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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Living Consistently—2 Corinthians 5:6–10, (11–13), 14–17 (Stephen Dawson)

The politics of new creation involves the bringing together of words and actions in the form of consistent living, by means of the work of the Spirit of Christ. Hypocrisy and intolerance among Christians are a departure from this model, flowing from an unwarranted confidence.

6So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

11Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In this week’s epistle reading Paul develops his ideas regarding a “new creation,” or the way in which the faithful are transformed by the indwelling Spirit of Christ. The notion of “new creation” can be understood as a combination of two important themes in Paul. The first is the new body received by all believers at the time of the Second Coming. Apparently, some of the members of the community in Corinth had concerns about the physical resurrection of the dead, and in particular the body of those who are resurrected. Paul in 1 Corinthians compares the earthly or fleshly body to a seed that is sown. A seed, when planted in the earth, changes its form in order to live again. The dead in Christ will likewise be changed at the end of time: the perishable body will “put on imperishability”; the mortal body will “put on immortality” (15:53). Thus transformed, the faithful will never again know the sting of death.

The second theme is the freedom of believers from the Law. With the coming of Christ, there is no longer any need for the Law. Life without the Law, however, is not the equivalent of a moral snow day in which the usual expectations for human conduct are cancelled. Rather than by works of the Law, Paul exhorts his readers to live by the Spirit. If faith signals the indwelling Spirit of Christ, then the actions of the faithful should express the Spirit. Acts of love are the fruits of the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit of Christ has ethical consequences.

“New creation” thus describes the transformation both of the physical body upon resurrection and of the actions of the faithful in the here and now. In this week’s reading, Paul attributes his confidence in everything—in his role of apostle and teacher as well as his belief in Christ—to the indwelling Spirit, which daily serves as a guarantee for his new creation. As a result, he is capable of living in the Spirit and loving others. His acts of love take the form of teaching and ministry to the community. His service can be understood as walking by faith. Paul, as the saying goes, talks the talk and walks the walk. He dismisses his opponents as false teachers whose actions do not support their words—they “talk the talk” but fail to “walk the walk.” Put differently, Paul’s opponents are insincere: they say one thing, but do something else. In contrast, Paul is the very picture of sincerity: there is no gap, no slippage, between his words and his actions.

One conclusion to draw from this passage is the identification of new creation with the capacity of the faithful to talk the talk and walk the walk. The politics of new creation is simply walking by faith out in the world. Walking the walk without the talk is simply the doing of good deeds. Paul famously explains this phenomena in terms of the requirements of the moral law being written on the human heart (Romans 2:14–16). “Walking the walk” by itself, therefore, is not necessarily a problem. But “talking the talk” minus “walking the walk” is a problem. In fact, it’s a problem we know on a first-name basis: hypocrisy.

The latest installment in the hypocrisy chronicles concerns the fall of the Duggar family, stars of a reality television series called “19 Kids and Counting.” At one time the most popular show on the TLC network, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar became renowned for their fundamentalist Baptist faith, their eschewal of any method of birth control, and their, well, peculiar views on purity. I exaggerate only a little, I believe, when I describe Michelle and Jim Bob’s engagement with the wider world as framed primarily by a monomaniacal concern with sex. For example, readers of Growing Up Duggar, the 2013 best seller written by the four eldest Duggar daughters, learned that the family had a code word for women dressed immodestly in public: “Nike.” (The choice of Nike as the code word was not simply an instance of product placement, but points rather to the tight-fitting and flesh-baring exercise attire promoted by that company—“Lululemon” presumably would be too much of a mouthful.) Upon hearing one of the Duggar women announce “Nike,” the Duggar men were expected to “nonchalantly drop their eyes and look down at their shoes as we walk past her… It’s meant to help keep the guys’ eyes from seeing things they shouldn’t be seeing.”[1] The siren call of sexuality is seemingly everywhere, not only in the media or on the Internet, but in the next aisle at the grocery store or around the bend on a path in a public park. But it’s important to note that the dynamic of sexuality works according to two simple rules: women’s bodies are the source of sexual desire, and men are, practically speaking, helpless to resist seeing those bodies as sex objects. A cleavage peek, the Duggars suggest, could potentially unravel the new creation characteristic of godly men such as father Jim Bob and eldest son Josh.

The Duggars have been in the news recently because of the release of a police report stating that Josh Duggar molested five underage girls when he was 14 and 15 years old. Four of the girls were his younger sisters, with one of the sisters being much younger than the others. As a result TLC immediately stopped broadcasting reruns of “19 Kids and Counting” without comment on whether the program would be renewed for the next season. Sponsors fled the show like proverbial rats fleeing a sinking ship. All of this provided for a great deal of schadenfreude on the part of those who were repelled both by the wholesome self-righteousness projected by the Duggars (and projected onto them by their supporters), and by their political activism, especially regarding LGBT issues.

Homosexuality seems to be the issue that excites the Duggars like no other. Less than a year ago, for example, Michelle Duggar had recorded a robocall recording urging Fayetteville, Arkansas residents to protest an anti-discrimination ordinance under consideration by the Fayetteville City Council. In the recording, Michelle raises the specter of men with “past child predator convictions” who “claim they are female” having “a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls,” such as public restrooms and changing areas.[2] Almost immediately there was an outcry against her use of the rhetorical trope that identifies LGBT identity with sexual perversion generally and pedophilia in particular.

Another example of political Duggarism is provided by Josh, who in 2013 accepted an executive position with the Family Resource Council, a conservative Christian lobbying organization that promotes what now goes by the shorthand “traditional family values.” Needless to say, legislation legalizing gay marriage, facilitating adoption by gay parents, and prohibiting discrimination against the LBGT community is all adamantly opposed by the FRC because such rulings are contrary to traditional morality. GLAAD, an organization that monitors LGBT media depictions, noted that Josh had for all practical purposes become an “outright anti-gay activist.”[3]

We should be wary of placing too much importance on the example and influence of the Duggars. Even among conservative evangelical Christians, the prominence of the Duggars is as much a source of pride as uneasiness.[4] But I believe the rise and fall of the Duggars illustrates the twin dilemmas intrinsic to the politics of new creation. One horn of the dilemma is the ever-present danger of hypocrisy, or talking the talk without walking the walk. The other horn is intolerance, which results from “talking the talk” in a modern pluralistic society with a tin ear for difference and an inability to love others as others. What sharpens both horns of the dilemma is the unwarranted possession of confidence. Surely Paul’s words in this week’s reading (“we are always confident … for we walk by faith, not by sight”) are perverted if his notion of confidently living in the Spirit is used as a fig leaf to excuse bigotry and discrimination. The example of the Duggars is an object lesson in the easy way an unthinking, uncritical politics of new creation can express the withered fruits of hypocrisy and intolerance.

[1] Quoted in Alex Rees, “Duggar Ladies Have Code Words for ‘Immodest Women,’ So Their Menfolk Can Avoid Sinful Temptation,” Cosmopolitan, 6 March 2014.
[2] Abby Ohlheiser, “Listen to Michelle Duggar’s anti-anti-discrimination robocall,” Washington Post, 19 August 2014.
[3] Kathy Butler, “Josh Duggar takes a job with anti-gay Family Resource Council,” glaad.org, 17 June 2013.
[4] Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein, “How do evangelicals view the Duggars? It’s complicated,” Washington Post, 22 May 2015.

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