“I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:22-23
In an election year the airwaves are replete with candidates who seek to be “all things to all people.” Candidates are moving from state to state, seemingly transforming stances and tone to fit the tastes of voters along the way. Most recently Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have demonstrated this trend in their attempts to court the Latina/o vote in Florida by backing away from recent hard-line statements like Gingrich’s now famous claim that Spanish is the language of the ghetto or Romney’s promise that he would veto the DREAM Act. While neither candidate has totally removed themselves from these claims, it is clear that they are speaking very differently about these topics in Florida than they did in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The history of Christian missionary work also bears the scars of Paul’s suggestion that spreading the gospel involves a contortion of the self into an unassuming or familiar form. Paul’s unquestioning belief that the proliferation of the gospel is unambiguously good has had a ripple effect throughout Christian history that includes crusades and the systematic undermining of indigenous cultures and religious practices. This pericope from Paul’s letter to Corinth is a problem because it suggests allegiance to a cause without self-consciousness or aware of evolving circumstances.
Especially in election cycles we see this same sort of narrowness in our political discourse. Leaders become so narrowly convicted that their particular vision for the nation is the only good one that they are willing to do and say anything to gain the power necessary to implement it. While I doubt it is an achievable short-term goal within our current political system, we would be wise to seek escape from this sort of Pauline campaigning tactic, where the process is totally subordinated to the goal. Our political process shapes our nation just as profoundly as acts of Congress and decisions of the courts. A process that relies on varying levels of dishonesty and gamesmanship will never beget a united country.
Paul’s legitimization of his own authority is that his methods are irrelevant as long as his goals are met. He can become whatever he needs to, all for the sake of the gospel. This same sort of thinking can be found anywhere in American politics, on the left and on the right. It is no longer just the choices being made that are destructive to the nation but the entire process, regardless of its outcomes, is wantonly sewing resentment and division that will be more destructive in the long term than any of the short term results of this acrimonious process.
John Allen is a Protest Chaplain at Occupy Wall Street. He is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.