Thursday, August 16, 2007

Christ Against the Cosmos: An Essay on Pauline Freedom, Part III

Part Two can be found here.

Freedom as Life in the Spirit

Paul argues that the experience of the Spirit was a formative part of the Galatians’ initial acceptance of the gospel (3:1-5), and the allegory of Hagar and Sarah served to remind them of their identity as those “born according to the Spirit” (4:28-31). It is the Spirit, then, that also enables the practice of freedom – “walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). The Spirit, through faith in Christ, establishes the sphere of freedom, and it is the Spirit that maintains it.

Verse 5:1, which concludes the allegorical argument that precedes it, makes clear that freedom for Paul is understood as a sphere or realm of existence established by God’s action in Christ, and not simply as an internal attitude. A better translation might be Martyn’s: “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free.” [1] In this image of the realm of freedom, Paul once again emphasizes the contrast between Christ and the cosmos, a contrast that he develops with apocalyptic language in the following verses. Importantly, the exhortation in 5:1 to maintain this freedom reveals that for Paul, freedom is understood in both an indicative and an imperative sense: as that which has been accomplished through Christ and as that which it is the community’s task to retain. Freedom is both the result of Christ’s liberating action, and the sharing in this action (cf. Gal. 2:20; 3:27-28; 5:24; 6:14). [2]

In speaking of the Spirit as the enabler of the practice of freedom, Paul refers, as he has earlier in the letter, to the Spirit of Christ – not to the spirit of the community or of the individual.[3] The freedom that the Spirit brings is not manifest in Torah observance (or, for that matter, in its avoidance), but rather in “faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6). Authentic freedom issues in love evidenced as mutual service in the life of the community, for Christ has completed the Torah in one sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14).[4]

Freedom is, therefore, something that Christ exercises through us by his Spirit, rather than a function of an autonomous human will. This is emphasized in the contrast that Paul introduces in verse 16 between the Flesh and the Spirit. Martyn has argued that whereas Paul has spoken of “flesh” previously in the letter in terms of the (un)circumcised foreskin, here he speaks of “Flesh” as another enslaving power.[5] The apocalyptic battle in which the Christian community is engaged is not between divine Spirit and human flesh, but between the Spirit and the Flesh – with both understood as cosmic powers.[6]

The battlefield imagery that Paul invokes begins in vs. 13, where “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (RSV) can be read as “do not allow your freedom to be turned into a military base of operations for the Flesh” – as Paul’s use of the word aphormê is a metaphor for “a point from which a war can be waged” rather than simply meaning an “opportunity.”[7] Paul’s description of the conflict between the Flesh and the Spirit in the verses that follow is replete with such imagery; these powers are at war with each other, and the Galatian community is the site of battle.

The consequences of this battle are seen in the life of the Galatian community with reference to the catalogue of vices and of virtues that Paul invokes in Gal. 5:16-25. While it is true that Paul here takes over and slightly revises traditional catalogues common to both Greco-Roman and Jewish moral discourse, “Paul speaks neither of vices nor of virtues attributable to individuals, but rather of marks of a community under the influence of the Flesh and marks of a community led by the Spirit.” [8] Paul rejects both Hellenistic philosophical ethics, which argues that individuals attain virtues through paideia, the training or cultivation of human nature, and Jewish ritual ethics, which focuses on the prevention of transgression through keeping Torah. In contrast to both, Paul asserts that the “virtues” are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the result of a communities’ living daily life under the guidance of the Spirit, rather than a human attainment.[9]

It is, then, a serious mistake to read Paul’s descriptions of the activities of the Flesh and the Spirit in Gal. 5:19-24 as an example of nomistic, moral discourse focused on “vices” and “virtues.” By concentrating on the matter of community life, and by speaking of the Flesh and the Spirit as supra-human, apocalyptic powers, Paul transforms what had traditionally been a form of moral discourse – vices and virtues attributable to individuals – into marks left on communities by these two apocalyptic powers.[10]

Such a reading takes seriously Paul’s assertion in Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (RSV). For Paul, freedom is not a matter of individuals choosing a way of life, much less a lifestyle, but rather the sphere of existence determined by the Spirit of Christ. Against the Teachers, Paul argues that victory over the power of the Flesh can only come through submission to life in the Spirit, and not through submission to Torah observance.

Conclusion: Freedom in the 21st Century

God’s action in Christ has inaugurated a New Creation, a sphere of freedom bringing release from the enslaving elements of the cosmos, Torah, and the Flesh, and marked by mutual self-giving love in the community of those who have been baptized into Christ. This is the essence of Paul’s argument in the letter to the Galatians. In it, we can see traces of the Jewish and, perhaps, Cynic influences on Paul, for whom freedom is a decidedly public, communal phenomenon with social consequences (Gal. 3:28; 4:22.). Paul’s elaboration of the marks of freedom, with the important exception of love, is largely consistent with Greek and Jewish ethics. Also in keeping with his Jewish roots, Paul sees freedom as a function of divine action in history.

What is radically different in Paul is his identification of the cross of Christ as the locus of God’s action in history establishing the realm of freedom and his consignment of the entire cosmos to enslavement. So complete is this enslavement, God’s apocalyptic invasion of the cosmos through Christ can only be understood as a New Creation, a novum in history that stands over and against all that preceded it (both Torah and not-Torah) and all that remains under the domination of the Flesh. Paul differs from his contemporaries, too, in his understanding of life in the Spirit as the source and guarantor of authentic freedom manifest in love, rather than human ethical or ritual disciplines.

Perhaps what is most challenging about Pauline freedom for many contemporary North American Christians is Paul’s insistence that freedom is a divine gift lived out in community, rather than an individual right rooted in human nature. Rather than serving as the cornerstone of liberal individualism’s ideology of the autonomous person, Paul’s understanding of freedom can be characterized as the cornerstone of a Christian ecclesiology of the pneumatic community. It is the Spirit-filled community, not the liberated individual, which is the locale of freedom, a freedom that seeks to express the agency of God rather than humanity.

The church’s task in the 21st Century is to critically evaluate and reclaim a Pauline conception of freedom as an antidote to the modern/postmodern retreat of the “liberated” individual into a self-contained privacy marked by self-indulgence and consumerism, offering instead an alternative vision of freedom as the discipleship of equals in the Spirit-filled ecclesia.[11] The Church in our day faces a challenge similar to that of the Galatian churches to whom Paul addressed himself: the challenge of fully accepting the implications of our baptismal identity as expressed in Gal. 3:28.
[1] Martyn, Galatians, pp. 446-447, follows Smyth in arguing that the word “freedom” in the dative case, which begins the sentence, is best understood in the sense “of place whither.”
[2] “The whole sentence states in a very concise form both the “indicative” and the “imperative” of Christian salvation in the Pauline sense.” Betz, op. cit., pp. 256 – 257.
[3] Cf. Gal. 3:2, 3, 5, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5. See also Martyn, op. cit., p. 492.
[4] Ibid., pp. 486-491. Martyn here provides a very interesting interpretation of verse 14, arguing that is best understood in the sense of Christ having completed the law.
[5] Ibid., pp. 485-486.
[6] Ibid., pp. 484-540. It is not that humans cannot exercise free will, but rather that authentic freedom is found only in obedience to the Spirit. Otherwise, one comes under the dominance of some other cosmic power.
[7] Ibid., p. 485.
[8] Ibid., p. 496. Cf. Betz, op. cit., pp. 278-283, who agrees that for Paul the catalogues are the results of spiritual powers, and not vices and virtues per se, but interprets “flesh” as a human agent of evil rather than a cosmic power and understands the effects of these powers in terms of individuals rather than communities. At this point Betz, wrongly, I think, interprets Galatians in terms of Romans and reads both through the lense of modern individualism.
[9] Betz, Galatians, pp. 257-258. Cf. Martyn, op. cit., pp. 524-536.
[10] Martyn, Galatians, Ibid., p. 484.
[11] Schüssler Fiorenza, op. cit., pp. 160-236, 343-351 provides an excellent example of a critical retrieval of the “Pauline” idea of freedom for the contemporary ecclesia of women. “Pauline,” because what I have taken to be representative of Paul’s understanding of freedom she takes to be representative of the early Christian missionary movement that preceded Paul, a concept of freedom that Paul subsequently modifies in a conservative direction. While I agree that this is ultimately true of Paul, it don’t believe this modification is yet evident in Galatians.

Christ Against the Cosmos: An Essay on Pauline Freedom, Part II

Part One can be found here.

The Old Cosmos: The Sphere of Slavery

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, freedom is clearly the issue at stake.[1] “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1, RSV) summarizes the matter.[2] Apparently, this Gentile Christian community, founded by Paul, was infiltrated by a group of Jewish Christian missionaries (the “Teachers”), perhaps associated with the Jerusalem Church, who presented “another gospel” that contradicted Paul’s message.[3] Their alternative teaching, emphasizing the necessity of Torah observance (including circumcision) for membership in the Christian movement, appears to have been in many ways consistent with the theology of covenantal nomism noted above.[4] Does Christian freedom presuppose the Jewish basis for freedom, i.e. Torah observance? The Teachers answer, “yes,” while Paul forcefully argues “no.” It is this question that shapes Paul’s rhetoric of freedom in Galatians.[5]

It is important to note, however, that this rhetoric exhibits continuities, as well as discontinuities, with Jewish and Hellenistic conceptions of freedom. In this regard, Betz notes that Paul not only shares the generally pessimistic mood of his time, he even exceeds it in his consignment of the entire cosmos to a state of enslavement.[6] Christ came to set us free from this present evil age (Gal. 1:3-4), an age in which both Jews (“those born under the law”) and Gentiles (“enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods”) are in bondage to the elemental spirits of the cosmos (Gal. 3:22-4:11). Indeed, this state of slavery is so pervasive that Paul speaks of the cross of Christ as the means whereby the entire cosmos has been crucified to make way for a new creation (Gal. 6:14-15).

In this we begin to glimpse the radical eschatological vision that shapes Paul’s view of freedom. As J. Louis Martyn notes, for Paul the cross of Christ represents God’s apocalyptic invasion of the cosmos overturning the structures of domination that had previously enslaved both Jew and Gentile.[7] Christ has overcome these enslaving powers, “the elements of the cosmos,” bringing to an end the present age and inaugurating a new creation, a sphere of freedom marked by life in the Spirit.

Crucial to Paul’s argument is his understanding of these enslaving powers. Drawing upon notions prevalent in Greek and, later, Jewish thought, Paul conceives of “the elements of the cosmos” as pairs of opposites that constitute the foundation of the world: earth, air, fire, and water. In some forms of pagan worship, to which the Galatians presumably adhered prior to their conversion, these elements were reified as divine powers governing the cosmic order. [8] Paul, however, defines these powers as sources of domination and division rather than as benevolent or, at least, neutral spiritual forces.

This is clear from Paul’s mention of these powers in 4:3 and 4:9. Pagan worship of them is therefore a form of slavery. This judgment illuminates the pairs of opposites mentioned in the baptismal formula quoted by Paul in 3:28 - Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female[9] – as identity markers that are transcended in baptism. Such distinctions, and the relationships of superordination and subordination that they define, exemplify life governed by the enslaving elements of the cosmos.[10]

What is startling, however, is Paul’s association of Torah with these enslaving powers as well. This is evident throughout his argument in 3:19 – 4:11. Because Christ is the fulfillment of the covenantal promises made to Abraham, incorporation into Christ through faith in him, rather than incorporation into Abraham/Israel through Torah observance, is the means of salvation. This is the essence of Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith in 3:1 – 18. The function of Torah, therefore, is defined as a “confining custodian” from whom Christ now liberates those united with him in baptism (3:24-29). For the Galatians, having been liberated from the elements of the cosmos, to now adopt Torah observance would be a return to bondage (4:8-10).[11]

Paul underscores this conclusion with the allegory of the covenants of Hagar and Sarah in 4:21-31, bringing the issue of slavery and freedom into sharp focus. Returning again to the Genesis narrative, Paul elaborates yet another set of opposites to elaborate the contrast between the nature of the liberating covenant of which Sarah is the type, to whom Isaac was born of faith in God’s promise, and the enslaving covenant of which Hagar is the type, to whom Ishmael was born of circumcision in the flesh.

While interpreters have long read this passage as setting up an opposition between Christianity and Judaism,[12] Martyn provides a more creative and contextual reading that identifies the typology as a contrast between two different Gentile missions – that of Paul presenting the gospel from the “Jerusalem above” and that of the Teachers from the Jerusalem Church whose mission is tantamount to persecution.[13] For the Gentiles in Galatia, who have already been born of the Spirit, to adopt the Sinai covenant would be to turn from freedom to slavery. Thus, the allegory serves to reinforce Paul’s conclusion in 4:8-9 and his attempt to persuade the Galatians to reject the Teachers and the instruction they offer, clinging instead to their freedom in Christ (4:30-5:1). The comprehensive nature of the enslavement of the cosmos in Paul’s thought, encompassing both pagan and Jewish religious options, is remarkable.

In a word, Paul employs the ancient equation of the world’s elements with the archaic pairs of opposites to interpret the religious impact of Christ’s advent. Following the baptismal formula, he applies that tradition not to the sensible elements, but rather to the elements of religious distinction. These are the cosmic elements that have found their termination in Christ. Specifically, the cosmos that was crucified on the cross is the cosmos that was founded on the distinction between Jew and Gentile, between sacred and profane, between the Law and the Not-Law.[14]

Freedom requires overcoming these antinomies and their enslaving power. How is this accomplished? This brings us to a consideration of Paul’s understanding of the new creation in Christ.

The New Creation: the Sphere of Freedom

Consistent with the covenantal nomism of the Judaism of his day, Paul understands human freedom as the result of God’s liberating action in history.[15] This is in stark contrast to the Greek philosophical options current at the time, which stressed ascetic disciplines and self-knowledge leading to self-control as prerequisites of freedom.[16] Like other Jews, Paul understands freedom as the result of divine, not human, action.

Whereas Judaism locates this act of divine liberation in the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Paul locates it in the cross of Christ. It is only through Christ’s self-offering on the cross that the enslaving powers of the cosmos have been overcome, creating the possibility of human freedom.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father . . . (Gal. 1:3-4, RSV)

But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:14-15, RSV)

These verses, marking the beginning and end of the letter, make clear Paul’s understanding that it is God’s action in Christ that liberates. As has been seen already in Paul’s exegetical argument in chapter three of Galatians, this liberating act creates a new creation whereby the enslaving cosmic antinomies, including that between Torah and not-Torah, have been transcended.

It is important to note that Paul is not arguing for a continuous salvation history from the patriarchs to Christ, whereby Christianity now supercedes Judaism. Rather, God’s apocalyptic invasion of and triumph over the cosmos in Christ is a singular event that, while fulfilling the promise to Abraham, does so not as an extension of the Sinai covenant, not as a new covenant, but as a novum creating the covenant people of God for the first time. It is not that Gentiles are now added to the “old” Jewish covenant, but that both Jews and Gentiles are now made heirs of the promise through Christ.[17]

It follows from this that one’s incorporation into the new creation cannot come through circumcision, but only through faith in Christ (Gal. 2:15-16, 20-21).[18] It is trusting that Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, not Torah observance, that is decisive. Baptism is therefore the effective sign of union with Christ and membership in the covenantal community of those who are by faith heirs of the promise.

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:26-29, RSV).

It is the community of those “baptized into Christ” who constitute the covenantal people of God. Again, there is continuity with Jewish covenantal nomism, in that the sphere of divine liberation is communal/public rather than individual/private in nature, but also discontinuity in that this community is no longer defined by a particular ethnic-national identity or experience. Indeed, all enslaving antinomies are transcended in this new creation.

Gal. 3:28 is best understood as a communal Christian self-definition rather than a statement about the baptized individual. It proclaims that in the Christian community all distinctions of religion, race, class, nationality, and gender are insignificant. All the baptized are equal, they are one in Christ.[19]

Once again, Paul’s apocalyptic perspective is clear. Baptism marks one’s entry into the true eschatological community in Christ Jesus. There is, however, a decidedly this-worldly character to the new creation, for when Paul invokes the baptismal formula he “makes these statements not as utopian ideals or as ethical demands, but as accomplished facts.”[20] While Paul is most concerned in the context of Galatians with the first pair of opposites in the baptismal formula - neither Jew nor Greek, Betz has noted that all three pairs would have had an emancipatory appeal to the Gentile communities in Galatia.[21]

This explains, in part, the nature of the problem Paul faces in Galatia. The gospel Paul preached there was one of freedom in Christ, but a freedom so radical that the whole world that the Galatians had known, the “elements of the cosmos” that gave it order, had been shattered by the cross. While the Galatians accepted the good news of salvation Paul preached, they may well have felt at a loss as to how to exercise the freedom implied in it.

Apparently the anti-Pauline opposition promoted observance of the Jewish law by arguing that only within the law can true freedom be found and preserved, an old argument that appears in many discussions about the nature of the law in Greek and Roman philosophy. Thus Paul’s argument for freedom from the Jewish Torah would have occurred in the context of alternative solutions which conceived of the Torah as basis and protector of freedom.[22]

The Galatians’ experience of freedom may well have occasioned a sense of “moral vertigo,” providing the Teachers with the opportunity to promote Torah observance as the solution to this problem. Thus, it remains for Paul to explain how the Galatians’ freedom in Christ works itself out in daily life. This brings us to the exhortation of Gal. 5:2 – 6:10.

Click on to Part Three.
[1] Betz, Galatians, pp. 2-3: “Paul’s message of ‘freedom in Christ’ must have found attentive ears among people interested in political, social, cultural, and religious emancipation.”
[2] Ibid., pp. 255-256 notes that the theme announced in 5:1 is anticipated in 2:4-5, and that it is implicit in the exegetical arguments that precede it in chapters 3 & 4.
[3] See Gal. 1:6-7. Cf. Betz, Ibid., pp. 5-9 and J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 117-136 on the message and success of these “Teachers” to whom Paul is opposed.
[4] See Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1-5; 4:21; 5:2-4, 7-12; 6:12-13 for Paul’s characterization of his opponents. Cf. Dunn, op. cit, pp. 129 ff. and J. Louis Martyn, “Events in Galatia,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Volume I: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 163-179, who both agree that Paul’s opponents presented a “Christianized” version of covenantal nomism, though they differ as to whether Paul modifies (Dunn) or rejects (Martyn) their point of view.
[5] Betz, op. cit., pp. 14-25, argues that Galatians exemplifies the genre of apologetic letters, employing judicial rhetoric that was common in the period; whereas Martyn, Galatians, op. cit., pp. 20-23, while acknowledging these stylistic elements in the letter, argues that Galatians is really a highly situational sermon in form and content.
[6] Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom,” pp. 5-6.
[7] Martyn, op. cit., pp. 95-105, 570-574.
[8] See Martyn, ibid., pp. 393-406 for an extended discussion of the meaning of this phrase.
[9] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 208-218 persuasively argues that the male/female dichotomy is best understood in the context of the patriarchal household and might be translated more accurately as husband/wife, pointing to the transcendence in baptism of the inequalities inherent in the institution of marriage.
[10] Martyn, op. cit., pp. 404-406.
[11] Ibid., pp. 294-418.
[12] See for example Betz, op. cit., pp. 238-252, who argues that “According to Galatians, Judaism is excluded from salvation altogether . . .”.
[13] Martyn, op. cit., pp. 447-466.
[14] Ibid., pp. 405-406.
[15] Banks, op. cit., p. 21.
[16] Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[17] Martyn, “Events in Galatia,” pp. 172-174.
[18] While Paul, at lest in Galatians, is not precisely clear about how it is that Christ’s death on the cross provides the decisive victory over the enslaving elements of the cosmos, vs. 20 provides an important clue: is the action of self-giving love exemplified by the cross that liberates. This clearly underlies the parenetic material in 5:1 – 6:10. See Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom,” pp. 8-9 on the relationship between sacrifice and freedom in antiquity.
[19] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, op. cit., p. 213.
[20] Betz, Galatians, p. 189.
[21] Ibid., pp. 189-201. Betz proposes that while Paul finds himself having to back away from some of the implications of this emancipatory appeal in his later correspondence, in Galatians the transcending of ethnic, religious, class, and gender distinctions in Christ Jesus is announced without further qualification.
[22] Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom,” p. 11. Cf. Betz, Galatians, pp. 5-9.

Christ Against the Cosmos: An Essay on Pauline Freedom, Part I


While it is indisputable that “freedom,” eleutheria, is central to Paul’s conception of the gospel of salvation, Pauline scholarship remains divided in its interpretation of how Paul understands this important idea.[1] What prior Jewish and Hellenistic influences are operative in Paul’s understanding of freedom? In what ways can his use of the term be distinguished from these influences? What is the range of freedom operative in his thought? Is it personal/interior or public/political in scope? The purpose of this essay is to explore these questions concentrating on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.[2]

In doing so, I will argue that Paul’s apocalyptic vision is crucial to his understanding of freedom, a vision in which God’s action in Christ creates a public sphere of freedom in an otherwise enslaved world. This vision infuses Paul’s argument in Galatians and demarks the source, scope, and content of freedom in the letter.[3]

Pre-Pauline Background: Freedom in Hellenism and Judaism

“At the time of Paul, the classical Greek notion of freedom had largely been reduced to an old dream.”[4] So writes Hans Dieter Betz, arguing that what once was a political term rooted in the metaphysical idea that all men are free by nature had become an apolitical and even anti-political term. In its original context, the meaning of eleutheria was shaped by the experience of Athenian democracy. Freedom was exemplified by the citizen’s participation in the political life of the polis and by his ability to live without undo constraint, “living as one wished.”[5]

With Roman occupation and rule came the severing of the idea of freedom from its metaphysical roots, as freedom became identified with the order of the Pax Romana enshrined in civil law. The older Greek idea of freedom became suspect as anarchic antinomianism. This changing political climate, along with a growing religious pessimism that came to see humans as enslaved by cosmic, spiritual powers, combined to promote a philosophical turn to the individual.[6]

Thus, freedom became interiorized and individualized as a spiritual state that the human person, enslaved by Tyche/Fatum, could attain only by withdrawal from the world into union with the divine. According to Betz, the various philosophical schools, including the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans, exemplified this basic motif. This, too, could lead to Roman charges of antinomianism, as the wise man thereby achieved autarchy, self-sufficiency, above and beyond civil law, free even from the state’s ultimate coercive power – the fear of death.

As a consequence of this development, the original connection of the free person with the community of the free was almost lost. Limited attempts were made by some to retain this aspect of the concept and to realize it in small philosophical groups and in certain mystery religions, among them Hellenistic Judaism and the early Christian Church.[7]

Given Paul’s background – an educated, Hellenistic Jew with Roman citizenship – it is highly likely that he was aware of the various philosophical options of his time. As Hans Wedell has noted, Paul need only have gone to the marketplace in Tarsus to hear itinerant Stoic and Cynic philosophers. Greek thought, moreover, had begun to influence Jewish philosophy by the second century BCE, so that Paul might well have encountered Stoic ideas in the rabbinical schools of Tarsus or Jerusalem.[8]

In this regard, it is important to note that Betz and Wedell’s conflation of Stoic and Cynic understandings of freedom has been criticized. “For Stoics, freedom is internalized . . . It is all a question of your own self-awareness, self-assessment. For Cynics, freedom must be overt, active, socially effective.”[9] As F. Gerald Downing argues, Cynic practice was much more directly and publicly subversive of social conventions and norms.

In fact, the baptismal formula of Gal. 3:28 may well draw on familiar Cynic topoi, suggesting itself as particularly relevant to the former pagan audience that Paul addresses in Galatians, who had so clearly broken with the conventions and norms of their former way of life by becoming Christians.[10] Whatever the case may be with regard to the origins of Gal. 3:28, the point is that the ideas regarding freedom current in Hellenistic society may not have been uniformly inward-looking in their orientation, and that Paul was probably conversant with these ideas.

This point is reinforced by a consideration of Paul’s Jewish background. James D. G. Dunn, drawing upon the work of E. P. Sanders,[11] has postulated that a proper understanding of Galatians (and, therefore, Paul’s conception of freedom) requires an appreciation of the relationship between God and Israel as understood by Paul’s Jewish contemporaries.

Fundamental to Judaism’s sense of identity was the conviction that God had made a special covenant with the patriarchs, the central feature of which was the choice of Israel to be God’s peculiar people (e.g., Deut. 4:31; 2 Macc. 8:15; Pss. Sol. 9:10; CD 6:2, 8:18), and had given the law as an integral part of the covenant both to show Israel how to live within that covenant (“This do and you shall live” [Deut. 4:1, 10, 40; 5:29-33; 6:1-2, 18, 24; etc.]) and to make it possible for them to do so (the system of atonement). Thus in the phrase “covenantal nomism,” the former word emphasizes God’s prevenient grace, and the latter cannot and should not be confused with legalism or with any idea of “earning” salvation.[12]

Indeed, implicit in the idea of covenantal nomism is the understanding that Torah observance signifies and enables the practice of freedom. Freedom is coterminous with inclusion in the covenant people, Israel, and such inclusion is marked by Torah observance. Freedom is identified with the national-ethnic liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage that is consolidated in the Sinai covenant. It is God who sets free, and who through Torah provides the means to sustain authentic freedom in daily life. However much the prophetic tradition within Israel moves to stretch the boundaries of the covenant people to include Gentiles, their inclusion is on the basis of accepting the markers of Jewish ethnic identity and national aspirations.[13]

It is important to note that this conception of freedom is distinctly public and communal, in contrast to the philosophies predominate in Hellenism, but in such a way as to privilege Jews vis-à-vis Gentiles and to heighten the separation between the two groups. As we will see, what is distinctive about Paul is the way in which he draws from both Jewish and Hellenistic ideas about freedom, while transforming them in light of the cross of Christ and the new community that it brings into being.

Click on to Part Two.
[1] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 15 notes the frequency and importance of Paul’s use of eleutheria in his letters and its close connection to his understanding of both salvation and community.
[2] H. D. Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 32 notes that the notion of freedom underlies the entire letter, and is explicitly employed as “an argumentative weapon” in the exhortation (Gal. 5:1 – 6:10).
[3] J. Louis Martyn, “Apocalyptic Antinomies,” in Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), pp. 111-123 summarizes the argument for the central role Paul’s apocalyptic vision in the interpretation of Galatians. See also his commentary, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 97-105.
[4] H. D. Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom in the Context of Hellenistic Discussions about Possibilities of Human Freedom,” Protocol of the Twenty-Sixth Colloquy of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, W. Wuellner, ed. (Berkeley: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1977), p. 1.
[5] Ibid., p. 2. The use of the masculine pronoun in this context refers exclusively to men, as citizenship was the prerogative of freeborn male property holders.
[6] Ibid., pp. 3-4.
[7] Ibid., pp. 4-5.
[8] Hans Wedell, “The Idea of Freedom in the Teaching of the Apostle Paul,” Anglican Theological Review, v. 32, no. 3, 1950, pp. 205-206. Betz, op. cit., p. 6 comments that Paul’s ideas regarding freedom indicate a serious engagement with the philosophical and religious alternatives of his day.
[9] F. Gerald Downing, “A Cynic Preparation for Paul’s Gospel for Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female,” New Testament Studies, v. 42, 1996, p. 459.
[10] Ibid., pp. 457-461.
[11] For a concise summary of Sanders’ definition of “covenantal nomism” see Bruce W. Longenecker, The Triumph of Abraham’s God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1998), p. 15-17.
[12] James D. G. Dunn, “The Theology of Galatians: The Issue of Covenantal Nomism,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Volume I: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 126.
[13] Ibid., pp. 126-128. Cf. Banks, op. cit., pp. 20-21.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Word to Madam Speaker

August 15, 2007

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House of Representatives
235 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Madam Speaker,

I write to you out of sincere concern for our country. Describing the U.S. Government’s violation of the fundamental trust of the people, Hannah Arendt wrote in Crises of the Republic that

Examples of such failures have become only too numerous; there is the case of an “illegal and immoral war,” the case of an increasingly impatient claim to power by the executive branch of government, the case of chronic deception, coupled with deliberate attacks on the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment, whose chief political function has always been to make chronic deception impossible; and there has been, last but not least, the case of violations (in the form of war-oriented or other government-directed research) of the specific trust of the universities that gave them protection against political interference and social pressure.[i]

Although Arendt was describing the Johnson and Nixon Administrations during the Vietnam era, it reads like an indictment of the current Bush Administration. The putative “War on Terror” has precipitated a moral and political crisis representing the greatest threat to democracy and the rule of law in our Republic since the Civil War. The deception and secrecy with which the Bush Administration has cloaked the Iraq debacle; the misnamed “Patriot Act;” the policy of torture; the undermining of international law and institutions; spying on U.S. citizens and detaining them without due process; this litany of abuses of power, unparalleled in our history, has eroded the fragile legacy of liberty and justice that we treasure.

When faced with the Constitutional crisis that Arendt recounts, the Congress responded courageously to check the Executive Branch’s abuses of power. Funding for the Vietnam War was revoked. Impeachment proceedings forced President Nixon to resign. “Sunshine laws” were passed restoring transparency and accountability in government, steps were taken to reign in the F.B.I and intelligence services, the War Powers Act reinforced the Constitutional responsibility of Congress to declare war, the independence of the Judicial Branch was preserved, and Congress aggressively fulfilled its responsibility to provide oversight of the Executive Branch.

I urge you to exercise leadership in the 110th Congress in responding to our current, and even more serious, Constitutional crisis. Congress must reassert itself as a fully equal branch of government by renewing the practice of oversight hearings and of investigating wrongdoing. In fact, I believe that it is past time for impeachment proceedings against President Bush, who has violated U.S. law with impunity and waged an unjust and immoral war in Iraq. How else can he be held accountable?

In addition, Congress must act to end the fiction of the “War on Terror” and the open-ended opportunity for Presidential abuse of the role of Commander-in-Chief that it presents. Discontinuing funding for the war in Iraq would be an important first step, as well as making it clear that terrorists are criminals, not enemy combatants, and should be treated as such. Iraq was never an imminent threat to the United States and had no ties to the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. These facts have been a matter of public record for years, in spite of the mendacious lies that continue to be invoked in justification of our invasion of this sovereign nation.

The American people made it clear in the 2006 mid-term elections that it is time for a change, time for this Congress to redress the grievances of this imperial Presidency and a heretofore compliant Legislative Branch. It seems to me that the only alternative would be a mass movement of civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.[ii]

We find ourselves in a situation were both of these conditions are present: a sense of political futility on the part of many and a fear for the Constitutional foundations of our Republic. I earnestly hope that the 110th Congress will find the courage to address this crisis before such an alternative becomes necessary.


The Rev. John Kirkley

[i] Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), p. 93.
[ii] Crises of the Republic, op. cit., p. 74.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Time to Choose Sides

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:46-47) Amen.

The Magnificat, the song that Mary sings in response to the good news that she will give birth to the Christ, is one of the most familiar passages of Scripture. Perhaps no other biblical text has been set to music more frequently, with such masters as Vivaldi, Palestrina, Mozart, and Bach all having their version of Mary’s song. In fact, our attention to the music has all but eclipsed our attention to the lyrics, making of this disturbing and challenging text a beautiful cultural artifact: easy listening for our commute to work or the perfect background music for holiday shopping.

Cultural familiarity of this kind breeds complacency. Biblical texts can loose their edge when they become comfortably decontextualized. We hear this Gospel passage read in church once or twice each year: on this feast day and once every three years on the last Sunday of Advent just before Christmas. We think we know it well. But have we really heard it? Would we rejoice with Mary if we really understood its implications?

In his book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, Robert McAfee Brown attempts to help us hear Mary’s song anew by placing it in a different context, one with which most of us are less familiar. In doing so, he also helps us to come a bit closer to its original context and revolutionary meaning.

The setting is mid-1970’s Chile under the brutal Pinochet regime, which came to power following the assassination of socialist President Salvador Allende. There was a severe persecution of church leaders under Pinochet, and a number of Roman Catholic priests cast their lot with the poor, living in the poorest areas of large cities. Brown records a discussion about Mary’s song that one such priest had with the people during the Sunday liturgy:

Priest: Today is September 12. Does that date mean anything special to you?
Response: Three years ago yesterday Allende was killed in Chile and the Chileans lost their leader. Now they are suffering repression.
Response: Allende’s death makes me think of the death of Martin Luther King.
Priest: Why do you think of the deaths of these two together?
Response: Because both of them were concerned about oppressed peoples.
Priest: Doesn’t the day mean anything but death to you?
Response: Well, today is also the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary. So this day also makes me think of her.
Priest: Is there any connection between Allende and Martin Luther King and Mary?
Response: I guess that would depend on whether Mary was concerned about oppressed peoples too.
Priest: Let me read part of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent away empty.”
Response: Bravo! But, Father, that doesn’t sound at all like the Mary we hear about in the cathedral. And the Mary in the “holy pictures” certainly doesn’t look like a person who would talk that way.
Priest: Tell us about the Mary in the holy pictures.
Response (displaying a picture): Here she is. She is standing on a crescent moon. She is wearing a crown. She has rings on her fingers. She has a blue robe embroidered with gold.
Priest: That does sound like a different Mary from the Mary of the song! Do you think the picture has betrayed the Mary of the song?
Response: The Mary who said that God “has exalted those of low degree” would not have left all of her friends so she could stand on the moon.
Corporate Response: Take her off the moon!
Response: The Mary who said that God “has put down the mighty from their thrones” would not be wearing a crown.
Corporate Response: Take off her crown!
Response: The Mary who said that God “has sent the rich away empty” would not be wearing rings on her fingers.
Corporate Response: Take off her rings!
Response: The Mary who said that God has “filled the hungry with good things” would not have left people who were still hungry to wear a silk robe embroidered with gold.
Corporate Response: Take of her robe!
Response: But, Father, this is not right! We’re – we’re doing a striptease of the Virgin.
Priest: Very well. If you don’t like the way Mary looks in this picture, what do you think the Mary of the song would look like?
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing a crown. She would have on an old hat like the rest of us, to keep the sun from causing her to faint.
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing jeweled rings on her fingers. She would have rough hands like ours.
Response: Father, it may be awful to say this, but it sounds as though Mary would look just like me! My feet are dirty, my hat is old, my hands are rough, and my clothes are torn.
Priest: No, I don’t think it is awful to say that. I think the Mary you have described is more like the Mary of the Bible than the Mary we hear about in the cathedral and see in all the holy pictures.
Response: I think she’d be more at home here in the slum with us than in the cathedral or the General’s mansion.
Response: I think her message is more hopeful for us than for them. They are mighty and rich, but she tells them that God puts down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty.
Response: And we are at the bottom of the heap and very hungry, but she tells us that God exalts those of low degree and fills the hungry with good things.
Priest: Now let’s see, how could we begin to help God bring those things to pass?[i]

Sometimes, we need to hear Scripture in a different context to be able to hear it at all. When we do, we may be surprised, even shocked, by its implications. Mary, meek and mild, takes on a very different aspect when her song is heard in the context of the poor. She challenges us to consider the possibility that God takes sides, and that we may have to take sides too.

As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of the mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”[ii] Devotion to Mary the Mother of God is inseparable from devotion to justice for the poor, from a commitment to the reign of God that her son, Jesus, proclaimed. Such devotion demands that we take the risk of choosing sides, the risk of choosing whom we will serve, the risk of making it clear where our loyalties lay.

Today, we face a situation where the demand to choose sides is more urgent than at any time since the issue of slavery. The putative “War on Terror” has precipitated a moral and political crisis representing the greatest threat to democracy and the rule of law in our Republic since the Civil War. The deception and secrecy with which the Bush Administration has cloaked the Iraq debacle; the misnamed “Patriot Act;” the policy of torture; the undermining of international law and institutions; spying on U.S. citizens and detaining them without due process; this litany of abuses of power, unparalleled in our history, has eroded the fragile legacy of liberty and justice that we treasure as citizens and as Christians.

According to Ed Bacon, Faith in action is called politics. Spirituality without action is fruitless and social action without spirituality is heartless. We are boldly political without being partisan. Having a partisan-free place to stand liberates the religious patriot to see clearly, speak courageously, and act daringly.[iii]

Devotion to the Blessed Mother, and other spiritual disciples, are essential to Christian social engagement. It is on the basis of prayer that we discern right action and acquire the capacity to act with compassion and humility. Prayer reminds us that we cannot act alone, that we need help, and that we need forgiveness to begin again when we are wrong. Prayer grounds us in our ultimate loyalty to God and the promises of God embraced in our baptism. Last time I checked, those promises excluded lying and torture.

Mary’s song is the politics of prayer and the prayer that grounds a politics of meaning. It is a call to prayer and a call to action; which is, finally, the same thing. It is time to choose sides. Amen.

[i] Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), pp. 85-88.
[ii] Quoted in Brown, p. 19.
[iii] The Rev. Edwin J. Bacon, “The IRS Goes to Church,” sermon preached at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA, November 13, 2005.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Immunity in Community: The Role of the Leader

In his posthumously published work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman argues that leaders, whether "parents or presidents," serve as the immune system for the family or organization. The function of leaders is to help the body politic preserve its integrity in the face of hostile environments. Critical to this function is the ability to hold people accountable for their behavior, maintain boundaries, and raise the threshold for pain (which is different from harm) in the service of growth.

Sounds to me like the job description for parish priests.

Notice that Friedman doesn't say that the main requirement of effective leadership is the ability to empathize - to "feel" other's pain. In fact, he argues just the opposite: the main requirement is the ability to challenge others, to increase their pain threshold (emotionally speaking, which may manifest somatically) as a means to promote greater individual and corporate integrity. Friedman defines leadership in this way because of his understanding of the nature of threats to personal and social "bodily" integrity.
All entities that are destructive of to other entities share one major characteristic that is totally unresponsive to empathy: they are not capable of self-regulation . . . this fundamental characteristic of regressive entities is the basis for two derivative attributes that all pathogenic forces or entities also have in common, whether they are the cells of an organism, the individuals in an organization, or the members of a family. One attribute is this: all organisms that lack self-regulation will be perpetually invading the space of their neighbors. (Their restlessness seems to give them a resolute stamina that the "good guys" can rarely muster.) The second attribute is: organisms that are unable to self-regulate cannot learn from their experience, which is why the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight. (p. 138)

Friedman points out that humans who are unable to self-regulate always expect others to adapt to them; you know you've met such people when life in the community is organized around them, either to avoid or accommodate them. Every congregation has at least one such person; in fact, most have several. Friedman helpfully lists ten characteristics of these "viral" or "malignant" members of the body who can't seem to help but destroy the integrity of the community if given the chance:
  • They tend to be easily hurt "injustice-collectors," slow healers who are given to victim attitudes . . .
  • They tend to idolize their leaders until their unrealistic expectations fail, whereupon they are quick to crucify their "gods." (There is a parasitic quality to their bonding.)
  • Their intent is often "innocently provocative"; they do not see themselves as bent on destruction. The pathology they promote is rather a byproduct of their doing what comes naturally, so they never see how they contribute to the condition they complain about.
  • Their repertoire of responses, as with the most primitive forms of life, is limited to being "on" or "off." This manifests itself in their linear, black-and-white formulations of life; their unconditional, with-us-or-against-us attitudes; and their inability to tolerate differences or dissent.
  • They tend to focus on procedure and on rituals, and, as if their heads did not swivel, they get stuck on the content of issues rather than on being able to view the surrounding emotional processes that are spawning the issues.
  • The find that light and truth, the element that is most healthy to other forms of life, is toxic to their nature . . .
  • They seem to be driven by their reptilian brains rather than their cortex and thus manifest three basic characteristics of the reptilian way of life: they have a high degree of reactivity, a narrow range of responses, and of course they are always serious - deadly serious.
  • . . . they tend to ooze into, if not directly interfere in, the relationships of others. Thus they wreck staff communication and connections, and bypass, if not subvert, democratic processes.
  • They tend to be easily stampeded and panicked into group-think, thus fusing with others like them into an undifferentiated mass (like a tumor).
  • They are unforgivingly relentless and totally invulnerable to insight. Unless walled off and totally defeated, they tend to come back with a vengeance, as when an antibiotic is not taken for the fully prescribed period. (pp. 144-146)
Friedman makes another point about such people that is crucial to understand in congregations: These kinds of "organisms" often express themselves with beautiful "values." The problem is not in their beliefs; it is in how they function with those beliefs. (p. 146) They can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk.

The only way to deal with such people is to make it clear that if they want to be a part of the community, they have to adapt to it, and not the other way around. (p. 147) By adapting to the community, Friedman does not mean rigid conformity, but just the opposite: the ability to be self-differentiated enough to tolerate other people's self-differentiation, which is the only basis for authentic difference-in-community. Anything less tends toward emotional fusion, immaturity, and infantalizing dependency.

Despite their potential to create pathology, pathogens do not have the power to create pathology on their own. There must also be a lack of self-regulation in the host. (p. 150) Leaders must take strong stands to preserve the integrity of their communities, even if that means the "pathogenic" personalities must adapt OR LEAVE. As Friedman emphasizes, the focus here is not on destroying "foreign" invaders, but on preserving the integrity of the body. We are not responsible for how others respond to our self-regulation, but we ARE responsible for our own self-regulation. The problem with "empathic" leaders (especially priests!) is that we often don't know how to set boundaries and then let go of the need to manage the other's reactivity to our challenge.

In most instances, we don't have to "kick out" the pathogenic personalities. If we continue to set boundaries and hold such people accountable consistently over a period of time, they eventually will either adapt or leave of their own accord and look for some new "host" to "invade." But this is hard work for leaders, especially perhaps for priests, who tend toward conflict avoidance. It also can be lonely work. But it is worth it if we love our communities and want to preserve their capacity to be places of life, health and spiritual growth.

Friedman offers some important ideas for practicing leadership in congregations. How might we understand the "Disciplinary Rubrics" on page 409 of the Book of Common Prayer, or Matthew 18:15-18, in light of Friedman's work?