the mark of those with the Spirit is hospitality, affection, generosity, prayer instead of vengeance, support for society’s underlings. There is love (in the biblical sense of unselfish compassion and care, not merely sentimental affection) of the enemy and persecutor, and priority of peace in disposition and social relation. There is always a priority of another’s needs over one’s own, always a desire to repay evil with goodness and love.

The polity/realm (verse 9) of the Spirit is one defined by peace and mutual interdependence. There is no domination or subjugation, but an orientation to both support those in need, and to love all, regardless of status or doctrine. Also, the polity of the Spirit is not a state, corporation, or even a church. It is, instead, a way of being with lived bodily practices of non-violence and love for the other. In turn, such practices can renew the minds of ourselves and others (Romans 12:2). Luke Timothy Johnson writes that this polity is decidedly eschatological: “The transforming Spirit that God has given to humans is the pledge and portent of future life in the resurrection” (131). Amidst a secular empire premised on a rigid social pyramid and prolific violence, Paul argues that one’s present behaviors can reflect a hoped for future of love, peace, and harmony.

Thus, the body politic of the Spirit stands in opposition to the polity of the Flesh. It does not use weapons in the conflict—physical or metaphorical—but a deportment of peace, love, charity, and patience in God’s justice (Romans 12:19–21), exposing any moral claims the Flesh regimes purport to uphold. Life following the Spirit produces profound courage in the face of terror that the Flesh will inevitably bring against us (Matthew 10:22). The Spirit that dwells within is the same, to Paul, that raised Christ from the dead after state-sanctioned torture and execution. Thus, it can do the same again to anyone, in perpetuity, regardless of the means by which Flesh attempts to destroy one in their fight for peace.

How can we say “farewell to the Flesh” today, regardless of theological affirmation? Goodbye to a value-system of death and corruption? To list the problems facing our lives and planet would take an additional 700,000 words. Be it racial prejudice, ethnic cleansing, war, greed, environmental catastrophe, et al., these burning issues go back to regimes and individuals persisting in the life of the Flesh. In our diverse faith communities, we can heed Paul’s words in Romans 8 and 12, comporting ourselves to such virtues, becoming missionaries not of creed but live-affirming action. Also, we can take inspiration from people, groups, and movements that said, like Paul, NO to the polity of the Flesh, even if those regimes are clothed and baptized in purported Christianities. Our places of worship should mortify the Flesh mindset in the pews and pulpits alike—sexism, apolitical apathy, harmful division. Outside (or preferably in alliance with) our sanctuaries, there are always groups (civil rights movements, people’s campaigns, abolitionist struggles) embodying the Spirit with immense bravery against Fleshy terror. Their fight reveals, however briefly, the joy of a Fleshless politics.

*I follow Douglas Harink in capitalizing both Spirit and Flesh when referring to the objects of Paul’s discussion in Romans 8:5-8.

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