Communities sometimes find themselves in deep division over really important issues. There is no universal answer to how to respond to these divisions, but one example from the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians, has been deeply influential for me, and one with conflicting messages in our present circumstances.
In the particular dispute that Paul is addressing in 1 Cor 11-14, among other divisions, some female prophets were apparently being “disruptive” to the community by not wearing the clothing that Paul believed was “natural” for women to wear. In response to this situation, Paul, to his discredit, asserts the hierarchy of men over women and admonishes these women to wear the clothing that communicates their properly gendered station in the cosmos. He allows them to prophesy under certain circumstances, but then goes on to undercut the gifts of prophesy these women were displaying, asserting that his own apostolic authority comes first. In his call for harmony among the Corinthians, he appeals to the baptismal formula that transcended their socio-ecomonic and ethnic divisions, as he had done in Galatians 3:28, but this time in 1 Cor 12:13 he drops out the call to transcend gender differences that was a part of that same baptismal covenant.
In spite of Paul’s problematic attempt to deal with the gender implications of his argument, one that failed to live up to the covenant of baptism, that substituted dress and grooming standards for the Holy Spirit, and that advanced gender hierarchy as a method of controlling women’s gifts, Paul offers here some useful tools for thinking about disordered communities. In Paul’s description of the community of followers of Christ joined in baptism, he compares the community to the body of Christ. Each member of the community is like a different part of the body. The body itself is made up of different parts, but in these differences is an ultimate unity.
Paul here relies on a common ancient metaphor, and one that was often used to justify hierarchy in households and empires. Aristocrats were like heads and slaves were like hands and feet. Paul’s metaphor, however, offers a somewhat different vision. While Paul too is interested in establishing hierarchy, asserting his own authority as supreme, his version of the body metaphor is much more egalitarian. He weaves the interdependence of the body parts together in such a way that there is no body part that deserves greater attention, not even the head. Each part should suffer with those that suffer, and the parts that belittle the suffering of the other parts are condemned.
To underscore this point, Paul mentions the body parts that are shameful and unpresentable (1 Cor 12:23), from which excrement and other pollutants flow. He lays out a vision of such a body in Christ that gives honor even to these dishonorable parts. Paul certainly had his moments, and I cannot help but think his call to love such parts is somehow self-interested. In his framing of the body of Christ, even assholes deserve respect.
Sometimes a lot of crap comes from the members of the body of Christ. That crap can even make other parts of the body sick. The thing is, all of us is at one time or another that shameful orifice. There is no doubt, some of us enjoy that position more than others and even come to take pleasure in that role (I hear great pleasures can reside there). There is also no doubt that some believe that they are the mouthpiece of God when they are in fact on the other end of the digestive tract. But what moves me and calls me deeply is the ethics of love for even these parts, what Paul calls a “most excellent way.”
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:4-8 NIV)
When I partake of the body of Christ each week, and covenant to remember it, I think of all of the parts of the body, even those that I would rather not, and what those dirty, polluting parts represent. They all make up the body of Christ and to take his name means to take some responsibility even for those parts.
There are some really big sources of shame that speak in our community. There is no utopian community. There is no body without something wrong with it. All bodies are imperfect. While I think that the gospel calls us to strive toward Zion, I also believe that this ultimate goal eludes us. We strive to make it better, but we must also accept that shameful parts are constitutive of any body. The call, I believe, is to learn to love even those parts. I will continue to try.