The Common Good

Paul’s Politics

The apostle Paul calls the church in Corinth a body — and that’s political language: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be …  As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).

As Dale Martin argues in his book The Corinthian Body, Paul gets his language about the social body, the political body, from other Greco-Roman speeches and letters. He uses a style of writing and speaking called a “concord” — homonoia in Greek. Politicians would give speeches or write letters trying to convince the diverse people of the city to unite in a common project, to share the same goals for society, to share a common politics. In these “concord” addresses, politicians would call the society a body, just like Paul does in his letter to the divided church in Corinth. We are one body, politicians would say, so we need to act accordingly. We are one — united, bound together. Of course, politicians only made these speeches when they needed to: that is, when dissatisfied segments of society wanted to revolt (see Martin, Corinthian Body, 38-47).

These concord speeches were part of the protective ideology of the establishment, part of a project to protect the empire, to keep the empire and the city hierarchically ordered. When an ancient Greek senator needed to defuse the rebellious spirit of the lower classes, he would affirm the importance of the masses by telling them that they were the stomach of society, that they did the vital work of digestion to provide the necessary nutrients for the common good of all, including the upper classes, the people at the top, the head of the body (Martin, 45). The assumption was that the city was hierarchically ordered, and that the hierarchy should not be disturbed. Some voices, by nature, were more politically relevant than others. Only a select few, the aristocracy, could provide leadership. The others, the masses, labored for the movers and shakers of society. The rhetoric of a concord speech operated within an ideology of the common good, where the lower classes were told that their struggle was absolutely necessary for society as a whole.

The apostle Paul uses the language of the concord speeches to dismantle the ideology behind it, the ideology of the establishment. The good news, Paul argues, is that Jesus came to inaugurate a social body that would be the undoing of the Greco-Roman hierarchy. This new body of Christ turns the political order upside-down, inciting a re-imagination of the focus of politics. “God has arranged the members of the body, giving greater honor to those who lacked it,” Paul declares, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (vv. 24, 26). The people who receive the least honor from society are the ones who deserve the most honor in God’s order, not the people at the top, not the heads of state. Paul turns our eyes away from the heights of established power. All of the members of society are invited into a relationship of solidarity with the suffering, those on the underside of society, people who are dishonored and forgotten.

According to Paul’s politics, God’s power doesn’t flow from Capitol Hill or the White House. Instead, the basic political issue within God’s order is whether we have put ourselves in positions that allow us to hear the weakest voices that are silenced by the political noise of the moneyed hierarchy. “The members of the body that are the weakest are indispensible” (v. 22) — not elected officials, not representatives, not presidents.

After all, as Paul put it at the beginning of his letter, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1:28).

Isaac S. Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. This reflection is adapted from a chapter in Presence: Giving and Receiving God by Isaac S. Villegas and Alex Sider. 

Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock.com

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