restricted access 1. Identity and the Embodiment of Privilege in Corinth
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1 Identity and the Embodiment of Privilege in Corinth Love L. Sechrest Introduction 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 openhanded 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 essay explores the nature of Paul’s vision of Christian ministry and the association between physical identity and privilege. Though interpreters speculate about the arguments that gave rise to Paul’s responses in 2 Corinthians, many suspect that 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 9 emphasizes his brokenness, humiliation, and suffering as an “earthen vessel,” interpreting these qualities as the preferred expressions of participation in Christ. Here I consider 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 these concepts interact with the situation in 2 Corinthians. 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 (Green 2008; Westfield 2008; Tatum 1997). 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 interactions in public spaces in the United States manifest embedded value judgments about bodies, ordering them by gender, ethnoracial identity, and apparent socioeconomic position.1 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 (Feagin 2006: 33–48; Tatum 1997: 7–9). 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 (McIntosh 1990: 32–35). Privilege is relative, varying by the complexities of multiple identity attachments, and context sensitive, varying by social location or setting. The relative privilege may be seen in the fact 10 | 1 and 2 Corinthians that a black female college professor...