“Mos Def on Socially Constructed Subjectivities, Stigmatized Spaces, and the Mutability of ‘Blackness'”

On Friday, Dec. 3, 2010 I presented a  lecture at the University of Dallas entitled, “Mos Def on Socially Constructed Subjectivities, Stigmatized Spaces, and the Mutability of ‘Blackness’.” The lecture was part of a  weekly series hosted by the philosophy department at the University of Dallas.

I have now uploaded the lecture in audio form, which you may access by clicking on the play button below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Mos Def Lecture

Foucault on Christian Technologies of the Self: Toward the Non-Identity of Christianity Subjectivity

In several of his late essays and interviews Foucault describes two discourses employed by early Christian communities to disclose or reveal the self: exomologēsis and exagoreusis.[1] First, in exomologesis (“recognition of fact”), a believer recognizes his or her condition as both a Christian and a sinner. In the latter expression—recognition as a sinner— exomologesis becomes increasingly connected with one’s status in the Church as a penitent which involved various obligations, abstinences, self-punishment, and public ceremonial gestures such as prostration and wearing ashes as a sign of mourning one’s spiritual condition.[2] Exomologesis was not, however, primarily a verbal activity;Many Selvesrather, it was a dramatic showing of one’s sinful being. As a willing act of public humility—an inversion of Adam and Eve’s hidden, autonomous and prideful acts—penance has a purifying function, restoring one’s condition bestowed at baptism. Exomologesis was not, as Foucault stresses several times, characterized by verbal confession of one’s inner secrets or desires. Rather, “[t]he greater part of the act of penitence was not in telling the truth of sin but in showing the true sinful being of the sinner; it was not a way for the sinner to explain his sins but a way to present himself as a sinner.”[3] It was, as James Bernauer puts it, “Christianity’s ontological confession.”[4]

Paradoxically, the act of exomologesis via a dramatic showing of one’s sins both did away with particular sins yet revealed the person as sinner. Christians theologians of the first centuries, as Foucault explains, made sense of this paradox by appealing to three models:  the medical model where one must show his or her wounds to be healed, the “tribunal model of judgment” where “one always appeases one’s judge by confessing faults,” and lastly and most importantly, the “model of death, of torture, or of martyrdom.”[5] The martyr who would rather endure excruciating torture culminating in death than compromise his or her faith is the paradigm informing the penitent rituals.

For the relapsed to be reintegrated into the Church, he must expose himself voluntarily to ritual martyrdom. Penance is the affect of change, of rupture with the self, past, and world. It is a way to show that you are able to renounce life and self, to show that you can face and accept death. Penitence of sin does not have as its target the establishing of an identity but, instead, serves to mark the refusal of the self, the breaking away from self; ego non sum, ego. This formula is at the heart of publicatio sui. It represents a break with one’s past identity. These ostentatious gestures have the function of showing the truth of the state of being of the sinner. Self-revelation is at the same time self-destruction.[6]

Thus, the symbolic expressions, the exposé of oneself as sinner, as one who is not what or who he is reveals a fragmented temporally dispersed self whose present has been deeply affected by the past (original sin and one’s own choices and actions) and whose future is at least potentially hopeful if he continues to live under the rubric of daily dying to the self, or as St. Paul puts it, he continually presents himself to God as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1).

Although Foucault himself does not develop the following theme, a Christian reflecting on Foucault’s analyses and bringing them back into conversation with the tradition, could highlight that Christian identity or subjectivity cannot be found in the self alone. This is the case not only as a result of the present sinful, disintegrated human condition, but because the Christian narrative proclaims humans to be image bearers of God. To be an image of something or someone suggests a something or someone at minimum in addition to or more strongly distinct from the image, which in this case is the self. Moreover, the word “image” connotes some sort of genuine similitude between the two entities in view. Bringing these ideas together, we may say relational, dependent heteronomy, rather than atomistic, self-sufficient autonomy constitutes Christian identity. With the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus Christ, humanity is given a dramatic presentation, an exposé of what it is to be imago Dei perfectly, for in Him image and likeness coincide. Moreover, the Christian’s identity is no longer characterized as Adamic or in Adam but as Christotelic or in Christo. Although not at present fully what they will be, Christians have a positive telos for which to aim. Through divine assistance, obedience, spiritual disciplines both private and communal (sacraments), and a continual renunciation not of self per se, as Foucault at times suggests, but of self-sufficiency and God-annulling autonomy, the Christian puts to death the Adamic-Evean old self (and selves) as symbolized in baptism and strives to live evermore fully his or her in Christ identity. Given our present dislocated disintegrated condition and our finitude—a finitude which is not eradicated in the final state—conformity to the image of Christ is an ongoing, unending process. Bernauer sums up this idea nicely—“[a]ll truth about the self is tied to the sacrifice of that same self, and the Christian experience of subjectivity declares itself most clearly in the sounds of a rupture with oneself,”[7] in the affirmation I am not myself/selves solely; I am myself/selves when I live in conformity with Christ, the “image [εἰκὼν] of the invisible God”[8] who has interpreted (ἐξηγήσατο) God to us.[9]


[1] After the first instance of exomologēsis in its transliterated form, Foucault’s translator does not italicize the word and simply employs the form, “exomologesis.” I have mirrored this practice in my text.

[2] Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” 243.

[3] Ibid., 244.

[4] Bernauer, “Confessions of the Soul,” 564.

[5] Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,”244–45.

[6] Ibid., 245.

[7] Bernauer, “Confessions of the Soul,” 561.

[8] See, 1 Cor 1:15.

[9] See, John 1:18.

Guest Post#8: Violence and Christian Holy Writ, Girard, Sacrifice, and Eucharist

The post below by Tony Lusvardi SJ, who blogs regularly at Whosoever Desires.  Tony studied English and philosophy at Notre Dame before spending two years teaching English for the Peace Corps in Sarkand, Kazakhstan.  When he returned from the Peace Corps, he directed volunteer programs for St. John’s University in Minnesota before entering the Jesuits.  He taught for a semester at Marquette High in novitiate, took vows in 2008, spent last summer on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and has been otherwise occupied studying philosophy.Adoration Of The Lamb JvanEyck

I want to thank everyone who has participated in this series!  It has been both informative and challenging, and I have so appreciated the way each engagement has unfolded, including the comment exchanges.  The one regret I have is that I’ve had to decide against posting one very interesting submission that I had originally accepted.  The submission is very provocative but has a high potential for misunderstanding. I encourage you to read it should you be so inclined, as the author, Dan O. has posted it on his blog.  Given my institutional responsibilities and the high likelihood of someone (including one of my students) misreading Dan’s post, I had to make the difficult decision  not to post his piece.  Do visit his blog and give it a read, as I know he’d appreciate the interaction.


Girard, Sacrifice, and Eucharist by Tony Lusvardi SJ

René Girard’s contributions to the study of religion and violence over the past half-century have been both original and profound.  Though he denies being a theologian, Girard describes his 1999 book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning as an “apology” for Christianity written on anthropological grounds.  Girard’s work, furthermore, takes seriously two notions that other literary and cultural critics would shy away from:  the religious foundation of civilizations and Christianity’s claim to uniqueness among world religions.

But even though Girard describes himself as an ordinary and orthodox Catholic, his theory poses potential challenges to the traditional Catholic characterization of the Eucharist as “sacrifice.”  In the end, I believe Girard’s work is consistent with this traditional understanding, though he forces us to wrestle with what sacrifice means in a Christian context.  After giving a brief overview of Girard’s unique “apology,” I’ll turn to the implications of his work for Eucharistic theology.

Mimesis, scapegoating, and Christianity. Girard claims that what he calls the “mimetic cycle of violence” is at the root of human culture.  To explain what he means by this term he gives a unique interpretation of the Ten Commandments, focusing especially on the prohibition of “coveting.”  Girard equates “coveting” with what he terms “mimetic desire” and sees the concept as the key to understanding the Decalogue.

A conventional reading of the coveting prohibitions might see them applying only to extreme cases of envy, lust, or jealousy, but for Girard the term applies to desire as such.  Desire is problematic for Girard because of its “mimetic” character.  Aside from a few biological basics, human beings come with no pre-set list of desires, so we learn what to desire by watching others.  We see others with certain goods, intuit that those things must be desirable, and then start wanting them ourselves—we begin to covet.

Fads, as well as most advertising, demonstrate the way mimetic desire functions.  Toys that are “must-haves” at Christmas time are often forgotten by January.  I can recall news reports about violence breaking out in Toys-R-Us stores one year over the last “Tickle Me Elmo.”  Such incidents demonstrate, in a mundane way, the consequences of mimetic desire:  rivalry and violence.

By its nature, Girard says, mimetic rivalry tends to spin out of control, feeding viciously upon itself, undermining and threatening to destroy community.  But, Girard argues, at the point where rivalry boils over and communities become divided against themselves, a new phenomenon emerges which brings them together:  the sacrifice of a scapegoat.  When communities reach a point of “mimetic crisis,” the point of all-against-all, the entire community unites against a scapegoat, and all-against-all becomes all-against-one.  The community’s destructive tensions are released, and unity and peace are (temporarily) restored.

The unity and peace established by the sacrifice of a scapegoat seem like divine gifts and become the basis for the development of communities, institutions, and, ultimately, civilizations.  Girard sees the phenomenon of the “founding murder” embedded in pagan mythology and ritualized in rites of sacrifice, with animals often substituting for human victims.

Because the scapegoat is usually innocent, the phenomenon of cathartic sacrifice requires a certain amount of self-deception among those who participate.  The unanimity of the crowd—which Girard calls “mimetic contagion”—allows such deception to persist.  No one questions what is happening because all are caught up in the same passions and actions.  Girard identifies Satan with mimetic contagion.

The similarities between the archetypal pattern of conflict and sacrifice described by Girard and Christ’s Passion are striking.  The Gospels depict a pattern of growing rivalry and tension, followed by the nearly unanimous rejection of Jesus by the crowd, and his sacrificial death, described by Caiaphas in almost explicitly Girardian terms:  “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people” (John 11:50).

Yet the high priest’s bluntness hints at one of the factors that mark the death of Jesus as a decisive break from pagan mythology.  For, Girard argues, Christianity exposes the cycle of mimetic violence as unjust, breaking Satan’s spell over human nature.  After Christ’s death, instead of a new social consensus emerging, the Church—“a small group of dissidents that separates from the collective violence of the crowd”—springs up in order to testify to the Resurrection of Jesus.

The testimony of the Church exposes the cycle of violence as a cycle of futility.  It demonstrates the innocence of Jesus and, by extension, other victims of mimetic contagion, and shows that God identifies with innocent victims.  It makes a bold claim over and against pagan mythology:  resurrection—ultimate peace, ultimate communion—cannot be achieved through sacrificial violence but can only be granted by God.

The Resurrection is the first part of the Passion narrative that cannot be explained in terms of the cycle of contagion and sacrifice and, therefore, not in terms of anthropology.  Instead, the Resurrection “is a spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion.”

The acknowledgment of divine power is a surprising place for an anthropological study to end, but such an endpoint marks I See Satan as a prelude to theology.  Because he does not start with an a priori assumption that Christianity is fundamentally the same as any other mythical system but instead takes seriously Christianity’s claim to uniqueness, Girard is able to shed light onto the profound differences that emerge in the way Christianity and paganism respond to violence.

However, for Christians—especially Catholics—inclined to accept Girard’s account, a problem arises:  how to explain the traditional idea of the Eucharist as “sacrifice.”

Eucharistic sacrifice. Such language as the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” might make some of our contemporaries a bit squeamish to begin with, and a few theologians have even called for the elimination of the language of sacrifice from our post-Vatican II Eucharistic vocabulary.  Patrick T. McCormick writes that, in light of Girard, the Eucharist can only be thought of as an “un-sacrifice” (A Banqueter’s Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Kingdom of God, 2004).

I find such a position untenable, however, not least because Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s document on the liturgy, itself refers to the Mass as “sacrifice” nine times (more even than it uses the term “supper,” 5 times, or “meal,” none).

Here I think we need to take seriously Girard’s insistence that his anthropology only brings us to the threshold of theology and look for a theological perspective that begins where he leaves off—at the Resurrection—to complement his account.

If the function of sacrifice were limited only to its role in bringing about a false and unjust resolution to mimetic crisis, then McCormick’s conclusion might be justified.  But Christ’s Passion is best understood as a transformation of sacrifice rather than a negation of the concept.  The Resurrection, after all, does not negate or destroy the world; it transforms it.

Perhaps the key concept that must be added to sacrifice in order for us to grasp this transformation is self-giving.  Understanding the Passion—and by extension the Eucharist—as divine self-gift helps us also to recognize it as an act of love.

The key difference between Christ’s sacrifice and those of pagan religions is that Jesus offers himself, while pagan religions offer scapegoats.  The perspective we gain from the Resurrection helps us to see the treatment of sacrifice in the Old Testament in a new light as well.  The sacrifice of Abraham, for example, cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing its self-sacrificial elements; in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham offers God his future and his hope.

Nor can the general trajectory of the prophets be read as a simple movement away from ritual sacrifice, for doing so ignores the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi with their call to rebuild the Temple and restore ritual sacrifice and worship.  Instead, the prophetic trajectory is toward a more holistic notion of sacrifice that includes right ethical conduct as a necessary prerequisite for Temple worship.

Such a movement is beautifully illustrated, for example, in Psalm 51, the great prayer of a repentant sinner who says to the Lord, “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.”  Taken alone these lines seem to devalue ritual sacrifice.  The psalm ends, however, with a return to Temple worship, now understood in relation to right conduct and proper spiritual disposition:  “Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice, holocausts offered on your altar.”

What we see then, even in the Old Testament, is a movement away from sacrifice as substitution and toward sacrifice as a total self-gift, a gift encompassing all aspects of one’s life.  Girard’s analysis, even if it doesn’t provide this final step itself, allows us to see just how remarkable this movement is against a background of scapegoating and perpetual violence—and how even more remarkable is the final, complete, and holy sacrifice of the Eucharist.

Guest Post#7: Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Anselm Revisited: Divine Violence, Obedience, and Reconciliation

This post was written by Myles Werntz, a graduate student at Baylor University, writing a dissertation on ecclesiology and nonviolence in John Yoder, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow. He is the editor of Nonviolence: The Warsaw Lectures, by John Howard Yoder (Baylor University Press, 2010), and writes on occasion at www.threehands.com and www.rockandtheology.com.


In examining the question of divine violence, and whether or not we can even speak of such a thing, I propose a return to one of the “culprits” of the medieval tradition: Anselm. I take it for granted, that for Christian theology to speak of the divine-human relation, it turns to the person of Christ for its norm. This is not without its difficulties, however, particularly as one attempts to speak of divine violence. If Jesus is the norm for human relations with God, what are we to make of the crucifixion? Does Christ’s death bespeak a similar “necessary” death for humans? Is God’s fundamental relation with humanity one of wrath, abetted by blood sacrifice? It is this aspect of the divine-violence knot that Anselm, I think, helps us to see more clearly.St. Anselm Stained Glass

Turning to one of Anselm’s better known works, Cur Deus Homo (or “Why God Became Human”), we find Anselm arguing that 1) honor has been denied of God, 2) humanity lives unable to restore this honor, an honor which functions as an indication of cosmic socially stability, resulting in 3) God inhabiting human flesh to rectify this problem on the human side of the ledger. When we read this dialogue, we must bear in mind that many of the claims to God’s “anger” and “will to punish” are put forward not by Anselm, but by Anselm’s interlocutor “Boso.” As such, the argument that God is angry and wills to punish relentlessly are not in the main of Anselm’s construal of how Christ restores honor.

What Anselm does argue, however, is that while “every creatures owes [truth and righteousness] from every rational creature, and every creature owes this to God as a matter of obedience”, this does not imply that God needs blood to accomplish this. Rather, Anselm argues that “God…did not force Christ to die”, but rather that “[Christ] underwent death of his own accord, not out of an obedience consisting in the abandonment of his life, but out uof an obedience consisting in his upholding of righteousness so bravely and pertinaciously that as a result he incurred death.” Obedience, as that which is owed by humanity to God, is maintained by Christ “even unto death”. The demonstration of obedience comes “through his death”, but Anselm argues that it is “not appropriate to say that it comes about because of it.”

Significantly, Anselm does not say that blood is required, nor that violence is intrinsic to the divine life, nor even that suffering is a necessity if one is to live according to this arrangement. What is argued, instead, is that Christ’s life—as emblematic of perfect obedience—leads Christ to death. In other words, death is the culmination of obedience and reconciliation, not as a matter of course, but as a consequence of intention. Anselm concedes that because obedience is intrinsic to Christ’s life and God’s desire, then, that Christ’s death as a result of obedience is thus “wished”, but again this is not because suffering in and of itself accomplishes anything. Rather, the way of obedience led directly into the heart of death.

Part of what I take Anselm’s purpose in this work to be is to demonstrate not only a rationale by which divine-human reconciliation is to be had, but also the kind of human behavior which is implicated by Christ’s life. As such, virtues of prudence, fidelity, and courage are exalted by Anselm as intrinsic to one who seeks to be obedient. Does this mean, then, that the violence which is visited on the faithful is “wished” or “willed”? Is God’s anger appeased by blood? For Anselm, this question is like asking that since doing a PhD in Religion requires a great deal of discipline, if what one is doing in finishing a PhD is really cultivating discipline, and not learning a particular skill set.

In sum, I take two things from this text. First, “divine violence” is one (badly construed) way of viewing the act of obedience in the world. While violence against Christ was intrinsic to obedience, it was neither “willed” nor “wished” in the sense that God desired the victimization or abuse of Christ. Rather, for Anselm, death and abuse is the consequence of obedient living. Those that want to live in the divine relationship should gird themselves and prepare for the beatings to come. Secondly, the honor which is restored via obedience is a shared honor, obtained by the Son, returned to the Father, and emulated by the disciples. As such, violence is not that which must be undergone to belong to this restored sociality, but which is, in some sense, borne by the entire community. Those who benefit from the violence experienced by some of the faithful are to bear with those faithful.

What then of violence? Is violence “necessary”? For Anselm, no, rendering then “divine violence” to be a misunderstanding of where the violence comes from. The death of Christ comes as a result of obedience, not by divine fiat. If the violence against Christ is 1) not willed, and 2) begets, in a twist of irony, divine life in a restored sociality, then with Anselm, we can say that violence is in a sense an anti-theology, finding its roots not in the divine life, but in opposition to restoration of the divine life, working against the “grain of the universe.”


[1] All references will be from Anselm: The Major Works, edited and introduced by Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford UP, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 271.

[3] Ibid., 276.

[4] Ibid., 277.

[5] Ibid., 278.

[6] Ibid., 281.

Guest Post#6: Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Philemon and Onesimus: To be free in the Lord and in the Here and Now Flesh

One in ChristAs I stated in the previous post, the current piece deals with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and both were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


As is well-known, St. Paul, in his very short letter to Philemon,[1] devotes significant space to the master/slave relationship. Some scholars have concluded that in his letter to Philemon St. Paul’s position on slavery has changed and changed for the better in comparison to his exhortations to slaves in 1 Cor 7.[2] But has he altered his view in any substantive way?   Perhaps not, if we keep firmly before us the fact the specific appeals regarding the recently converted Onesimus are directed at Philemon, St. Paul’s friend and co-laborer in Christ (Plm 1). In contrast, there is no indication that the slaves addressed in 1 Corinthians had exclusively Christian masters.  Rather, it is more plausible to suggest that at least some, and perhaps even most slaves whom St. Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians, had non-Christian masters.[3] In Philemon, then, what we have is an impassioned plea to a mature Christian leader to enact in this world the kind of relationships that will characterize the age to come.

As Brown observes, “[t]he letter, designed to persuade, is astute, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated.”[4] Apparently, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had been converted by St. Paul during the latter’s imprisonment (Phlm 9-10).  St. Paul addresses Philemon as a Christian brother and one whose life and works had been a great source of encouragement to him (Phlm 4-7).  Now that Onesimus has been brought into union with the living Christ, St. Paul challenges Philemon to recognize Onesimus’s new status in Christ, not simply in a “spiritual” inner sense, but καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ (“both in the flesh and in the Lord,” Plm 16, NRSV).  In other words, pace Nietzsche’s complaint that Christianity has an exclusively “other-worldly-world” focus, new life in Christ necessarily involves socio-political ramifications.  Thus, St. Paul, in a pastoral and caring manner, encourages his fellow brother in Christ, Philemon, to embody this Gospel in his relationship with Onesimus.  Consider, for example, the strong emotional language Paul employs to urge Philemon to action, “I am appealing to you for my child [in the Lord], Onesimus” (v. 10, NRSV); “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17, italics added, NRSV); “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21, italics added, NRSV).  Acknowledging the strong rhetorical flavor of this letter, we may reasonably conclude that St. Paul expected Philemon to manumit Onesimus—to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Plm 16, NRSV).[5] Even if one were to concede that St. Paul to some degree participated in the cultural blindness of his day by not directly speaking against slavery as an institution (and in part due to his strong apocalyptic convictions), nonetheless, he does call the Christian community to a different standard, as it were, to kingdom values.

Many scholars, of course, are quick to point out that slaves were the economic backbone of Roman society.  For instance, Bartchy writes,

[i]n such an economic context it was virtually impossible for anyone to conceive of abolishing slavery as a legal-economic institution.  To have turned all the slaves into free day laborers would have been to create an economy in which those at the bottom would have suffered even more insecurity and potential poverty than before.[6]

Though this is no doubt true historically speaking, arguments along these lines have been employed (and sadly enough by Christians) to justify slavery as an institution.[7] As I shall contend in the concluding section, Christians ought to see slavery[8] as a consequence of the fall and, hence, as completely un-natural and inconsistent with God’s ideal for human beings and with human ontology (viz. as free beings).   Bartchy goes on to say that neither Jesus (nor the Twelve) nor St. Paul owned slaves.  By example of their own lives, both Jesus and the pioneers of early Christianity issued a challenge to the “early Christians to conceive of themselves as living already among themselves in an alternative social-legal environment.”[9] Through God’s activity of calling into being these “alternative households,” that is, Christian communities in which the slave/master relationship is relativized and slavery to Christ (the ultimate suffering, foot-washing Servant) is the only form of servitude that will continue into the eschaton, we see the Gospel and St. Paul’s exhortations to kingdom living issuing a threat to the economic structure of Roman society.[10]


[1] With Sampley and Witherington, I conclude that 1 Corinthians was composed in Ephesus in the late fall or early winter 53-54 AD. Cf.  Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 777.  Sampley presents his case for this early dating based on Paul’s travel information given in 1 Cor 16:5-9.   In this passage, Paul announces his plan to visit Corinth after a stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the second day of the Passover celebration (p. 776).  This has led some scholars to postulate that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians “in late fall or winter, leaving time for the pre-Pentecost, remaining work in Ephesus to which Paul alludes by the metaphor of the ‘wide door’ opened him there (1 Cor 16:9)” (p. 776).  The question then becomes, which late fall or winter?  According to Sampley, if one gives credence to the Acts 18 account of Paul’s missionary activity (vs. 22-23), coupled with the time needed to secure his mission in Ephesus, one may posit an early date for 1 Corinthians, ca. late fall or winter 53-54 AD (pp. 776-77).  Witherington also opts for an early dating (53-54 AD) of 1 Corinthians, pointing to the evidence of the inscription found at Delphi mentioning Gallio’s name, which corroborates with the Acts 18 account and thus allows us to establish a date for Gallio’s service in Corinth (50-51 or 51-52 AD) (see, Conflict and Community in Corinth, pp. 71-73).   With Brown, I hold that Philemon was also composed in Ephesus in 56 AD, approximately two to three years after 1 Corinthians. See, Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 507-8.  Felder opts for Rome as the place of composition and a later date as well (ca. 61 AD).  If Felder is correct, my overall argument is not diminished and perhaps even strengthened.  See, Felder, “The Letter to Philemon,” p. 884.

[2] Cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 506-7.

[3] Witherington concurs. Cf. Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 183.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 505.

[5] As Lewis highlights, it is curious that Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner of Christ,” rather than a “slave of Christ” (Phil 1:1) or a “slave” and “apostle” of Christ (Rom 1:1) (Lewis, “The Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” pp. 240-41).  In this letter, Paul is clearly appealing to Philemon as a friend and fellow brother; thus, he refrains from imposing apostolic authority.  Perhaps he avoids the title “slave of Christ,” because his aim is to persuade Philemon to manumit Onesimus and to en-flesh the eschatological reality of Christian relationships that characterize the next aeon in the present aeon.

[6] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[7] Cf. Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, p. 156, footnote 3.

[8] That is, human ownership of other human beings in which those owned are considered as “things” and property of their masters.

[9] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[10] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.  Witherington has similar comments, cf. e.g., Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 185.

Guest Post#5 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: 1 Cor 7:20-24 In Christ Equality and Its Horizontal Repercussions in the Christian Community and Beyond

One-in-Christ-229x300The post below as well as the one which shall follow deal with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


As many commentators observe, Corinth was a religiously diverse city of considerable socio-economic import. The Corinthian church was a microcosm of the social structures of the larger culture.  “There was no middle class in the Greco-Roman world.  At the top of the pyramid were a few rich persons who were, therefore, automatically persons of power and status.”[1] This reflection of the larger culture is indicated in 1 Cor 1:26, where St. Paul states that few of the saints at Corinth were wise according to worldly standards (σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα), few were powerful (δυνατοί), and few were of noble or high birth (εὐγενεῖς). Thus, we can reasonably posit that most in the church at Corinth were of low birth (perhaps slaves), weak or lacking in worldly power (perhaps women, who, in a patriarchal society, generally occupy subordinate socio-political positions), and unsophisticated, non-philosophical individuals (those whom the world considered“foolish”).  To these no-bodys (τὰ μὴ ὄντα, literally, “things that are not,” italics added) by worldly standards, St. Paul speaks words of immense encouragement:  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; 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 Cor 1:27-28, NRSV).  Yet, to those few in the Corinthian church who were wise, powerful, and high born, St. Paul’s words are meant to convict, to urge them back to God’s system of values, which in the eyes of the world is weakness and foolishness. St. Paul then informs the Corinthians of his purpose by reminding them who they were and who, by God’s gracious call, they now are in Christ:  “so that no one (πᾶσα σὰρξ) might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29-30, NRSV). As we shall see, St. Paul’s exhortation in this opening chapter to the Corinthian believers to relate to one another in a way that recognizes their mutual equal status in Christ is a theme permeates the letter as a whole and has particular bearing on our focus passage, 1 Cor 7:20-24.

1 Corinthians chapter 7 falls between St. Paul’s admonitions regarding lawsuits and sexual immorality and his directives concerning food offered to idols.  More specifically, chapter 7 consists of St. Paul’s responses to particular questions, which the Corinthians had raised and sent to him by letter on an earlier occasion (1 Cor 7:1). The focus of the present essay centers on St. Paul’s teaching regarding slaves in 1 Cor 7:20-24. Before explicating the more controversial aspects of my translation and interpretation of this passage, a few preliminary remarks are needed.

The Gospel for St. Paul necessarily affects one’s relationships with others, and, hence, ipso facto affects the broader socio-political sphere.  A believer’s redemption in Christ involves not only the vertical dimension (God and humans) but the horizontal dimension as well (humans and other humans).  In fact, the horizontal, socio-political dimension is precisely where the radical transformation resulting from one’s redemption is embodied and displayed to an on-looking world, for good or for ill.

Though many New Testament scholars often highlight the positive ways in which slaves in the Roman world were treated—some received an excellent education, others gained greater economic security than poor, free-born individuals—nonetheless, slaves were still considered legally the property of another person.  As S. Scott Bartchy observes, “a slave was a res, a thing, a chattel to be owned, bought, and sold.”[2] In addition to this de-humanizing reification, a slave could not enter into a legal marriage, could not represent himself or herself legally, could not inherit, and was subject to physical, sexual (particularly if a female but not excluding males) and other abuses by his or her master.[3] With these very concrete, tangible realities in mind, St. Paul wants the slave to understand who s/he is and to whom s/he now belongs.  Those who currently find themselves under the yoke of human masters are in actuality ἀπελεύθεροι κυρίου (v. 22), who have been “bought with a price” (v. 23), the shed blood and broken body of our Lord.  St. Paul, as one who knows what it is like to be concerned for his own safety and the well-being of others, to be beaten, to be despised and humiliated, is no doubt acutely aware of the daily hardships endured by slaves and exhorts them not to allow their current status as slaves consume them such that they forget who they truly are in Christ.[4] Yet, in the very same breath, he encourages them to seize their freedom, should they be presented with such an opportunity (v. 21).

As a pastor and fellow sufferer for the sake of Christ, St. Paul exhorts these slaves not to allow the cares of this (presently fading) world to consume them, causing them not only to lose sight of their Christocentric identity and mission, but perhaps also to lose hope.  Thus, for those slaves who are not presented with the opportunity to obtain their freedom (manumission was clearly not in their power to decide, as they were not considered persons under Roman law, and consequently, had no legal rights),[5] St. Paul wants to encourage them with the truth that in Christ they have been freed from the bonds of sin, and in Christ their status before God is not less but equal to their (free) fellow-Christians.

St. Paul likewise urges various other groups of believers at the church in Corinth (the married, unmarried, widows, virgins, 1 Cor 7:25-39) not to allow the understandable, legitimate concerns of this life to distract them from their kingdom callings. These exhortations as a whole must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic conviction that the “present world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). In fact, 1 Cor 7:25-31 is permeated with eschatological language, which reflects St. Paul’s belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., he expected the parousia to occur during his own lifetime).  For example, in the pericope immediately following our focus passage, he speaks of the “impending crisis” (1 Cor 7:26), stresses that the “appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), and, as just mentioned, describes the present structure of the world as “passing way” (παράγει γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, 1 Cor 7:31). With St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological views in mind, we are now in a position to discuss my translation and interpretation of 1 Cor 7:24.

In 1 Cor 7:24, St. Paul states, “[o]n account of this, brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation in which he was called, so remain” (ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ).  St. Paul has made use of an inclusio to frame this passage; yet, he has also varied his original theme.  In 1 Cor 7:20, we read, ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη, ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω, whereas in verse 24, we find two substitutions, (1) ἐν ᾧ for ἐν τῇ κλήσει and (2) ἐν τούτῳ for ἐν ταύτῃ.  Are these variations significant?  More specifically, do the substitutions in the second parallel passage serve both to establish the inclusio structure and yet simultaneously function as a prelude to the explicit eschatological themes in the pericope which immediately follows (1 Cor 7:25-31)? I contend that verse 24 does serve this dual purpose, as it creates an organic connection between the two passages (1 Cor 7:20-24 and 1 Cor 7:25-31)—passages, which must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological concerns and emphases. Moreover, emphasizing the temporal dimension of 1 Cor 7:24 helps us to make sense out of St. Paul’s exhortation in verse 21 (μᾶλλον χρῆσαι, “by all means, take advantage of it,” that is, of gaining your freedom).  If we fail to take into account St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic orientation, then his instructions that follow regarding marriage, re-marriage and celibacy can easily be misconstrued as “nay-saying” (Nietzsche) and as espousing a disparaging view of embodiment and life in this world.  In light of St. Paul’s knowledge of the OT teaching affirming the goodness of creation, his high view of the Incarnation, his teaching on the sacraments as a means for sanctification in this life, and his firm belief in our embodied state in the age to come, the principle of charity demands that we seek a more this-world-friendly interpretation.

Wrapping up my exegetical discussion of this pericope, to what does the “this” refer in the phrase which I have translated, “on account of this” (ἐν τούτῳ, v. 24)?  In verse 23, St. Paul commands the currently enslaved believers not to become slaves of human masters. Why?  Because they have been “bought with a price” (ἀγοράζω (agorazō),[6] Christ’s blood, whose value infinitely outweighs any monetary amount offered for the purchase of a human being.  Consequently, the only true Master for a Christian is Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of devotion and unyielding submission.[7] The Christian community then must exhibit kingdom relationships to the on-looking world—relationshipscharacterized not by the arbitrary, self-serving, exploitative standards of unregenerate human beings, but by mutual respect and recognition of the equal status of all believers before God.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV).

In the next post in our series, I shall bring the 1 Cor 7 passage into dialogue with St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.


[1] Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 814.

[2] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.

[3] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.  Bartchy acknowledges that slaves were considered property and things; yet, he seems at times to present an overly romanticized view of slaves in the Greco-Roman world, emphasizing the varied roles slaves had, depending on to whom they belonged.  Bartchy adds that slaves in the NT period constituted   a “logical” and a “juridical” class but not a social class (p. 544). I find this a somewhat confusing claim.  If such were the case, why would the apostle Paul feel the need to address gender and social status issues, as he does in our current passage as well as other crucial texts such as Gal 3:28?  For a less romanticized view of slavery in the Roman period, cf.  Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity.   Cf. also A.A. Rupprecht’s discussion of the use of the ergastulum to house slaves who worked in chain gangs (“Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background,  p. 881) and J.A. Harill’s comments on the severity of the physical torture of Roman slaves by means of the flagellum (“Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 1125).

[4] It is also worth highlighting that in 1 Cor 7:18-19, two verses immediately prior to our focus passage, Paul relativizes the circumcised verses uncircumcised distinction.  Thus, we have in close proximity two of the three distinctions annulled in Gal 3:28:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).  In light of Kenneth Bailey’s thesis that women in the Corinthian church had misconstrued Paul’s message and were engaging in anti-male sexism, perhaps the absence of the relativization of the male-female distinction in Christ was purposed by Paul. If so, once again, the cultural-historical and occasional nature of the letter must be stressed, and one must resist a “timeless truth” application of Paul’s commands to women in the Corinthian church (e.g., in 1 Cor 14:34-36) to our contemporary, ecclesial situation (cf. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 6ff.).

[5] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 184.

[6] The same verb is used in 1 Cor 6:20, where Paul exhorts the believers to, glorify God with their bodies, since they were “bought with a price.”

[7] The following goes beyond my competence, but I propose it as “food for thought.”  In contrast with the Covenant (Ex 20:22-23:33) and Deuteronomic (Dt 12-26) Codes, the Holiness Code in Lev 25:39-55 explicitly forbids the enslavement of fellow Hebrews, as they are God’s “slaves,” whom he delivered from Egyptian bondage (Lev 25:42).  Is it possible that Paul has Lev 25:39-55 in mind and is engaging in a Christocentric variation on an OT theme?  That is, just as the Hebrews were commanded by God not to re-enslave their fellow Hebrews because God himself had delivered them from the hands of their oppressors and made them his slaves, so too Christians, using Paul’s language, are slaves of Christ, having been bought with a price, Christ’s blood, and ideally are not to be the slaves of other human beings.  Brown, for example, notes that Paul “betrays his Jewish roots” in his outcry against the sexual immorality condemned in 1 Cor 5:1-2; “for marriage within such a degree of kindred was forbidden by the Mosaic Law” (Lev 18:8; 20:11) (An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 518).  Sadly, American slaveholders in the South appealed to Lev 25 to justify their proslavery position, claiming that just as God permitted the Hebrews to enslave other people groups, so too, they, as God’s chosen people, have a divine sanction to enslave African Americans (cf. Martin, “The Haustafeln,” p. 215).