This is part 3 of a recent essay I wrote on Paul’s famous “One Body, Many Parts” metaphor as a practical guide for becoming a church that is unified across our ethnic and racial differences. Here I move into my exposition of 1 Corinthians 12.
A RACIAL/ETHNIC EXPOSITION OF 1 CORINTHIANS 12
In what follows, I am fully aware that Paul was not referring specifically to ethnic or racial diversity of parts in the Body. Still, the general principle I want to build upon is this: Just as spiritual gifts must work together harmoniously for the healthy functioning of the body of Christ (vv. 4-11), so I also our God-given ethnic identities should be viewed as a gift to the universal church to be exercised and stewarded responsibly for the harmonious functioning and compelling witness of the multiethnic Body of Christ.
With this in mind, Paul might write to today’s racially divided church in America: “Now about the gifts of the Spirit [including the gift of ethnic and racial diversity], brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed” (12:1). Just as “to each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (12:7), so to each person an ethnic identity and perspective has been given, and should be shared and received as a gift (or charism) “for the common good.”
The ethnic and racial unity we are called to pursue is rooted in our sharing in the one Spirit and our common allegiance and confession of “Jesus as Lord.” “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3). In the same way, no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God can use racial slurs, perpetuate anti-immigration rhetoric, fail to repudiate white supremacist ideologies, and so on. Likewise, no one who confesses “Jesus is Lord” should be found resisting the this same Lord’s work of confronting and working to heal the racial injustice all around us.
As we move into the heart of Paul’s body metaphor (vv. 12-31), united by one Spirit and confessing one Lord, we are then reminded our unity also derives from our new baptismal identity that must supersede any other identity markers including racial or ethnic or class or nation: “For we were all baptized by/with/in one Spirit so as to form one [multi-ethnic body]—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (v. 13).
At Pentecost, a new Body of 3,000 ethnically diverse ‘parts’ was formed from a pilgrims from a wide geographical arc (Acts 2:5-13). Onlookers who witnessed the birth of this new multiethnic Body accused them of having “had too much wine.” Indeed, they “were all given the one Spirit to drink” and being “drunk with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) elicited an intoxicating collective experience of a kind of fellowship capable of dulling our insensitivity to the ‘ethnic other.’
Let me pause to ask: Would onlookers observing the church in America today conclude we are drinking from the same Spirit? I fear certain segments of the church in America are in real danger of getting drunk on an altogether different kind of spirit—nationalism, identity politics, racial prejudice, etc.
Next, Paul emphasizes our mutual interdependence in the Body, which when applied to race/ethnicity, offers some of the following revolutionary and far-reaching principles for racial healing and cooperation in the church. First, just as we need all parts of the body, so we need all ethnic groups to be truly whole. “God has placed the [different ethnic] parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (v. 19).
Second, one ethnic group of Christians cannot to say to another ethnic group, “I don’t need you.” We might adapt Paul’s message to say, “If the Latino church should say, ‘Because I am not white, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body” (v. 15).
Third, if we compare each different ethnic group to “an eye,” we can appreciate how we need each “eye”—that is, each ethnic perspective—in order to see more clearly and charitably. That is, if the whole body were White/Caucasian, where would its colored vision be? Pushing the metaphor toward the absurd, we might put verse 17 thusly: “If the whole body were [white], where would the unique black perspectives be? If the whole body were Black, where would the Asian perspective be” (v. 17)? Paul concludes, “As it is, there are many [racial and ethnic perspectives], but one body” (v. 20). That is, we are all connected to one another even if we don’t acknowledge it, like it, or seek to understand and love the other ethnic parts of the Body.
Dr. King spoke eloquently of our struggle for justice and destinies also being interconnected:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”