The Flesh

AORAn excerpt from Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Volume I by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries:

Therefore, from now on we regard no one from a human point of view. Even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new! (II Cor 5:16-17) [1]

The apostle urges disciples to view the world no longer “from a human point of view”—literally, “according to the flesh.”   The “flesh” (Gk sarx) does not refer to our bodies or our sexual passions, the widespread misunderstanding of Christian pietism. [2] Rather, it is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for the deeply-rooted, socially-conditioned worldview we inherit from our upbringing. It is the sum total of personal and political constructs and conventions that define what it means to be a member of a given culture—in other words, the way most folk think and act. A key example of the perspective of the “flesh” that we raise throughout this project is the dominant assumption that the “moral” response to violation is punishment. To challenge this cultural conviction quickly engenders passionate and often irrational resistance that is both broad (i.e. the majority opinion) and deep (welling up from the core of individual psyches). This is the power of the “flesh” in Paul’s sense.

Paul believed that this social formation, however majoritarian, is fundamentally deforming to the biblical understanding of what it means to be human. The flesh dictates what and how we “know,” constrains our imagination and locks us into habitual enslavements of all kinds. [3] Philosopher Daniel Quinn (1992) remetaphorizes this socialization as “Mother Culture”; N.T. scholar Walter Wink refers to it as the “Domination System” (1992a:13ff). The deep biblical metaphor would be “bondage under Pharaoh.” But this is always apprehended through the Exodus lens of YHWH’s promise of liberation. Thus the apostle’s next assertion is that those who are in communion with Christ have adopted a radically new perspective (5:17).

Paul’s vocabulary of the “new creation,” which eclipses the “old things that have passed away,” places the whole passage in a decidedly apocalyptic—which is to say world-transformative—framework. [4] Conversion is not only an inner change of heart, or a private change of mind, but a revaluation of everything. This is at once both profoundly personal and political. [5] But Paul does not want this apocalyptic language misunderstood as implying a divinely-ordained destruction of the world, as so many modern fundamentalists have done. [6]

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[1] Both verses begin with the Greek hōste, “therefore,” which in Pauline rhetoric is “resumptive,” meaning that these ideas follow necessarily from what Paul has been asserting in the epistle up to this point.

[2] This misconstrual of the meaning of sarx lies behind a long history of Christian Gnosticism and Docetism, expressed both through ancient asceticism and modern spiritualism. It has been particularly hard on women, and all somatic and sensate ways of knowing.

[3]   “…though we once knew (Gk ginōskō)…” alludes to what we might call “cultural epistemology”—how we know what we know in a given context. Paul most fully argues this issue in Romans 8, where sarx appears 14 times.

[4] The literature on apocalyptic symbolism and the N.T. is voluminous. For good introductions see Myers (1988:388ff); Howard-Brook and Gwyther (1999:46ff); Beker, 1982.

[5] Each of our testimonies in Vol. II, Part Two involve such conversion, whether it is Joe Avila deciding to take personal responsibility for having killed a young woman in a drunk driving accident (II, 4A); Marietta Jaeger’s “wrestling with God” to change her hatred toward the man who murdered her daughter; or the journey of Nelson Johnson from political rage to truth and reconciliation (II, 7B).

[6] For a critique of this popular heresy, see Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed (2004); Howard-Brook and Gwyther (1999:3ff).

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