Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Scandalously Radical Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 might seem a surprising pick for the focus of a sermon at Cambridge Welcoming. So why use it? Why publicly speak the words, “Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.”? What can we make of this text, even though (perhaps especially because) it provides ammunition for those professing a limited, heterosexual, marriage-centric sexual ethics? Can we move from it toward the radical inclusivity of sexual diversity?

I consider this passage to be crucial to understanding Paul’s overall project. We must keep in mind that Paul’s letters address specific concerns and questions of particular communities, and he does not lay out any kind of systematic theology. But here in 1 Corinthians, we catch a glimpse of what it is that makes Paul so incredibly frustrating. How is it that the same man who readily quotes the baptismal formula that declares, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” can also instruct women to remain in silent submission? With the risk of oversimplifying complex issues in Pauline interpretation, I suggest that our 1 Corinthians reading for today can shed light on Paul’s oscillation between radical equality and status quo hierarchy.

One of Paul’s main concerns is for the health of the corporate body of Christ. If any member of the community does wrong, the whole body is contaminated. To be fair, this concept does not necessarily prohibit inclusivity and mutuality. We might say, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” to urge all to work together for the common good. But in chapter seven of 1 Corinthians, we discover a potentially problematic implication of Paul’s thinking. Earlier in the letter, Paul says that there are a few Corinthian men who are claiming to follow in the Way of Christ but remain sexually promiscuous; this, Paul contends, pollutes the Body of Christ (our reading from chapter six). Then Paul teaches in chapter seven that sex is still appropriate (for those unlike himself who cannot resist it) but only within the bounds of marriage. (Note: Paul does not say that sex within marriage is restricted to the purpose of procreation as some would argue. Indeed, Paul never defines “good sex” as a solely procreative act.) The problem, as feminist biblical scholar Antoinette Wire points out, is that these men who cannot “keep it in their pants” need women who will marry them. Wire explains that the Corinthian women who enjoy prophetic authority and autonomy as a result of their abstinence from sex would be the eligible bachelorettes called to service in order to restore communal health. While Paul does not seem to explicitly obstruct equality here—in fact promoting mutual authority within husband/wife relationships—he implicitly sacrifices the freedom of the Corinthian women prophets to control their own bodies in favor of providing marital opportunities for lustful men. For Paul, the individual body is in service to the community, the Body of Christ.

Paul’s concern about members of Christ’s body being “united to a prostitute” becomes incredibly interesting and surprisingly thrown into question in the work of a second-century reader of Paul, Clement of Alexandria. I am referring to the way that Clement engages a philosophical debate in the Roman Empire over how it is that humans can be rendered divine. Clement does his intellectual and spiritual work in a city that is full of statues and images that depict humans as gods, and he finds it all quite disturbing. Statues of Roman gods tell the stories of their lavish existence and licentious behaviors, and so according to Clement, the artistic images actually teach adultery. In contrast, Clement argues that people are breathing statues, naturally embodying the image of God, and so humans should strive in their deeds to be like God. The idea that all humans are in the image of God is not an unfamiliar one in contemporary culture, especially at Cambridge Welcoming. The assumption of God’s reflection in all persons lends itself toward the ideal of equally valuing and respecting all individuals as diverse and valid manifestations of the divine image. But Clement goes even a step further. He claims that humans do not simply possess the image of God; that is, people do not just reflect God, but that they have the capacity to be God, to render themselves divine.

It will be useful here to clarify the way in which Clement differentiates between the image and the likeness of God. Foundational to his thinking is Genesis 1:26a-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” While Jewish commentators and biblical scholars have generally considered “in our image” and “according to our likeness” to be a mere literary doubling, Clement joins some other first- and second-century Greek Christians in reading the text as intending a difference in meaning. “In our image” comes first and then to be “according to our likeness” is a greater potential that follows. Clement interprets the Genesis verses to mean that all humans are made in God’s image, and goes on to clarify that there is a more significant second step of being “according to our likeness” that has only been accomplished by Christ.

That Christ is the only one to have attained ‘likeness’ does mean not that humans cannot move beyond the original blessing of being in God’s ‘image’. Clement insists that it is possible for humans, in the same way as Christ, to become like God. He bases his argument upon Philippians 2:6-7 (“though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”). In the words of Clement:

The Lord himself will speak to you, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself,” the compassionate God who longs to save humanity. And the Logos itself already speaks to you manifestly shaming unbelief. Yes, I say, the Logos of God became human, in fact in order that you too should learn by a human how it is ever possible that a human become a god. (Prot. I 8.4)

Clement declares that just as the Logos of God (Christ) took the form of a human—specifically a slave—humans are able to become gods.

The concept might seem radical (or perhaps just bizarre) today because we do not typically speak of humans as able to be gods. While we talk of encountering God in another person, Clement says that humans can fashion themselves fully in God’s likeness; we can actually become gods. I suspect that many contemporary Christians would consider this idea blasphemous, but Clement’s philosophical-religious-cultural milieu is one in which the lines between human and divine are not so strictly drawn. I am not suggesting that we should adopt Clement’s theology, but rather, there is something to be learned from the way that Clement engages the broader debate over what it means to be in God’s likeness.

The first lesson is that we can find Christianity’s potential for radical inclusivity creeping through the work even of old, traditional, elite, presumably heterosexual (or perhaps asexual) men. I call attention to Clement today because the way that he uses the physical body of Christ (Jesus) dramatically shakes up and reconceptualizes the corporate Body of Christ (the church). To make his argument that humans can come to be in the likeness of God, Clement puts the spotlight on Christ embodied as a slave, using Philippians 2:7 as his authoritative source. This is absolutely remarkable considering the status and role of slaves. A major and unavoidable reality for slaves was that they lacked control over their own bodies; slave bodies were at all times available for use—sexual and otherwise—by their masters. The body of Christ that Clement considers able to teach humans how to become gods is thus a vulnerable, perpetually-unclean body.

This is really quite extraordinary! Clement completely shatters the prevailing philosophical ideals of his time and undermines Paul’s teaching concerning the Body of Christ. Regarding our Corinthians passage for the day, New Testament scholar Jennifer Glancy asks if slaves could have been included as members in Paul’s conception of holy Christian community. Paul shuns the one who is united with a prostitute, and yet slaves could not control their own bodies so that they were vulnerable to being prostituted. While Paul acknowledges slaves in the community and might even instruct them to take advantage of possibilities for freedom (depending upon translation), he defines the Body of Christ in a way that marginalizes and potentially excludes slaves. But then comes along Clement of Alexandria who lifts up Jesus as a slave—a physically-available, impure sex object—in order to teach what it means to be in God’s likeness. Suddenly the Body of Christ is not an impenetrable, masculine paragon of self-control. And if the slave body of Christ represents the corporate Body of Christ, all persons are able to be joined to the community regardless of their status or ability to control their own bodies.

The full implications of Clement’s thinking are profoundly radical. However, the second lesson we learn through Clement is that sometimes the kernels of radical potentiality that are available in the tradition end up constrained and stamped out by the status quo just as soon as they are uttered. What Clement teaches to be the way of one who is in God’s likeness is a Christianized version of the Platonic elite male who is passionless and in control of his body. Clement does say that women and slaves are able to attain divine likeness… in theory at least. But it is the practice that is exclusive; in reality, human possibility is limited for women and especially for slaves. Clement puts forth words that have the power to utterly transform the Body of Christ, but he does not take them toward their radical ends. Perhaps this is because he would be embarrassed to condemn the divine representation of sexually promiscuous Romans and then to base his theology on the body of a slave. Slave Christ is simply too scandalous, and so Clement—in the way of the controlling slave master—uses the slave body for his own purposes and then discards it when it has done the desired work.

And this is why progressive Christians generally have an uncomfortable relationship with the first few centuries. “Thank you for Jesus, thank you for the Gospels telling us of Jesus, thank you getting this whole church thing going. However, what you do with the message—the way that you translate it through the oppressive social structures of your time—is your own business.” It is somewhat surprising then that in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., who we honor with a federal holiday this month, actually challenges the modern church to be more like the ancient one. He says, “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

From what we have read today in Paul and Clement, King is really quite generous. While not simply replicating popular opinion (probably because popular opinion condemned and largely ignored early Christian groups) and certainly putting forward some transformational ideas, the early followers of Jesus whose work was preserved and considered authoritative generally shied away from too much social change and remained within (or at best tiptoeing along the periphery) of social constraints. But what King is getting at is that early Christians were absolutely committed to their beliefs regardless of the consequences. They remained faithful to a new way of living and being in the world. In many respects, they were innovative, coming up with fresh ways to talk about old debates, such as how it is that humans could be rendered as gods.

Clement did challenge the dominant culture. In his commitment to Christ, he exhorted all people to change their behaviors and to live according to the one who could truly teach what it meant to become divine. He was certainly creative, offering a unique contribution to religious and social debate. And most significantly, by epitomizing slave Jesus, he approached the radical tipping point whereby all could be included in the Body of Christ regardless of the status of their own bodies. But he could not go all the way. He remained committed to Christ and reinterpreted the social and divine order, but being limited by the ideals of his time, Clement did not seek to completely overturn the establishment. Standing on the brink of change, he chose a more socially acceptable and comprehensible route to Christian transformation.

With the inauguration of America’s first African American President, a man who campaigned on the promise of change, we find ourselves at another moment in history that presents the opening for new possibilities. Particularly relevant to this community, we can finally allow ourselves to believe that the unfair practices of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be ended and that legislation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity will actually be signed into law. Just as Clement realized an opening for all people to become divine, we are presented with the chance to further the possibilities for all people to be full and equal citizens.

That being said, the opportunity for radical transformation is tempered by acquiescence to social constraints. While positively mentioning lesbian and gay people (though not so much transgendered persons) in most major speeches, and despite speaking against California’s Proposition 8, Barack Obama still declares that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Perhaps it is that Obama thinks his general support for LGBT people to be safe enough that it does not stoke widespread controversy but that he considers endorsement of same-sex marriage to be too great a political liability in light of the current social climate. In much the same way that Clement uses the slave body of Christ to make a particular argument but discards it before it can embarrass him, Obama lifts up the queer community as part of his progressive agenda but might fear that the ends of complete inclusivity will be too radical to be widely supported. This is not to say that queer bodies are mere pawns in a political game, but it is an acknowledgment that any genuine respect for LGBT people is filtered and manipulated according to social-political interests and calculations.

What we realize in all of this is that, often behind thinking that conforms to traditional norms, there is a moment at which radical potentiality is given over to the status quo. Paul proclaims the end of ethnic, social, and gender division in Christ but implicitly limits women’s autonomy and marginalizes slaves. Clement calls attention to the positive value of the scandalous slave body of Christ but immediately covers up the scandal with elite male philosophical language. Obama declares that sexuality should not preclude equality but maintains an unequal definition of marriage. We might read this resistance to dramatic fundamental social change in the terms of Paul’s commitment to the unity of the body. The Body of Christ (or the body politic) might assume a new meaning—one that is based in the idea that all can be members—but the movement of individual bodies is dictated by the needs and limitations of the group. As with Paul, there is an unwillingness to allow individuals bodies to contaminate or somehow limit the progress of the corporate body. The margins of the whole are privileged over and restrict the potential of its parts.

In reaction to this attitude, Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically expressed, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” King realized on the basis of his experience that conformity to social constraints would not actually protect the Body of Christ but would allow continued abuse of its members. Even Paul acknowledged all parts of the body as being essential; one part cannot be rejected or mistreated if the whole body is to be healthy and fully functioning. But the theory and the practice are not always easily reconciled. The theory demands a dramatic restructuring of society, and it is at this point that those with the power to affect change often stop short of radical transformation for fear of becoming socially unrecognizable, ineffective, and ultimately powerless. The challenge then is for us to wade through the translations of Christian tradition into the language of the status quo and to uncover the words of radical potentiality. In Clement—an unlikely source for those wishing to subvert cultural and religious norms—we find words, that if allowed to speak out their full impact, locate the power of divinity in the bodies of those traditionally oppressed and considered spiritually unclean.

It may seem that I am preaching to the choir, and to an extent I am. Cambridge Welcoming exists as a church body that represents the socially and religiously marginalized. We know that tradition can be hurtful because we experience the pain. We know with Martin Luther King, Jr. how society and the church has “blemished and scarred [the Body] through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” My message today then is one of affirmation. It is the acknowledgment that the texts and practices of Christianity and the broader culture from the first centuries through the present have obscured Christ’s message of radical welcome. But it is also an opportunity for this and other marginalized communities to expose the moments when compliance with the status quo occurs, to realize the kernel of transformative possibility that still stands as the alternative, and to utter once again the radical words that were previously left silent, this time speaking them until the fullness of their prophetic power is realized. We can lift up the Body of Christ as Paul does but pay attention that its members are not cut off or abused. We can think along with Clement to declare that the slave body of Christ teaches what it is to be in God’s likeness but push onward toward the radical implication that even, in fact especially, the socially downtrodden can appear divine. And politically, we can echo Obama’s calls for the equal valuing of queer people but urge his words to manifest equality fully in all realms of life.

If there is one thing we might take away from Clement, it is the idea that recognizing humans to be in the image of God is not enough on its own. We are called to actively work to present ourselves as like God. So what does it mean to look like God? According to Clement, it is the slave body of Christ that can teach us how it is that humans can come to be in God’s likeness. What Clement ultimately avoids I read to mean that the very fleshiness of humanity is divine. In this way, becoming like God does not mean conformity to the prevailing ideals but rather means living out the fullness of one’s humanity. In Tony Morrison’s words from Beloved, “Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.”

The Christian tradition can be incredibly frustrating because it is full of radical possibility—sometimes in the most unexpected places—that too often is surrendered to the status quo. Our challenge is to uncover the moments of radical potentiality and to press on them, to slip through the cracks and to open up the new possibilities, even those that have previously been avoided. In closing, I offer the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” May we call attention to and continually speak the words of justice that they might affect all persons toward the realization of radical inclusivity in the Body of Christ.

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