“Identity and Privilege in Corinth:
The Implications of 2Cor 3:7-5:21 for Race Relations”
Love L. Sechrest
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Fuller Theological Seminary
Years ago, I learned about the seductive appeal of the “prosperity gospel” from acquaintances in a black church in a small town in the rural South. These new friends were generous and loving, and threw open the doors of their hearts and homes to me with scarcely a thought for their own scarcity. They were as open-handed in their giving to the church as they were to me, a virtual stranger. Yet, when it came to a discussion about the prosperity gospel and predatory gimmicks designed to increase contributions from people who are often poor and oppressed, we soon found ourselves at an impasse. Though I denigrated the greed that powers this movement, my friends stunned me with their passionate defense of church leaders in fine suits, fancy cars, and elaborate homes: “Who wants to follow a broke-down pastor?!” In their view, legitimate pastors must have access to the accoutrements of wealth and power; a “broke-down” pastor is simply not a compelling witness to the power of the gospel. This vignette gives insight into the complicated tangle of faith, wealth, race, and the aspirational desire for status and privilege. Though rooted in the not too distant past, this thinking is not that far removed from some of the problems Paul faced in Roman Corinth, problems that surface particularly in the correspondence now preserved in 2 Corinthians.
This paper explores the nature of Paul’s vision of Christian ministry and the association between physical identity and privilege. Though interpreters speculate about the arguments advanced by Paul’s opponents in Corinth which gave rise to his responses in 2Corinthians, many suspect that much of the tension emerged from Paul’s failure to embody then-contemporary aspirations about a leader’s demeanor. Paul assumes the glory of his ministry accomplishments, heritage, and ethnic identity, but emphasizes his brokenness, humiliation, and suffering as an “earthen vessel,” interpreting these qualities as the preferred expressions of participation in Christ. This paper considers the implications of this rhetorical strategy for a modern society in which white bodies signify privilege and power, but which regards black and brown bodies as humble, cheap, and disposable. We shall see that Paul was, at one and the same time, both privileged and humble; occupying a position of privilege in his own culture on the one hand, while enslaving himself to recipients of his ministry on the other. We begin with a consideration of privilege and identity, before examining the way that these concepts interact with the situation in 2 Cor 3.7-5.21.
The Embodied Nature of Social Identity
Constructs of identity are embodied, that is, they fundamentally involve the nexus of heritage, personality, physical appearance, and social connections. Educators, theologians and critical theorists alike are exploring the ways in which we understand identity, the human person, and society.1 In racial and ethnic studies, the embodied nature of identity organically emerges from the fact that these concepts involve value judgments about skin colors, hair textures, facial features, and body types beyond the simple fact of physical difference. Recent work in the social sciences no longer focuses on the essentialist enumeration of physical characteristics that belong to particular groups, but instead explores the ways that society inscribes social meaning and privileges on particular bodies. The social history of the United States can be narrated in terms of the ways that interactions in public spaces in the U.S. manifest embedded value judgments about bodies, ordering them by gender, ethnoracial identity, and apparent socio-economic position. 2 In this society, white bodies signify privilege and power, while black and brown bodies are figured as either expendable, or threatening, or both.
The notion of “privilege” is one common theoretical concept that attempts to model how persons inhabit social spaces.3 Privilege mediates position in a hierarchical ordering of ethnoracial groups by characterizing access to social resources. These resources may be material resources like wealth, credit, property, and access to safe neighborhoods and schools; alternately, resources may be immaterial and less easy to quantify such as assumed social status, access to beneficial social networks, employment opportunity, and the presumption of innocence in the legal justice system.4 Privilege is relative, varying by the complexities of multiple identity attachments, and context sensitive, varying by social location or setting. That privilege is relative may be seen in the fact that a black female college professor will enjoy the privileges of educational attainment, but that such privileges will be generally less visible that those accorded to her male colleagues from other ethnic groups.5 Yet, context matters – if a black female professor’s privilege can be positively influenced by educational achievement in certain settings, a white male professor’s privilege may be diminished in some settings if, for instance, he publically identifies as a homosexual. Though recipients of privilege are often unconscious of its influence, it confers advantages for both the pursuit of happiness and the cultivation of character; it not only smoothes the way for its beneficiaries, but it also confers a poise and self-possession that can function as intangible but nonetheless genuine social resources that confer competitive advantages on the bearers of privilege.
Complicating the concept of privilege is religious social location. Within the larger category of “Christian” in the U.S. scene, there is considerable ethnoracial diversity and this despite the disembodied, universalistic theorizing of Christian identity. Disembodied constructions of Christian identity appear in modern discourse about Christian theology, and are typically embedded in the idea that Christian identity and origins transcend ethnicity and race.6 Such disembodied constructs of Christian identity that depict it as a non-ethnic, universal group unmarked by particularity, are aided by Enlightenment and modernist assumptions about the ideal objective observer, as well as the influence of body-soul dualism in the Western philosophical tradition.7 These constructions are not uncommon in NT studies, even those that self-consciously interrogate the intersection of identity theory and biblical studies.8
Kelly Brown Douglas interrogates the interaction between racial identity and core Christian beliefs, finding among other things that the cross/crucifixion complex is a central element that has facilitated Christian oppression of the ethnic “other” inasmuch as it sanctions suffering. Indeed, Paul is sometimes mentioned as the locus of a problematic discourse about oppression that becomes racially loaded in the current context.9 Douglas discusses the traditional reckoning of the crucifixion in the context of womanist thought, wherein some contest the idea of redemptive suffering as damaging for oppressed peoples, while others argue that traditional atonement categories have succored and nourished black Christians in the midst of historical oppression. Douglas steers a middle way, maintaining that when understood as a single indivisible construct, the incarnation and resurrection affirm the importance of human bodies while simultaneously participating in God’s self revelation to humanity.10 According to Douglas, the incarnation/resurrection complex affirms: (1) God’s identification with human suffering in the context of oppression and unjust uses of power; (2) the incarnation declares the intrinsic dignity of human flesh as a witness to and medium of God’s self revelation; and (3) God effectively rejects the ideal of redemptive suffering by the resurrection, inasmuch as it restores Jesus to embodied life.
However, contrary to Douglas and others who maintain that there is an essential collusion between Pauline theology and hyper-Platonic thought, Paul himself espouses similar values in Second Corinthians, especially with reference to the intrinsic dignity of human flesh as a conduit of God’s power. Though Paul’s thought differs from Douglas’ ideas on how suffering can be redemptive, 2 Corinthians does contain Paul’s conviction that the promise of the resurrection stimulates active and fearless engagement in the world. Paul’s bold Christian witness is grounded in privileges that emerge from reflections on his rich ethnoracial heritage on the one hand and his identification with the embodied suffering and resurrection of Jesus on the other. Far from denigrating the body, Paul affirms the essentially embodied nature of Christian life and ministry in all its messiness.
Identity and Privilege in 2Cor 3:7-4:6
Paul’s extended reflection on Christian ministry in 2:14-6:10 is an argument that proceeds in four moves which together address the contrast at the center of the conflict in this epistle: How can authentic ministers fail to exhibit a glory that is comparable to the glory of God in Christ? In the first move, 2:14-3:6, Paul introduces the topic of sufficiency, maintaining that God is the basis for adequacy when ministry conveys life and death to its recipients. Drawing on Roman triumphal procession imagery, Paul depicts himself as God’s captive who tangibly manifests knowledge of God to others; those who accept the gospel perceive the message and its messengers as a pleasing aroma, while knowledge of God is the odor of death and decay for those who reject it. In the second move of the argument Paul contrasts his ministry with Moses’ ministry, the most revered leader in Israel’s past (3.7-4:6), and in the third section he develops a pottery metaphor, wherewith he contrasts God’s glorious power with the fragile and common human conduit of that power (4:7-5:10). He characterizes his work as the ministry of reconciliation in the fourth and final move in 5:11-6:10, ending it with a peristasis, or catalogue of suffering offered as proof of his authenticity. Although we are here concerned with the second and third sections of this discourse, the major issue throughout 2:14-6:10 concerns a tension that we can also find at the heart of problems in race relations, and that is the clash between embodied identities on the one hand, and social status and privilege on the other.
Through a re-reading Exo 34:29-35, Paul introduces the new covenant ministry by contrasting the life-giving spirit with the “killing” letter, ultimately describing this as a contrast between Moses’ ministry and Paul’s via a series of antithetical terms.11 Post-Shoah interpreters are understandably uncomfortable with this initial comparison and with the series of negative images used throughout this paragraph; including “ministry of death,” “ministry of condemnation,” as well as the possible references to the abolition of the old covenant (e.g., katarge/w in 3:11, 14).12 A closer reading suggests that these images for the Mosaic ministry were likely chosen less as a realistic or informative description of that ministry for outsiders, but instead communicate to insiders the extent to which Paul’s own ministry surpasses Moses’.13 That Paul’s description of Moses was intended for the consumption of insiders may be seen by noting that Paul simply assumes that his audience will agree that (1) Moses’ ministry was glorious, and (2) that it is valid to compare the righteousness and life in his own ministry with the condemnation and death in Moses’.14 By contrast, when discussing the nature of the Mosaic law with outsiders in Rom 7, it is clear that he is addressing people whom he’s never met; his description of the law is much more lengthy and nuanced since there he has to argue for his understanding. In the end, it is difficult to imagine a more vivid disparity than that between the description of the law as holy, just, and good in Rom 7:12 and Moses’ killing ministry of death and condemnation in 2 Cor 3:6-9. We can reconcile these different depictions by realizing that the former careful characterization represents his core beliefs, while the latter was an ad hoc facade for use only in the context of a comparison which was never intended as a stand-alone exposition.
In other words, the Mosaic ministry ministers death only inasmuch as it vividly contrasts with the resurrection life mediated through the new covenant (cf. 2Cor 4:14).15 Paul’s esteem for the old covenant is evident in the way that Paul chooses to contrast “glory” with “more glory” rather than using a more negative term as a contrast to glory, such as “dishonor” (a0timi/a; 1 Cor 11.14-15; 15.43; 2 Cor 6.8) or humiliation (tape/nwsij; Phil 3.21). Note also how Paul uses a participle when referring the passing glory of Moses’ face (3:7, 13; cf. 1 Cor 1:26 nas) and the fading glory of the old covenant (3:14), but that he uses the finite verb when referring to the removal of the veil over the old covenant (3.13; cf. 1 Cor 6:13; 13:8, 10; 15:24, 26 nas).16 When Paul describes the veil over the reading of the old covenant that is only removed in Christ in 3:14-17, his reasoning seems focused on the proper interpretation of the old covenant through the Spirit versus a focus on its destruction. Indeed, when Paul does develop a foil to contrast with the glory of the new covenant ministry, he will not look to the old covenant but he will use his own person as an illustration. The glory of the new covenant contrasts with the humble earthen vessel, lacking in all honor, privilege, or inherent power.
Thus, using a qal vahomer from lesser-to-greater argument, Paul establishes the gloriousness of the new covenant ministry by comparing it to something that was for him both self-evident and beyond argument, that is, the intrinsic glory of the Mosaic ministry and covenant (cf. Rom 7:12).17 Paul’s purposes here are not so much to denigrate the regime of the Mosaic ministry but to establish the glory of new covenant ministry – despite Paul’s own apparent lack of this quality – by showing that his ministry is more glorious than the most revered ministry in the central mythomoteur of the people of Israel. In Corinth, Paul’s opponents would raise serious doubts about the authenticity of his leadership (10:1-5, 8-9; 11:20-23; 12:11-12) and person (5:12; 10:10), accusing him of poor oratory (10:10; 11:6), inconsistency (10:11; cf. 1:17), and financial fraud (11:7-9; 12:13-18; cf. 2:17; 4:2; 9:20). While we cannot know whether the charges in 2 Cor 10-12 had already been leveled, it seems probable that this section either responds to something similar, or anticipates that such charges would soon be forthcoming.18
Yet one of the key messages in this section appears in the conclusion that Paul draws from his exegesis of Exo 34:29-35 in 2Cor 3:12. Here Paul infers that the upshot of the unveiled and more glorious nature of the new covenant ministry is a ministry characterized by greater boldness (parrhsi/a). Indeed, it seems likely that the boldness in ministry that issues from Paul’s conviction about the gloriousness of the new covenant ministry is closely akin to Paul’s confidence (pεποίθησιj) in 3:4, which in context refers to the fact God empowers ministry.19 Further, Paul’s confidence in God’s empowerment and the boldness that accompanies his convictions about the surpassing glory of the new covenant ministry also issues in “freedom” (ἐλευθερία; 3:17).20 Though “freedom” in Paul is normally associated with his thinking about the role of the law for those who are in Christ (e.g., Rom 7:1-6; Gal 4:4-5), the immediate context makes it more likely that he is using all of this language – confidence, freedom, and boldness – as a way of showing that his new covenant ministry is not only more glorious, but more powerful in its ability to overcome all kinds of obstacles. Moreover, ou0k e0gkakou=men (“we do not lose heart”) in 4:1, and 16 simply expresses the same sentiment negatively, that the ministry of the new covenant in Christ will not be diminished by misunderstanding (4:1-4) or danger (4:16; 5:1).21 Thus, the main idea in this section and the next is that the gloriousness of the ministry of the spirit outshines the greatest ministry in all of Israel’s history, the ministry of the Lawgiver himself, and this conviction produces in Paul great confidence and boldness for the task before him.22
In light of this discussion of the main issues in 3:7-4:6, it is necessary to pause to reflect on our earlier discussion about the notion of “privilege.” It will not be too much of a stretch for us to see in Paul’s confidence, courage, and boldness a network of sentiments that is analogous to the fearlessness and assuredness that undergirds the modern notion of privilege in critical race theory. Here we see Paul bolstered by the idea that God has empowered his new covenant ministry so that it transcends even the most glorious ministry in his proud ethnic heritage. Though opponents point to Paul’s failure to personify then current standards of conduct for leaders in Corinth, Paul measures himself against Moses, invoking a traditional standard of leadership that was apparently still unassailable within the local community.23 Paul’s argument about the glory of his new ministry in Christ works as a source of empowerment largely because he has confidence that he and his audience share assumptions about the glory of his ethnoracial heritage.
Read another way, however, one could argue that far from seeking strength from his ethnic heritage, Paul has actually rejected it, inasmuch as many think that he proclaims the annulment of the old covenant in this passage (3:7, 11, 13, 14; katargoume/nhn).24 This interpretation would not only be countercultural relative to his ancient context, but would also conflict with many goals of contemporary identity theorists who seek to nurture most forms of ethnic sentiment as a way of resisting an oppressive assimilationist ideal. However, this kind of objection reduces ethnoracial identity to ancestry when identity is much more often complicated by multiple identity associations in which aspects of identity may be emphasized in one setting and subordinated in others. For many Jews of the period, ethnoracial identity included religious sentiment as a key element alongside the element of ancestry.25 If Paul’s religious sentiments have changed in that he now worships the God of Abraham through the new covenant, his focus on Moses affirms that he has nonetheless retained pride in his ancestry as a descendant of Abraham (cf. 2 Cor 11:22). Paul does not reject his birth identity in this passage any more than he does in Phil 3:3-6, a similar passage. In both contexts, Paul’s qal vahomer reasoning depends on an exalted opinion of that heritage. Even more noteworthy is the fact that Paul’s pride in the great example from his heritage is probably unconscious inasmuch as it is assumed as mentioned above. His focus is much more on the way that God has empowered the new ministry of the spirit; he takes the gloriousness of his heritage for granted and the effectiveness of the argument rests on this shared and implicit assumption. On the other hand, Paul’s attitudes do contrast with modern notions of privilege from critical race theory in that they are divorced from specifically visible markers like skin color, even though privilege is associated with particular ethnoracial cultures in both contexts. Indeed, the next section will show that Paul explicitly rules out some visible external markers of status and privilege against then current expectations.
Embodiment and Identity in 2Cor 4:7-5:10
The Corinthian correspondence does more to establish the embodied nature of Christian identity than other section of the Pauline corpus. Much of the scholarship on this section concerns the relationship between the 2 Cor 5:1-10 and 1 Cor 15:35-58 and explores the question of whether Paul’s views about resurrection in 2Cor 5:1-10 have shifted since he wrote the earlier document.26 But notwithstanding the question of Paul’s eschatology, this segment has important analogical correspondences with contemporary race relations. In this section we will explore the evidence about Paul’s conception of embodiment in 2 Cor 4-5, synthesizing it with evidence about how the conflict in Corinth concerned rival perceptions about the embodiment of leadership qualities. In important ways, the opposition to Paul underlying this epistle is deeply concerned about Paul’s public persona, and thus analogous to some modern identity dynamics.27
The focal image of this section appears in the opening verse of 4:7-5:21, in the poignant description of the human body as an earthen vessel. Aune reports that this image was a common metaphor for the fragility of the human body in Greco Roman antiquity, but the OT background for this metaphor adds additional nuances – the human body is not only weak (Dan 2:42), but also disposable (Lev 6:28; 11.32; 15:12; cf. Isa 30:14; Jer 19:11), cheap (Lam 4:2), and perhaps forgettable to boot (Psa 31:12).28 Yet Paul does not evoke this image in an effort to demean human existence, but, as shown in the purpose clause in 4:7, to make the point that the human person is the conduit for the extraordinary power of God. As Paul will make even clearer in 12:1-9, the fragility and weakness of the human body is a pre-requisite for the demonstration of divine power through it.29 The catalogue of suffering in 4:8-9 shows that God’s power is evident even in the midst of ostensible defeat – the minister experiences all kinds of affliction but is not crushed; she is neither perplexed nor forsaken, while struck down she is not ultimately destroyed. Thus, Pauline theology dignifies the fragility and weakness of the human body as an agent for the demonstration of divine power through ministry.
Not only does Paul link the frailty of the human body to divine power, but he goes on to link suffering in the context of Christian life and ministry with the suffering of Jesus in 4:7-15. In this section, Paul several times refers to “Jesus” without adding “Christ” in a departure from his customary practice (4:5, 10, 11, and twice in v. 14; cf. 11:4). 30 This does not suggest, however, that Paul “separates” the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith or any similar bifurcation. 31 Indeed, Paul refers to the “Lord Jesus” in v.14 in the midst of this particular discourse, an appellation that obviously affirms Jesus’ exalted status and nature (cf. 4:5).32 By and large, however, interpreters do not make sense of the heavy concentration of this unusual usage in 4:5-15 beyond their insistence on what Paul does not mean.33 Elsewhere, Paul does make occasional references to “Jesus” without the much more common addition of “Christ” in texts where he is more interested in his person rather than status: Rom 3:26; 8:11; Gal 6:17; Phil 2:10; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:14.34 Paul also emphasizes Jesus’ person over his status in 4:10, where the word ne/krwsij emphasizes the entire network of events that led to Jesus’ earthly death.35 When Paul speaks of bearing this death process in order to manifest Jesus’ life, he speaks of living a life that continues Jesus’ own earthly ministry, one which is oriented to achieve life-giving results for the benefit of others (4:11-12, 15-16; cf. 1:6). In other words, Paul’s ministry participates in the life and death of Jesus inasmuch as a life spent for others is the way of Jesus.36 The overall message in this section is that Paul’s ministry embodies Jesus’ ministry; his body, like Jesus’, is a concrete conduit for the expression of God’s power in human society.37
Second Corinthians 4:16-5:10 is also a premier vehicle for Paul’s dialectical eschatology, showcasing his convictions about the way that a future hope impinges on present existence. The main idea in this passage is that Paul’s eschatological hope of renewal provides the assurance that he can minister in confidence, notwithstanding the suffering that threatens the integrity of his physical body, his outer person (o( e1cw h9mw~n a1nqrwpoj 4:16). As mentioned above, much of the discussion about this passage focuses on whether his views about the resurrection of the body have shifted since the writing of 1 Cor 15. The debate seems to spin on two axes, the first concerning whether 5:3 refers to a disembodied intermediate state, and the second surrounding the use of metaphorical language throughout the section, which may or may not refer to bodies.
Paul’s eschatology in his earlier discourse in 1 Cor 15 is clear: the Christian hope is oriented towards the resurrection of the body (15:12-34); second, while different, there is nonetheless continuity between the earthly body and the resurrected body (15:35-50, 53-54); thirdly, that the transformation from earthly to heavenly takes place at the Parousia (15:51-52). Though some scholars think that Paul’s views have changed in some degree between the time he wrote 1 Cor 15:35-57 and 2 Cor 5:1-5, there are many similarities between these passages.38 Paul contrasts the earthly and the heavenly in both texts (1 Cor 15:49 vs. 2 Cor 5:1-2). Similarly, he contrasts the perishable/imperishable on the one hand (1 Cor 15:42, 50, 52-3) and the eternal/temporal on the other (2 Cor 4:16-5:1). Mortality (to\ Qnhto/n) puts on immortality in 1 Cor 15:53-4, and mortality (to\ Qnhto/n) is swallowed by life in 2 Cor 5:4. He also uses clothing metaphors similarly in these texts: referring to “putting on” (e0ndu/sasqai) imperishability and immortality in 1 Cor 15:53, and using a similar metaphor, “clothed” (e0pendu/sasqai) with the heavenly in 2 Cor 5:2, 4. In 1 Cor 15:54 death is “swallowed up” (katapoqh=|) by victory, and in 2 Cor 5:4 mortality is “swallowed up” (katapoqh=) by life. On the one hand, Paul says that the Spirit characterizes resurrection life (1 Cor 15:44-6), and on the other he depicts the Spirit as a down payment for being swallowed up by life (2 Cor 5:5). Indeed, one scholar plausibly suggests that the much debated “we know” formula in 2 Cor 5:1 actually represents a deliberate allusion to the earlier discourse in 1 Cor 15.39 It seems unlikely that Paul would have significantly changed his views in 2 Cor 5:1-5 without a more explicit signal of the change, especially given the prominence of the discourse in 1 Cor 15 and the significant similarities between it and 2Cor 5:1-5, in what is another communication to the same audience.40
But what of the differences between the texts, do those imply that Paul changed his views? The most significant differences are those mentioned earlier, regarding the metaphorical language in 2 Cor 5:1-5 and the specific interpretation of 5:3. While Paul uses the words sw~ma eight times in 1 Cor 15 (vv. 35, 37-8, 40, 44), he does not use the word at all in 2 Cor 5.1-5. Most agree, however, that the earthly tent (5:1; cf. 5:4), is a metaphor for the human body that reflects the same focus on fragility as the earthen vessel of 4:7.41 Despite this consensus, opinion is divided, however, about whether the building from God (5:1b) or the heavenly dwelling (5:4) likewise refer to the bodies of individual believers or refers instead to a corporate dwelling or metaphor, perhaps during an intermediate state.42 Yet these interpreters miss the import of the thrice-reiterated comparison that forms the backdrop for this imagery in 4:16-5:5, that of the contrast between the temporary and the permanent: parauti/ka vs. ai0w/nion (momentary vs. eternal 4:17); pro/skaira vs. ai0w/nia (temporary vs. eternal 4:18); an earthly house which is a tent (5:1; 5:4) vs. a eternal heavenly building which is a dwelling (5:1b-2)