[This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.]
The pursuit of truth and justice is often onerous and taxing. The incremental gains accomplished by strikes and protests, grassroots organizing, and community coalitions pale in comparison to the large-scale success achieved by corporations and the governmental institutions who collude with each other. The quest to halt imperialistic conquests by the American war machine, ameliorate poverty, reform a racist and unjust judicial system, and empower communities can often seem like a dead end street, but the light of hope still shines through the darkness.
Our hope comes from the knowledge that truth is on our side, and that through our efforts we witness to the love and power of a crucified and risen savior. Our work is not in vain, but it testifies and proclaims the lordship of Christ against the demonic activity of the corporations, legislative bodies, and other policy making institutions that stand against us. Without the wind in our sails we are forced to row through choppy waters of discouragement, pessimism, and doubt. Is Christ really on our side? Can we really hope to win the battle? Whether Republican, Democratic, or Independent, politicians make promises and fail to keep them. They repeat the same talking points but invariably ignore the needs of the poor and downtrodden. They valorize labor and effort but neglect to mention the pernicious aspects of our political economy which alienates scores of black and brown people outside of this labor system.
In our text today, Paul too was threatened by disillusionment, fear, and weariness. He spent much time in prison, he suffered at the hands of naysayers and evil rulers, and he was frequently alone and without friends. However, Paul wrote these words in I Corinthians 4:7-12:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
Paul dichotomizes life and death to show that the trials that oppress us and threaten to overwhelm us are the same trials and tribulations that produce life in those who are transformed by our faithful witness. When we crucify our selfish desires and live a life of love so that others will experience justice we reveal the life of Christ. For an example of this, we need look no further than the civil rights movement and the numerous beatings, imprisonments, slanderous attacks, and bombs that its leaders and participants endured. While these trials certainly depleted these participants emotionally, mentally, and physically, they produced a transformation of the American legal system that led to an avalanche of progress over the ensuing decades. They demonstrated that the power to nonviolently suffer through such demeaning experiences came from God and not themselves. They were hard pressed, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed.
That is our testimony also. Let all the prophets, activists, ministers, community leaders, agitators, professors, and others who give our lives daily to the pursuit of justice, often without seeing many tangible results, join with Paul in proclaiming this truth. It’s a hard, lonely road when one is chasing justice, and she hardly ever seems to be in sight. It is easy to want to stop and ask, “Why are we doing this anyway?” Or, “What is the purpose of this when we’re not getting anywhere?” But in verses 16 and 17 Paul reminds us, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Against all odds we press on, renewed by the breath of God, empowered by his Spirit, and triumphant because of Jesus’ sacrifice. The world’s politics are temporal, but our politics are eternal.