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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Messianic Body—1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (Ray Pickett)

Paul’s vision of a social body formed around a crucified Messiah turns on their head many of the prevailing dominance models of society of his own day. The concern for members of society otherwise marginalized and devalued produced by such a political vision is one with considerable relevance to our own day.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts.

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul invokes the human body as a metaphor for the community constituted by the messianic event, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus. The metaphor of the body was widely used in Greco-Roman political discussions of concord to illustrate how unity can exist within diversity in society.[1] However, Greco-Roman authors and orators appealed to the political significance of the body in order to emphasis the predominance of the head so as to re-inscribe the hierarchical order of imperial society. This usage provides the frame for the use of metaphor of the body here and in Romans 12 where Paul challenges notions of class, status, and privilege assumed to be natural by elites.

The vision of the social body Paul sets forth here is thoroughly political in that, as in Greco-Roman discourse, his primary concern is the relationship of the part—that is the individual—and the social body as a whole. Whereas Greco-Roman authors placed the emphasis on the unity of the whole, Paul emphasizes the importance of the diversity of the parts as they relate to the whole. It is a messianic politics of the social body predicated on the vindication and exaltation of the crucified messiah that provides a paradigm for how diverse individual bodies are to regard and respond to one another.[2]

Paul began this letter to the Corinthians by redefining divine power and wisdom in terms of the crucified messiah through whom “God made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1:18-25). In the opening of the letter he indicates his concern about divisions in the social body and, in addressing the issues of idol meat and spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 8-14, it becomes apparent that a preoccupation with social standing and advantage characteristic of society threatened the integrity of the community of the messiah. It is precisely this sort of class system of ranking denoted by the “wisdom of the world” that the message of a crucified messiah upended, yet was now finding expression in Corinth as some claimed distinction in terms of superior knowledge or spiritual gifts.

Paul plays with, indeed turns inside out, conventions regarding social power by paradoxically identifying divine power and wisdom with the humiliation and vulnerability of the crucified messiah. The logic of Paul’s argument is that the demonstration of God’s power in raising from the dead a Galilean Jew who was executed as an enemy of the Roman imperial order signaled a restructuring of the social order through a transvaluation of values. The political transformation inaugurated through the messianic event is mediated through the community organized according to this inversion of worth and advantage. This is reflected in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul, contrary to the traditional use of the body metaphor, claims that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (verses 22-23).

The irony of the situation in Corinth is that spiritual gifts (χαρίσματα) were the basis for claims of prestige and pre-eminence. Paul reminded them at the opening of the letter of their own devalued social status vis-a-vis Greco-Roman social codes precisely “so that no one might boast in the presence of God” and to establish that God “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus” (1:29-30). Life is itself a divine gift, so how then do spiritual gifts bestowed on individual members cause competition that threatens the solidarity of the social body? Roberto Esposito explains the tension between the individual and the collective in a way that elucidates the social dynamics in the Corinthian assembly and the significance of Paul’s vision of community in our own contexts. The munus of the Latin word communus means “duty” or “obligation” as well as “gift”, which he takes to signify that members of a community are bound by a “gift” that is to be given or shared rather than received.[3] Paul says that the purpose of spiritual “gifts” is “to bring together” (συμφέρον), which the NRSV translates as “common good” (verse 7), so why are these spiritual gifts causing division?

The discord surrounding the manifestation of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is an example of what Esposito describes as an inherent tension between the transcendence of community and a metaphysics of the individual. What he means by community as “the transcendental condition of our existence” is that we are constituted by community in that we have always existed in common. Community, Esposito says, is “what we need the most, as it is a part of our very selves,” and yet this foundational condition also causes a rupture in our own subjectivity because it jeopardizes the presumed absoluteness of the individual.[4] This is what he means by the metaphysics of the individual, “the individual enclosed in his own absoluteness.” According to Esposito, neither the individual nor the community “know how to embrace the other without absorbing and incorporating him, without making him a part of themselves.” So the self-enclosed individual needs community, and yet, as he puts it, “community is precisely what is sacrificed on the altar of individual self-preservation.”

Esposito’s Pauline insight is that the way to loosen the grip of the self-enclosed impulse for self-preservation, or as is the case in Corinth, self-elevation, is the realization that community is characterized by a type of sharing, and what is shared is the lack each has imposed on one’s self through participation in the community. As Devin Singh puts it, for Esposito, “Paul’s invocation of a community created as a gift from God and through the death of Christ signals a critical loss of self that is recuperated in the communal subject.”[5] Esposito himself cites a passage from Rousseau which is strikingly similar to Paul’s perspective in the Corinthian correspondence.

It is man’s weakness which makes him sociable, it is our common miseries which turn our hearts to humanity … Men are not naturally kings, or lords, or courtiers, or rich men. All are born naked and poor; all are subject to the miseries of life, to sorrows, ills, needs, and pains of every kind. Finally all are condemned to death, This is what truly belongs to man.[6]

In organizing these vanguard communities throughout the empire, Paul is guided by a vision of power through weakness and vulnerability defined by the practical wisdom of a crucified messiah vindicated by the one God “from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthian 8:6).

While such a vision may seem abstract, that is only the case if we lose sight of the fact that Paul’s invocation of the social body has its origins in the crucified body of Jesus and is grounded in the experience of material bodies. Indeed, 1 Corinthians can be read from beginning to end as concerned primarily with what individuals do in their bodies and how it affects the social body. What is paramount in 1 Corinthians 12 is a concern for the “whole” (ὅλον) body and the greater value of what are deemed, by societal conventions anyway, the weaker and less honorable members of the social body in cultivating a communal ethos in which the members have “have the same care for one another” (verse 25). Given that in Paul’s view the telos of this messianic event through which a new social body is being formed is nothing less than a “new creation”, which is material as well as spiritual, then we would do well to give priority in the crisis of our time to black and brown bodies, refugee bodies, poor bodies, bodies in pain, be it physical, psychic, or social, if we are to have any hope of community that will deliver us from the isolation, alienation and self-enclosure that that defines our own cultural situation.

[1] See Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
[2] Paul writes during a time when these communities are part of a messianic movement within Judaism. So Χριστὸς is better translated as messiah than as a proper name.
[3] Roberto Esposito, Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 15.
[4] Ibid, 16. He cites Rosseau: “Our sweetest existence is relative and collective, and our true self is not entirely within us.”
[5] Devin Singh, “Until We are One? Biopolitics and the United Body”, Michael Thate, Kevin Vanhoozer and Constantine Campbell eds. “In Christ” in Paul: Explorations in Paul’s Theology of Union and Participation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 538.
[6] From Rousseau, On Education citied in Esposito, Terms of the Political, 18. See 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; 4:6-13; 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; 12:1-12.

Ray Pickett is professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is working on grounding the arts of community organization in Scripture and is currently writing a book on Jesus and the Beloved Community.

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