The Church as a Structure of Agape
Based on the Imitation of
The crucified is the substantive content of the divine agape as it takes its position at the apex of the triangle of desire. From that point on, Christian desire should mime the divine model and act in imitation of Christ. This has consequences for the nature of the apostolic ministry, the Christian community, and Christian behavior.
"Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ"
(1 Cor 4:16; 11:1)
The apostolic ministry is an imitation of the crucified Christ, which the Christian in turn should emulate. The believer is to mime the desire of the apostle as he mimes the desire of Christ. Thus Paul is a model/mediator of Christ, not a model/obstacle. He is not an obstacle because he deemphasizes his own importance by comparison with the relationship between the believer and Christ (1 Cor 2:2-4; 3:5). He does this by means of irony.
His chosen mode of self-presentation is irony, which is well suited both to his theological and historical situation. Theologically he represents the power of the Cross that is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), and historically he faces a group of "boasting" opponents whose boasting compels him to use the same kind of rhetoric, which he can only do ironically. Irony, therefore, undercuts the obstacle in the apostolic model, and provides a framework for the argument about status that is going on in the Corinthian congregation.
The most vivid example of ironic self-presentation occurs in the so-called tearful letter. (1) "One must boast" (2 Cor 11:30; 12:1) is a slogan of the opponents that Paul repeats sarcastically. After an ironically boastful introduction (2 Cor 11:16-23a) he recites a list of his sufferings of the kind we know from Cynic and Stoic sources under the name "difficult circumstances" (peristaseis) (2) (cf. 1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 4:7-12; 6:4-10). In the boasting passage (2 Cor 11:16-23a) that introduces the peristaseis list (2 Cor 11:23b-29) the term "fool" (aphron and its derivatives) occurs five times in six verses, and as he begins his recitation of the grounds for his claim to be a superior servant of Christ, he interrupts himself to exclaim, "Now I'm really talking like an idiot!" (2 Cor 11:23b).
The list that follows must, therefore, be taken ironically; such lists were used by the missionaries of other gods, and perhaps by the opponents, to show their hearers how many difficulties their god had saved them from, as proof of the power and care of the divinity. Paul, on the contrary, uses one to show how many difficulties Christ did not deliver him from, as proof of the dialectical power of the Cross, and as a parody of the status claims of his opponents. The comical escape from Damascus in a basket sets the seal on this burlesque of status (2 Cor 11:32-33), and the conclusion "When I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor 12:10) summarizes the whole point of the irony.
The theme of strength through weakness is the dominant theme of the "tearful" letter, and it presents the apostle both as the scapegoat whose sufferings bring advantage to the church, and as the one who understands agapaic mimesis. Rather than enter into the rivalry by imitating the opponents' desire for power and prestige, he enters ironically by imitating the weakness and humiliation of Christ, and identifying with the weaknesses of his congregations. "Who is sick and I am not sick? Who is made to stumble and I am not furious?" (2 Cor 11:29). In weakness the power of Christ to diffuse mimetic rivalry is most effective; so it is not despite his affliction that Paul is a successful apostle of Christ, but precisely because of it (cf. the dialectical role of Israel in the plan of salvation). "Therefore, I am content with weakness, contempt, persecution, deprivation, and frustration, for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor 12:10). This strength is precisely the power of agapaic mimesis, of the imitation of Christ crucified, to dispel the erotic mimesis of rivalry for status. This is the specific content of the exhortations to imitate him that the apostle makes to his rivalrous congregation.
The calls to imitate the apostle are closely tied by their contexts to the substance of agape. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 the call occurs in association with several exhortations to loving humility. "Let no one seek his own advantage but rather the advantage of the other" (1 Cor 10:24), and "be without offense to Jews and Greeks and to the church of God, even as I seek to please all persons in all things, not seeking my own advantage but that of the many, in order that they might be saved" (1 Cor 10:32-33). This is what it means to imitate Christ through imitation of the apostle.
A second exhortation to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16b) explicitly identifies the apostles with the victims of sacred violence, and thus confirms our understanding that for Paul the antidote to sacred violence is identification with the victim. It comes at the end of a catalogue of adversities in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 of the kind that we have already seen. The extended metaphor of victimage begins in 1 Corinthians 4:9 with the apostles in the arena as condemned criminals (epithanatious). Condemned criminals are traditionally in the position of sacrificial victims, and in Latin the word sacer is used to describe them. The apostolic misfortunes produce the opposite good fortune for their congregations, just as the sufferings of the scapegoat secure blessings for the community. The passage culminates in the explicit identification of the apostles as scapegoats: "We have become like the scapegoats of the world, the noxious waste of all things, until now" (hos perikatharmata tou kosmou egenathamen, panton peripsama, heos arti -- 1 Cor 4:13).
He applies the metaphor of the apostles as victims and scapegoats as a moral exhortation to the community, to eschew rivalry and embrace humility. Since he is the father of the congregation (1 Cor 4:15), his children should imitate him in his humility and willingness to serve, and thus cease from "puffing" themselves up (1 Cor 4:6, 18).
The apostles and their followers do not imitate moral examples from the life of Jesus, but the summary act of the crucifixion, the crucified Christ in his act of self-sacrifice rather than any specific pattern of ethics drawn from the memory of his life. The fact of the divine self-emptying is paradigmatic (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:5-11). "To imitate Paul and Christ means to be conformed to Christ's suffering and death in the giving of oneself over to the service of others" (3) (cf. Phil 3:10; Rom 15:1-3; Gal 6:17). The historical background of the concept of the imitation of the divine is something like the dramatic presentation of the cult myth in the cult of Dionysos, not in the details but in the major moments. Paul probably received this idea of imitation as part of the common Hellenistic culture of which he was a part, in the same way as Philo received it. (4)
Paul's use of the term in general confirms its connection with mimetic theory. In 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9 he tells folk to imitate the fact that he did not sponge off the community but worked with his own hands. This working is one of the "difficulties" that in 1 Corinthians 4:12 is the mark of the apostle as scapegoat. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6 mimesis is specifically the imitation of Christ, and in Philippians 3:17-18 those who imitate the apostle are contrasted with those who live as "enemies of the Cross of Christ."
The personal history of Paul the apostle as the model and mediator of agapaic mimesis is a critical link in the chain of theological argument. He makes his "difficult circumstances" paradigmatic of apostolic existence, but in so doing draws on conventional lists of hardships. However, in addition to such semistylized self-presentations, he does not hesitate to use his own personal experience as the basis for his theology. We have already seen how he made his conversion paradigmatic of faith as the transfer from the side of the executioners to the side of the victim. We must now consider the remarkable claim that he bore "the marks of the victim" (Gal 6:17).
The victim of mob violence is often singled out because of a physical peculiarity that becomes the mark of the victim. Any extraordinary feature -- physical affliction, great ugliness, or great beauty -- could be an invitation to victimage, as long as it was combined with vulnerability. There was something about Paul that made him publicly contemptible from time to time. We believe that he suffered from an affliction of the eyes, as Galatians 4:12-20 suggests. Eye trouble is the most likely "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12:7), because Paul was visibly stricken when the Galatians first saw him, in such a way as would tempt people to despise him and turn away. He came to them with the mark of the victim on him.
Galatians 4:12-20 begins with a reference to imitation that reveals the mimetic structure of the whole passage. "Become as I am because I also have become as you are, I beseech you brothers" (Gal 4:12). Betz says that this is a cliche from the courtesies of friendship, and if so it would confirm the mimetic theory of friendship. (5) Paul reminds the Galatians that they did not scorn or despise him. At this point the language recalls the traditional response of turning away from one possessed by a demon, but the Galatians did not do that. The link in the popular mind between demon possession and disfiguring affliction was close, but the fact that the Galatians did not follow custom but received him as Christ himself transformed the demonic into the divine by breaking the power of the scapegoat mechanism. By accepting rather than expelling the marked victim, the Galatians transformed rivalry into sympathy, and sympathy caused them so to identify with him in his sufferings that they were prepared if it were possible to exchange eyes with him! The conflictual erotic mimesis was transformed into consensual agapaic mimesis that accepted rather than expelled the marked victim and so identified with him that it desired to lift the mark from him onto itself. Rather than sacrifice the victim, agape wanted to sacrifice itself on behalf of the victim.
For Paul the zealous Judaizers, on the other hand, are full of erotic rivalry, as can be seen from the language Paul uses to describe them, especially the use of the term "zeal." They "pay zealous court to you" (zaloo -- Gal 4:17), he says, and in 2 Corinthians 11:1-6, at the heart of the "tearful" letter, we find a similar erotic use of the term zaloo. However, the fact that he asks permission to play the fool (2 Cor 11:1) before he launches into the erotic confession of 2 Corinthians 11:2-6, shows that the confession is ironic. "I am zealous for you with the zeal of God" (2 Cor 11:2a) is probably a slogan of the opponents (cf. 1 Cor 6:12,13; 10:23) that Paul quotes ironically. The true zeal is not erotic self-seeking, like Eve's and the opponents, but agapaic self-giving that mimes Christ.
The apostolic ministry is above all a ministry of reconciliation. This can be seen best in the "triumphal" letter, by noting the way Paul uses the two peristaseis lists (2 Cor 4:7-12; 6:4-10) in that letter to bracket the discussion of reconciliation, as if to say that reconciliation can take place only through knowledge of the mechanism of the scapegoat.
In this Letter the note of rhetorical irony has been replaced by a straightforward recognition that suffering is an integral part of the apostolic ministry. It is no longer necessary to use rhetorical irony because the conflict is over. The "triumphal" letter marks the resolution of the problem of rivalry and the reconciliation between the apostle and the congregation. Nevertheless, the theological irony of power through weakness does not abate.
The "triumphal" letter comprises the following sections: (1) the introductory thanksgiving -- 2 Cor 2:14-17; (2) letters of recommendation, and the relationship between the letter and the spirit -- 2 Cor 3:1-18; (3) this ministry is a treasure in earthen vessels -- 2 Cor 4:1-15; (4) a digression caused by the reference to "things unseen" in 2 Cor 4:18, on heavenly existence; (5) the ministry of reconciliation -- 2 Cor 5:11-6:13; (6) concluding summary -- 2 Cor 7:2-4.
The gravamen of the letter is in sections 3 and 5 on the nature of the apostolic ministry as a ministry of reconciliation. This stands to reason given that the letter celebrates reconciliation and the end of rivalry. The peristaseis lists bracket these passages on reconciliation. The first list (2 Cor 4:8-12) states the scapegoat theme explicitly: "always bearing in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our body. For while alive we are always being handed over to death on account of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, life in you" (2 Cor 4:10-12). The apostle suffers on behalf of his congregation.
In the second list (2 Cor 6:4-10) the scapegoat theme is closelylinked with the imitation of the paradigm of Christ's humiliation as described in 2 Corinthians 8:9, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, being rich, he made himself poor for our sake, so that we might, through the poverty of that man, become rich." The apostle echoes this in the second list when he says that the apostles are "poor men who make others rich" (2 Cor 6:10).
Between these "scapegoat" brackets the description of the ministry unfolds as a ministry of reconciliation. The points of the argument are: (1) this reconciliation is the result of a new creative act comparable to the first creation (2 Cor 4:6; 5:17); (2) it takes place by means of the mimetic identification with Christ in his death and the translation of that into the mutual service of agape (2 Cor 5:14-15; 21); (3) agapaic mimesis is a way of knowing the other that is the opposite of the status-laden way of the "flesh" (2 Cor 5:16). Knowledge "according to the flesh" is knowledge from within the coils of mimetic rivalry (cf. Gal 5:20-21), and specifically for the apostle, from within the violent system of the Judaism he once represented as a persecutor.
We have, therefore, in these passages on the ministry of reconciliation, a good example of the reformation of eros to agape by the replacement of the model/obstacle pole of the triangle by the divine victim. The self-sacrifice of Christ as the model for agapaic mimesis reconciles the world to the creator and the creatures to one another by redirecting desire to the pole of true transcendence. The sin of Adam is reversed, the proper mimetic relation to the creator restored, and the prohibition reconstituted as the command to agape.
In all this the apostle appears as the representative of the divine victim, and the apostolic sufferings reveal and transform the scapegoat mechanism. From now on we are all scapegoats, and if we are all scapegoats, then nobody is a scapegoat. The rule of the surrogate victim mechanism is over and the new creation is here, "the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (4:6). The Christian community is the vanguard and proleptic presence of this new creation.
The Church as the Body of the
Love is a relational and therefore a communal category. It is inconceivable that love should be solitary or confined to one relationship. Miming the divine desire means loving all the creatures of God, and that means at least participation in a loving community. That is why the Christian community is essential to Paul's understanding of Christian existence, and why his deepest satisfaction comes from being the founder of churches. Love is phenomenologically the ideal quality of life in the Christian community (1 Cor 8:1; 12:31; 14:1; Gal 5:22; Phil 2:1-2), a life whose structure is faith and hope, and whose Spirit is love. The context of 1 Corinthians 13 is the problem of that strain on community placed by rivalry concerning gifts of the Spirit. The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love as the greatest of the gifts should be arbiter in the community, precisely because the gift that eschews the ambition to preeminence is the preeminent gift. Love, therefore, is a summary term for the structure of human existence in the Christian community.
The church is metaphorically the body of Christ, and 1 Corinthians 12 is the classic passage on that theme. The church under the sign of the Cross is the body of the victim and so the target rather than the source of sacred violence. The astonishing fact that some people thought that the cursing of Jesus could be inspired by the Holy Spirit can be explained only by the fact that they thought that the weak and crucified Jesus had been transcended by the powerful resurrected Christ (1 Cor 12:1-3). The cursers were not Gnostics who despised the flesh of Jesus, but mimetic rivals who despised his weakness, and his status as a victim. Against this Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 12 that the church in this world is the body of the crucified and that weakness and humility cannot be left behind or despised.
The context of 1 Corinthians is mimetic rivalry among groups within the congregation, and the argument against it culminates here in the metaphor of the body and the hymn to agape (1 Corinthians 12 and 13). The nub of the argument is that mimetic rivalry in the congregation misunderstands the significance of the Cross (1 Cor 1:18-31), and travesties the sacraments of eucharist and baptism (1 Cor 10:14-22; 11:17-34; 12:13) by construing the power of Christ as the power of the executioner rather than the power of the victim.
The nature of the sacraments precludes mimetic rivalry because they are essentially rites of identification with the victim. The celebration of the eucharist is the center of self-awareness for this community and it is a celebration of the death of Christ (1 Cor 11:26). They are all comrades of the altar (koinonoi tou thysiastariou -- 1 Cor 10:18) and as such equal. In using this metaphor of the altar fellowship, Paul is not interpreting the death of Christ as a sacrifice, but merely using the metaphor to make the point of community solidarity. The altar functions in the same rhetorical way as the loaf in the statement, "because there is one loaf, we, being many, are one body" (1 Cor 10:17). The death of Christ unites them in a fellowship of agape; "let no one pursue his own interest but rather the interest of the other" (1 Cor 10:24).
Therefore, Paul's argument against rivalry is ultimately based on the significance of the Cross. There is only one crucified victim and so there can be only one community (1 Cor 1:13; 3:11).
The Ethical Implications of the
Mimesis of Love
What does human behavior look like when the divine agape becomes the apex of the triangle of desire? Mimesis as such cannot be avoided, because it is constitutionally human, but it can be nonrivalrous. The Christian community sounded on that possibility of nonrivalrous mimesis, and in two places Paul gives us a description of the behavior that should flow from it.
From the point of view of our theory, which links mimetic violence and idolatry, it is remarkable to see that Paul makes the same linkage in his argument that agape is the way to deal with conflict and rivalry. In 1 Corinthians 10 we have a midrash on the wandering in the wilderness, from a mimetic point of view. All the signs of mimetic violence are present under the rubric of idolatry -- desire, sacrifice, and eroticism. These signs recall the current rabbinic analysis of the progress of sin from desire to idolatry. "Craving" (epithymia) leads to discontent with God's providence, which leads to the testing of God, and finally to apostasy and idolatry. (6) Paul's aim in this passage is to warn against moral overconfidence in the controversy about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13), but the deeper argument is against mimetic rivalry and sacred violence, of the kind exemplified in the story of the wilderness wandering. The moral point is that the "enlightened" ones should not idolize their freedom of conscience by treating it as an absolute right, but should curb it with respect to the demands of agape, which is the only absolute. In this case agape takes the form of the demand to "build up" the church (1 Cor 8:1). To insist on the absolute freedom of conscience without concern for fellow members of the church is to practice the mimesis of sacred violence that is idolatrous.
Under the rubric of Romans 13:10, that love works no wrong to the neighbor and therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law, there follows in Romans 14 and 15 a discussion that illustrates what this means in practical terms. Romans 14:13-23 is a good example of the structure of Paul's good mimesis in the form of a nonlegalistic ethic. It begins by identifying the wrong form of mimesis precisely as a scandal (to me tithenai proskomma to adelpho e skandalov -- Rom 14:13; cf. 1 Cor 8:9), and says that rather than condemn the other, one should resolve not to put an obstacle or a scandal in the way. The mimetic sense of scandal is precisely the model/obstacle of the triangle of rivalry. In our terms, therefore, Paul warns his readers not to become model/ obstacles to the desire of each other but rather to renounce rivalry, even if it means foregoing actions approved by one's own conscience.
In historical terms the obstacle or scandal in this case is to eat nonkosher food because one's own conscience allows it, in the presence of somebody who considers that to be a sin. The effect of this behavior is the activation of rivalry in its more obvious forms. The eating tempts those who do not eat for the sake of conscience to imitation, and they, in turn, mobilize the resources of resistance. The eaters display superior enlightenment that calls forth the superior piety of the noneaters. The community is wracked by mutual recrimination (Rom 14:4, 13) that threatens its unity. There is mutual scapegoating.
Instead of regaining unity through unanimous scapegoating, however, the eaters are in imitation of Christ (kai gar ho Christos ouch eauto eresen -- Rom 15:3) to renounce this right for the sake of agape. Jews and gentiles within the congregation are to accept one another as Christ has accepted them (Rom 15:7). In renouncing this right and accepting in effect the constraints of the Mosaic Law, the eaters will be imitating Christ specifically in his submission to Jewish Law, as a "servant of the circumcision for the sake of the truth of God" (Rom 15:8). Rather than defend their right of conscience, they are to forgo it for the sake of the unity of the community. This is agape as good, nonrivalrous mimesis, because it mimes the self-sacrifice and renunciation of Christ.
The position Paul takes in Romans 14-15 is the opposite of the position he took in Galatia. There he was adamant that his Christians not compromise with Jewish custom; here he actually urges them to respect the scruples of their Jewish fellow Christians in the matter of food, not just theoretically but actually by observing their taboos. This shows that Paul does not intend to erect a competing structure of sacred violence. This reversal of position is the ethical counterpart of the disclaimer with which he ends Galatians, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is ultimately important, but new creation (Gal 6:15; cf. 1 Cor 9:19-21). This is what it means for agape to build up the community (Rom 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor 8:1b), as a group in which there can be diversity of behavior and observance, and in which the mimesis of the divine love is the only ethical absolute.
Thus the transcendental fact of faith in Christ can have several different ethical outcomes in this world as long as they all can be fitted under the rubric of agape. Such faith renders the specific differentiations of culture and custom nugatory by comparison with the unifying imperative of agape, and undermines the possibility of the church being another closed sect.
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1. 2 Cor is a conglomerate of shorter letters. According to C. K. Barrett (A Commentary on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 11-14) they are the following: (1) The tearful letter (2 Cor 2:4) = 2 Cor 10-13; (2) the "triumphal" letter (2 Cor 2:14) = 2 Cor 2:14-6:13, 7:2-4; (3) a travel letter = 2 Cor 1:1-2:13; 7:5-16; 9:1-15. The rest of the text we may leave unclassified for our present purpose.
2. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 89.
3. Furnish, Theology and Ethics, 223.
4. H. D. Betz, Nachfolge and Nachahmung, 60, 86, 135-36.
5. H. D. Betz, Galatians, loc. cit.
6. B. Gerhardsson, The Testing of God's Son.