The Messianic Politics of the Body – the Rev. Dr. Ray Pickett

Picture 002Professor Ray Pickett knows a thing or two about Paul. But as a pastor steeped in the life of the public church, he also knows very well how the message of the early church also has deep resonance in the public church. Here he reflects powerfully on the apostle Paul, especially his Epistles to the Corinthians and to the Romans, and how the notion of the body of Christ truly raises up all people and all voices to full participation in the church and in the world. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

Mural designed as part of the Art ministries of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church.



For about four years now I have been accompanying a group of ELCA pastors and leaders who call themselves the Organizing for Mission Cohort because they use the arts of community organizing to do community based ministry and develop new models of being church. My involvement with this group has challenged me and shaped me in profound ways. When the cohort gathered this past October at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, we spent three days discussing the following questions:

  • Who have you paid attention to in the past? Who are you paying attention to now? Who should you be paying attention to?
  • Who have you primarily been paying attention to in the past? Who are you accountable to now? Who should you be accountable to?
  • Who has benefited? Who is benefiting” Who should benefit?

I have been carrying those questions around with me now for several months. They are certainly pertinent questions for the wonderful discussions of diversity on this blog. They are questions that each of us can ask ourselves, but they are also political questions that we can and probably should ask during this election year.


In a striking move in both 1 Corinthians and Romans Paul invokes the human body as a metaphor for the community constituted by the messianic event, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus. The metaphor of the body was widely used in Greco-Roman political discussions of concord to illustrate how unity can exist within diversity in society. However, Greco-Roman authors and orators appealed to the political significance of the body in order to emphasize the predominance of the head so as to legitimate the hierarchical order of imperial society.

This usage provides the frame for the use of metaphor of the body in Paul’s letter where he challenges notions of class, status, and privilege assumed to be natural by elites. In this respect the vision of the social body Paul sets forth here is thoroughly political in that, as in Greco-Roman discourse, his primary concern is the relationship of the part, that is the individual, and the social body as a whole. Whereas Greco-Roman authors placed the emphasis on the unity of the whole, Paul emphasizes the importance of the diversity of the parts as they relate to the whole. It is a messianic politics of the social body predicated on the vindication of the crucified messiah that provides a paradigm for how diverse individual bodies are to regard and respond to one another.

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul indeed turns inside out conventions regarding social power by paradoxically identifying divine power and wisdom with the humiliation and vulnerability of the the crucified messiah. The logic of Paul’s argument is that the demonstration of God’s power in raising from the dead a Galilean Jew who was executed as an enemy of the Roman imperial order signaled a restructuring of the social order through a transvaluation of values. The political transformation inaugurated through the messianic event is mediated through the community organized according to this inversion of worth and advantage. This is reflected in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul, contrary to the traditional use of the body metaphor, claims that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (1 Cor. 12:22-23).

The Beatitudes Sermon – James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum, ca. 1890.

The discord surrounding the manifestation of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is an example of what Roberto Esposito describes as an inherent tension between the transcendence of community and a metaphysics of the individual. What he means by community as “the transcendental condition of our existence” is that we are constituted by community in that we have always existed in common. Community, Esposito says, is “what we need the most, as it is a part of our very selves”, and yet this foundational condition also causes a rupture in our own subjectivity because it jeopardizes the presumed absoluteness of the individual.[1] This is what he means by the metaphysics of the individual, “the individual enclosed in his [or her] own absoluteness.” According to Esposito, neither the individual nor the community “know how to embrace the other without absorbing and incorporating him [her], without making him [her] a part of themselves.” So the self-enclosed individual needs community, and yet, as he puts it, “community is precisely what is sacrificed on the altar of individual self-preservation.”

Esposito’s Pauline insight is that the way to loosen the grip of the self-enclosed impulse for self-preservation is the realization that community is characterized by a type of sharing, and what is shared is the lack each has imposed on one’s self through participation in the community. He cites a passage from Rousseau which is strikingly similar to Paul’s perspective in the Corinthian correspondence.


“It is man [human] weakness which makes him [us] sociable, it is our common miseries which turn our hearts to humanity … Men [Human beings] are not naturally kings, or lords, or courtiers, or rich men [people]. All are born naked and poor; all are subject to the miseries of life, to sorrows, ills, needs, and pains of every kind. Finally all are condemned to death, This is what truly belongs to man [humanity].[2]

In organizing these vanguard communities throughout the empire, Paul was guided by a vision of power through weakness and vulnerability defined by the practical wisdom of a crucified messiah vindicated by the one God “from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).

While such a vision may seem abstract, that is only the case if we lose sight of the fact that Paul’s invocation of the social body has its origins in the crucified body of Jesus and is grounded in the experience of material bodies. Indeed, 1 Corinthians can be read from beginning to end as concerned primarily with what individuals do in their bodies and how it affects the social body. What is paramount in 1 Corinthians 12 is a concern for the “whole” body and the greater value of what are deemed, by societal conventions anyway, the weaker and less honorable members of the social body in cultivating a communal ethos in which the members have “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:25).

LSTC staff-person, Sara Trumm, protesting against political corruption.

Given that in Paul’s view the telos of this messianic event through which a new social body is being formed is nothing less than a “new creation”, which is material as well as spiritual, then we would do well to give priority in the crisis of our time to black and brown bodies, refugee bodies, poor bodies, bodies in pain, be it physical, psychic, or social, if we are to have any hope of community that will delver us from the isolation, alienation and self-enclosure that that defines our own political situation.


[1] Roberto Esposito, Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 16. He cites Rosseau: “Our sweetest existence is relative and collective, and our true self is not entirely within us.”

[2] From Rousseau, On Education citied in Esposito, Terms of the Political, 18. See 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; 4:6-13; 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; 12:1-12.

102710.jpgRaymond Pickett, professor of New Testament, has been on the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago since 2009. After his ordination in 1989, Pickett served Bethany Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. for five years, and then Peace Lutheran Church in Manhattan, Kansas, for three years. He came to LSTC after teaching for twelve years at the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest.

Pickett received his his Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Sheffield. In addition to several articles and book reviews, he is the author of The Cross in Corinth: The Social Significance of the Death of Jesus and is a contributor to the multi-volume Fortress series entitled A Peoples’ History of Christianity, published in November of 2005. He also did the new SELECT DVD New Testament Introduction course with two other ELCA seminary professors. He frequently takes study groups to archeological sites in Greece, Turkey and Rome.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s