Nuanced Identities

This week, we’re revisiting a conversation from 2018 between Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Angela Parker, Professor at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, as they explore the passage of 1 Corinthians 4:8-13.

Dr. Parker starts by offering some context about the port city of Corinth and the people who make up the church Paul is writing to. It’s a divided city, concerned with hierarchy and proximity to power. Dr. Parker challenges us to consider Paul’s ethnicity, gender, and position as we wonder about “what might be going on underneath the text,” which also invites us to wrestle with our own nuanced identities as readers of the text.

About our Guest:

Dr. Parker has a PhD in Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics (New Testament focus) from Chicago Theological Seminary. Her teaching, research, and writing revolve around New Testament texts studied through the lens of womanist and postcolonial thought. She sees this work as particularly important for contemporary Christian communities seeking to wrestle with Scripture in light of violence and injustice.

Prior to receiving her PhD, Dr. Parker earned a Master of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC, and a BA from Shaw University, a historically black institution in Raleigh, NC. Ordained as a Baptist minister and well-versed as a teacher in the church, Dr. Parker’s academic teaching experience comprises courses in New Testament and Biblical Greek. Additionally, her forthcoming publications include the following: “Visions of Liberation in the Midst of Domination: A Feminist/Womanist Dialogue on Romans 8:18-24”; and “A Womanist View of Racial Reconciliation and the Apostle Paul.”

In addition to all of these activities, Dr. Parker enjoys time spent with her husband, Victor, as they explore all that the Pacific Northwest has to offer.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well, one of my most favorite faculty to play with Dr. Angela Parker. Angela, thank you again for joining us.

Angela: Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to sit with you, Dan.

Dan: Thank you. Well, one of the things I asked was that you pick a passage that means a lot to you. Yes. And so you pick one out of the Corinthian epistles. And I am, I’ve always been very drawn to first and second Corinthians so I was kind of happy and then you pick one that I just have to tell you, we could go well beyond our 20 some minute spectrum. So yes, we can jump in. So. Read the passage for us. And then I have so many questions.

Angela: Wonderful. Well, I’m reading from the NRSV version, and Paul has basically begun the letter to the Corinthians with his greetings as standard and normal and begun to think about some of their differences in their particular ecclesia or their particular church gathering and verse eight, he says, “Already, you have all you want. Already you have become rich, quite apart from us you have become Kings. Indeed. I wish that you had become Kings so that we might be Kings with you for, I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals, we are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in distribute to the present hour, we are hungry and thirsty. We are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless when persecuted we endure, when slandered we speak kindly, we have become like the rubbish of the world, the drugs of all things to this very day.” Well, you have to imagine how Paul writes and, I can imagine Paul, well, I’m blanking if this is one of the, one of the letters that he writes in his own hand, because, you know, Paul has a lot of secretaries who also writes for, for him and he dictates, but I can just imagine the feverishness of how he’s addressing this particular section of first Corinthians to, to the ecclesia at Corinth, because the ecclesia at Corinth is a, a church that’s made up of people who have colonized Corinth after a war. And so you have people who were working militarily as soldiers, and then they retire from the military and they get a piece of land. And so they’ve basically settled in this land, but they also brought some, some of their own natural ways. I don’t wanna say pagan because I don’t like using the term pagan, but their own ways to the ecclesia. And you have to realize that current is a port city as well. So it’s, it’s surrounded by water. It’s maritime. You have people coming in and out. So it’s a bustling area and you have a group of people who are Jesus followers, but they’re also kind of living in their own uppty-ness.

Dan: Their own hierarchical arrogance.

Angela: Yes. Their own hierarchical arrogance. That’s a good phrase.

Dan: So they are in one sense at each other’s throats with particular leaders that they have identified with. So it’s, you know, when I think of Corinthians, it’s the divided city. Yes and that sense power is dispensed through who, you know yes. And who you have affiliated with. 

Angela: Patronage is still very real in Corinth. And so who, who hosts the church, who has the capacity to bring people in, who has the capacity to have servants, to serve people as well. And that does create that hierarchy that is very relevant in the Corinth text.

Dan: So it’s, well, we could talk about the text, but before I get too much further in that, how did more than, how did you pick this? How did this passage pick you?

Angela: I think that the passage picked me because in the history of interpretation for Paul, we have esteemed Paul as the heroic apostle. Now I do not mind thinking about Paul as the heroic apostle, but oftentimes I question some of the language that he uses to say, to ask myself, is he really heroic or is there something going on under this text? And as a woman, who’s preached the gospel for a number of years, I think I’m becoming more comfortable with what is going on underneath the text.

Dan: Oh. Talk, talk, talk. What’s underneath?

Angela: I think what’s underneath is Paul is really using his own example of his bodily experience to liken himself to the least of the world. And I like that about Paul. I like that he does that. However, when I think about the least of the world, even in the Corinth context, I still wonder if he is truly the least of the world in the Corinth context. So I’m thinking about the Corinthian women profits that come up in chapters 11 and I believe chapter seven, where the women are praying and prophesying, and they’re doing this ecstatically and I kind of liken the Corinthian women prophets to women in the church who have an elevated position. But then I think about the women in the church who may not have an elevated position. And so I almost have this scale. I don’t wanna say dichotomy or dualistic thinking about women in the Corinthian church, but I’m still thinking on a continuum of women who are praying and preaching prophesying who may have a little bit more hierarchical leverage as opposed to the lower women who have no hierarchical leverage and may be working in serving with the church. And I almost feel as though Paul is thinking of himself a little bit, even lower than those women. And so I question that, but I like what he does.

Dan: And, and what, in essence, what do you see him doing?

Angela: Well, I’ve made the argument in the Galatians context that when Paul uses his body to talk about birthing people for Jesus, that I think he’s trying to do the same type thing here, especially when he says that we have been exhibited as apostles as last of all and exhibited even unto, the being spectacle to the world, to the angels and to the mortals and that language, that language of spectacle and that language of exhibition is the language of the, the captive that is being exhibited during a parade, think of a parade where the emperor has come back and is victorious in battle. And the booty of that battle are the people who are being dragged behind the carriage. And so Paul is actually liking himself to those people being dragged behind the carriage. And when I think about Roman Imperial art and ideology, oftentimes there are women being dragged behind that carriage as well. But what you get for the women is a state of undress. You get a state of potentially being raped and abused. And so I see what Paul does, but I still think that there’s a different way of how we experience being spectacles based on gender. Right. And so I question, I like what he does, but I still question and want to problematize it.

Dan: Yeah. And so it, see if I can put words to at least a phrase or two that, you know, Paul in a patriarchal culture writing in some ways has almost a biblical patriarch. Is in some ways using his power to take away his power, but he can’t fully take away his power because, his power is in some sense, almost ontological. Kind of like you, you can discard it but the fact that you can discard it also implies you’ve got a power to pick it back up.

Angela: Exactly. However, you can argue that Paul does have less power ethnically because the Corinthian folks are mostly nations or Gentiles as we turn to call them and in the context of Corinth Jewish people would be ethnically other or ethnically less than. So what we have to begin to think about even in the Pauline text is how to nuance Paul’s ethnicity in addition to Paul’s bodily experience. And then even as we think about what it means for us in conversations of church today, how we can have good nuanced conversations about ethnicity and gender that recognize a continuum of privilege and a continuum of hierarchy, but how we can have good conversations about it. So I think this hits me because I sit here with you and I’m an African American woman whose family have roots in the deep south. We were part of a migration from the south to the north. And then for me to be in Seattle, Washington is just unfathomable for my own family history. And so I have to reconcile what my own privilege looks like as an educated woman, but then still think about my ethnicity and my gender and how they can be viewed as less privileged. So, Paul is actually fertile playground for me to think through all of these issues and then to have conversations about what all of this means in a church that often tries to universalize our experience of Christianity.

Dan: Well, let, let me think about it, perhaps just a slight bit more. Personally, directly. What does that mean for us? You ,Angela, me, Dan. Not just in this podcast, but in how we work together.

Angela: I think it means that oftentimes we think we can work with complete symmetry, meaning I’m completely equal. You’re completely equal and we have our conversations. And if you were sitting with us right now, you’d see my hands up and equality, and then coming together for conversation. However, I would argue that what that means for us in conversation. Sometimes we have to be asymmetrical. You can be bigger and I can hold you in that bigness, but sometimes you have to decrease. I can be bigger and you can hold me in my bigness. And then I decrease. So it’s this, it’s a never ending cycle of how we can hold and be with one another when sometimes I have to be big and sometimes you have to be big and sometimes I have to be little and sometimes you have to be little. So recognizing that sometimes I have to be thoughtful and think about what white fragility may look like, or how white fragility may feel. And sometimes you have to be thoughtful and think about, well, what does Angela’s ethnicity? And what does Angela’s gender mean for her just by getting to school on certain days where just getting here and walking through the streets of Seattle, she could be accosted. What does that mean for her? And how can I help support even in that situation. So that’s how we, that’s how we do this in relationship with one another.

Dan: Well, and that’s something that requires a level of humility on both parts. And, and that’s what I see. Paul in this category. Yes. In some ways though, I also see him as really ironic.

Angela: Yes.

Dan: And usually irony is in the hands of those who have wit and wit alone, in many ways creates a lack of equality. The person who can use language, you know, would I be that you were Kings, so that I could be a king with you? And then he basically says, let me tell you what it’s like, to be me. I’m impoverished. I’m beaten. I’m the scum of the earth. My translation says, I’m this, we are scum and we are garbage. So, you know, as you read the intersection of reversal, like irony is always a form of reversal. But in that, if you just go a few verses later, he goes on to say, I don’t say this to shame you. Right. But to warn you and then goes into, again, a bit of a different birth metaphor, because in this case he doesn’t speak about actually bearing them as much as being a father. So, you know, one of the experiences of being with you for three years, I just, I mean, I’m staggered to think it’s been that short and long.

Angela: Yes.

Dan: But you are a woman of immense dignity and you offer you profer to others, dignity. And yet what you expose is the failure, particularly of the white culture to even address this diss symmetry. And this presumption of equality how have you become a woman who has lived out some ways? I would say you have a right to speak this passage in a way that I don’t, I have a right to speak it because it’s scripture.

Angela: Yes. Yes.

Dan: But you have known far more what it is to be the scum of the earth to be garbage, to be… while others are presuming that they’re Kings and Queens. So, as you read this passage, knowing that it has intersected with your own ethnicity, race, gender, you know, what do you find your heart resonating with with regard to what he calls you to be?

Angela: That’s a good question. I think I resonate with the call to provide opportunities for readers of scripture, to wrestle with this nuance. I often tell students that if you have difficulty reading the text from a place of, under, from a place of being the rubbish of the world or the dregs of all things, if you’re only reading from a suburban idea of Jesus walking through your neighborhood with the sheep on his shoulder, and just that sanitized Jesus, or even a sanitized Paul, then you’re probably reading incorrectly. So what does it look like for me as a woman of color, as a scholar of color, to be in the classroom. And I hate to use the language of force, but it is oftentimes the language of forcing students to think through how to read the text as rubbish, how to read the text as a dreg of all things. And I feel as though that’s part of my calling, and I did not realize that even in the course of years of ministry, because what I recognize is that context makes a difference. A lot of my training as a Baptist minister has been in rural churches where it was not hard for the people I was ministering to, to think of themselves as rubbish as dregs of the earth. That was not a difficult concept for the churches that I grew up in. But when I get into a predominantly white institution, that’s not the mindset that a lot of our students have. So I feel as though part of my calling, as I read Pauline text is to think about my own nuanced identity, Paul’s nuanced identity and problematizing my own students’ identity as they read the text.

Dan: And would it make sense to say, look as a leader, uh, and I’ve been a leader obviously in the school and other context, I’m given powers that are ridiculous. Um, and the other side to it is, I’m also treated at times like dirt, it’s a strange thing about being in any, any context of leadership. You’re idealized by some, you are utterly devalued by others and oftentimes holding those together is part of the complexity of actually owning leadership but then leadership where you’re out of, out of the norm of what people have presumed as the ambiance of their, just their world. In other words, the suburban Jesus walking with this suburban sheep, knocking door to door. That kind of world takes this passage and only makes it about leadership is hard.

Angela: Yes. So we have to problematize that because it’s not just about leadership is hard. Well, I think the other piece to that is we look at this text and we just read it literally. We don’t think about the context behind Paul and the only way you can get to that deeper understanding to get to a second naivete regarding the text is to think about the context of Paul and who he’s talking to and how all these various people have come together. And only then I would argue, can you begin to think about how you can have varying people groups come together and have good nuanced conversations about how we actually live with one another. And I would say, instead of building walls around each other, how we live together, how we live together as humanity, how we live together in the messiness of who we all are and not be so walled off in our suburban Jesus.

Dan: Yes. Well, the fact you bring dignity, you’re not a woman who shames. But you have a voice that warns. Equally invites that in that sense, because gender has a fluidity in scripture. I will one day be the bride of Christ. You as well can read this as a father and say your presence in the school, you know, you have become a father to many. And in that, in that kind of complexity of no, I know what a father is. I know what a mother is. And I’m not a mother, I’m a father but I’m also a mother because Paul’s a mother and you, Angela can be a father in a way that draws the heart in. I’m just so grateful to be one who gets to be fathered by you.

Angela: Well, I appreciate that. I had not thought of myself in the fatherly mode. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself in the fatherly mode, but I like that because Paul’s saying I’m not writing this to you to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. And what does it look like to recapture what fatherhood is not in the patria eye mode of the Roman empire, but a father who loves and seeks for your nourishment seeks for your flourishing, seeks for you to be better. And yeah, that is what I do. I try to make people better.

Dan: You do you do my friend. I only can say again and again, you are a woman, you are a father who provides certainly me, but many others in this institution with a taste of, of a God who is God and not a God made only, only, out of our own presumptions and expectations. So I say to this podcast and to the fact that you’ve been here three, and perhaps we’ll be here many more. Thank you.

Angela: Thank you, Dan.