Struggling with Paul
I struggle with Paul’s linguistic image of a distinction between the spirit and the flesh. In my living memory our everyday thinking has been dramatically reshaped by the acceptance of psychological models of human development. Paul uses the only language he has on hand. It’s a language shaped by the notion that there is a struggle going on both within us and all around us. This struggle he conceives in terms of a war between spirit and flesh. Why do I struggle with this language?
My struggle is not with Paul. It is with the way Paul’s words have been interpreted. I need to translate this sharp division between spirit and flesh into an understanding that works for me.
That phrase works for me is an immediate warning flag to many who would accuse me of trying to domesticate Paul’s teaching, confining it only to that which I and the modern world that shapes me is able to feel comfortable with. However, what I mean by works for me is more than a demand that Paul’s words have to make sense to my modern understanding and feel comfortable to me within the limitations of my own disenchanted (Charles Taylor) imagination.
Works for me means that I need more not less from Paul’s words. For me, Paul has been too long the prisoner of patriarchy. For Paul to speak to me in the way he clearly intends his words to speak to the Galatian Christians, I need to hear his distinction between spirit and flesh as having the potential to usher me into the freedom which is the major theme of his letter to the Galatians. Chapter 5:1 opens with:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Freedom from things that had a hold over me
I have just described Paul as having for too long been the prisoner of patriarchy. This needs a little amplification. Patriarchy and patriarchal are terms of abuse now much bandied about by feminists and liberals of all shades and hues. Of course, I have been guilty using the terms in this way many times! So here, I am attempting to be more objective.
By patriarchy I am referring to a way of looking at the world that seeks to maintain order through contrasting flesh as impure and spirit as pure. A way of looking at the world that fears the unfettered expression of freedom, because freedom challenges stable order. Patriarchy’s view of stable order rests upon not only the ranking of men over women, but upon a complex system of power based ranking between males.
St Paul, like most human beings, oscillates between speaking from within his culture and moving beyond the limitations of his culture and its thought. If I accept less from Paul, I will read him as a supporter of patriarchal order and end up either accepting or rejecting his teaching about what it means to be a Christian. If I want more from Paul, I open my ears to hear his radical call to move beyond the cultural status quo of any social system of ordering human relationships. For Paul, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything concerning the vision of relationships between human beings in society.
Paul and the Galatians
In his letter to the Galatians, we hear Paul’s radical call to be changed by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. In this letter he is confronting the Galatian Christians who have moved away from the challenges of his teaching. He has taught them that life in Christ is about a freedom that transforms the person from within. This freedom is relational and so it also leads to a transformation of society. The Galatians seem to be in favor of the patriarchal Christianity of some conservative Jewish Christians. These Jewish Christians are telling the Galatians that being Christian means submitting to the Law of Moses. The symbol of submission to the law is of course, circumcision.
A way now opens for me to listen differently to Paul’s language contrasting spirit and flesh. For Paul, circumcision has become the ultimate expression of the perversion of the law of the spirit by the law of the flesh. Circumcision is the ultimate religious symbol of a patriarchal form of control and privileging of the male on the basis that what males have and females don’t have is a penis. Paul is so outraged that this practice should be used as the mark of being a follower of Christ that he rails why then don’t these agitators go the whole hog and make eunuchs of themselves? For Paul, circumcision has become tantamount to the mutilation of castration.
The freedom Christ offers is the freedom of faith counted as love. Paul sums up love as loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. So, freedom is not unfettered abandon to do as one pleases. It is love disciplined by the privileging of relationship. In contrast the patriarchal regulation of power rests upon the psychological principle of phallic potency. Men rank over women and men rank each other, by among other things, what a man does with penis and with whom he does it.
The freedom Paul speaks of leads to a new set of social relations defined not by circumcision but by baptism. In chapter 3 Paul proclaims that for those who belong to Christ There is no longer Jew or Greek, …slave or free, …male and female. Building on Paul’s reasoning it seems reasonable to me to add heterosexual or homosexual, to the list.
From Galatians to the Supreme Court
I don’t suppose that the Justices of the Supreme Court had Paul’s letter to the Galatians in mind when they wrote and delivered their landmark decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. If some of them might have made a connection, they probably felt that Paul would be against their decision rather than in favor. To the extent that DOMA was an expression of the kind of inequalities that lie at the heart of patriarchy, I believe Paul would most definitely have applauded the justices.
Patriarchy is not a psychologically driven conspiracy by men to oppress women. It is more complex than that. Patriarchy harms men as much as it does women. The experience of being a man in the patriarchal world is usually very unsatisfying. The male world is a complex web of ranking according to power. Power can be expressed in a multitude of ways, yet is always traceable back to the psychological principle of the phallus.
In the world of phallic power, homosexual men are at the bottom. We are seen to have a compromised expression of masculinity, which not only makes us as worthless as women, but makes us dangerous. Women are always identifiable. Gay men can pass and consequently, evoke the paranoia of the enemy within.
In talking about gay men I am not ignoring gay women. It’s just that being a gay woman is not a challenge to patriarchy beyond the challenge already posed by being a woman. Within the patriarchal world view marriage between women can be tolerated as simply another domestic arrangement among women. It is marriage between men that evokes the patriarchal fear of the destruction of marriage.
There is some validity to this fear. If marriage is seen as an expression of love between two people enabling them to create a stable environment for human flourishing, then gay marriage greatly strengthens the ailing social institution. Gays believe in marriage with an intensity no longer characteristic of many heterosexual people. However, if marriage is understood as the ordering of power relations between men and women, and men and children under the law of the father, then gay marriage strikes a blow to the heart.
My desire for the teaching of Paul to work for me leads me to challenge the patriarchal interpretive bias that his teaching and all of Christianity has been imprisoned within. Challenging this bias is good for society. In response to this challenge we hear the strident voices proclaiming that what God intends for humanity is patriarchy. Yet, what does God intend for humanity? I can find no better advocate in answer to this question than the Apostle Paul who preaches that God’s intention for humanity is freedom disciplined by mutual love.
When we challenge the assumption of inequality that lies at the heart of all systems of social relations, the Scriptures, as well as the Constitution of these United States, become free to speak of what God is continually dreaming for us to become. In the words of St Paul:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were call to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. Galatians 5