A reading of 2 Cor 1:1–2:13, 7:5–16.
In a nutshell: Paul expresses relief upon learning that all is well with the Corinthians, but doesn’t quite apologize for causing them anxiety, on the grounds that his hard words led to a change of heart among them.
I hope that you will come to understand fully, as you partly know us now, that we are your pride and you are ours on the day of our lord Jesus.
—2 Corinthians 1:13b–14
30 Days of Paul around the Web
- Justin DaMetz tackles the touchy subject of resurrection head on in his reading of 1 Corinthians 15–16 by exploring the curious role of Peter in the Christian tradition.
- Glynn Cardy calls for Christians to dispel the “myth of unity” on the Community of St Luke page in response to today’s reading in 2 Corinthians.
Relating with Moral Ugliness
In well-designed nonviolence training, stories of violence are always paired with positive examples of how the violence was deflected, transformed, or mourned in healthy ways. This takes away the sense of helplessness we often experience in the wake of violence.
So I couldn’t help but ask myself as I read today, “How does Paul handle conflict? How skilled is he at calming the waters?” In short, is Paul a good example to follow?
A few weeks ago when I posted Desmond Tutu’s advice for forgiving your enemies, I mentioned that one very concrete way to be the sort of person who forgives is to notice the little acts of violence you are capable of in everyday life. To face violence we first must acknowledge its presence in our lives.
Maybe your instinct is to say, “I’m not a violent person.” Mine was until I became a foster parent and later, briefly, a facilitator for families whose children were in the system. Then I saw how only a few short steps separate nonviolence from violence. That experience was so painful that I walked away from a job I loved. Nobody wants to relate with a child abuser or cruel spouse/partner, let alone a murderer—ugly, ugly, ugly!—but we often can. Context can make sense of almost anything. Isn’t that the premise, after all, behind movies like Shawshank Redemption and Chicago?
To be sure, context is not fate. Violence is not the absolute outcome of any path. I could offer you firsthand stories of violence that would make your blood curdle, violence that sometimes makes me gag when I remember it even now. Far be it from me to excuse people from the consequences of such actions. As Alice Walker puts it so poignantly in her poem “Love Is Not Concerned”:
love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one
But even with that experience and even in the act of condemning violence I have had to confront the fact that some paths in life do provoke fear and anger to the point of crisis. People often behave badly in a state of crisis. Absent opportunities for kindness, a person struggles to see why he shouldn’t hit back.
Paul and Moral Ugliness
Paul lives in a state of crisis, but he is capable of kindness. That’s a note of encouragement for me. In 2 Corinthians once again he’s describing the intense suffering of himself and his companions:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the adversity we suffered in the province of Asia. We were so deeply distressed—more than we could take—that we despaired even of life. We felt as if we had been sentenced to death… (2 Cor 1:8–9a)
Paul then offers a gesture to the Corinthians that is not quite an apology. He’s being gracious with having won them over on some aspects of his argument in previous letters, but he is also still defending some of his actions and making concessions on others. Paul is still negotiating his relationship here.
When I put on what the late Marshall Rosenberg calls the “non-violent communication (NVC) cap” and read Paul, I hear a lot of fear in him. Everybody experiences fear. I’m not criticizing. I’m observing that Paul’s fears are often directly related to his authority. If I were to emulate Rosenberg and walk Paul through his feelings, it would probably go something like this:
Paul: My companions and I are having a rough time right now. We’re really struggling over here. I hope you know that what we’re doing is for your benefit and that your complaints and struggles are just what comes with the territory!
Cass (imagining the Corinthians): Are you worried that our complaints are petty and hard to prioritize at a time like this?
Paul: That’s right, you don’t understand how hard it is out here on the road, getting cuffed around and knocked about for this work!
Cass: It sounds like you’ve been in a lot of pain lately.
Paul: I’m telling you I could have died!
Cass: That sounds dreadful, Paul. You were in a lot of danger, so much that you were actually scared of dying. Was it hurtful of us to focus on our own troubles?
Paul: Not at all. Look, I want to be supportive. I want to come and see you. You’re putting a lot of pressure on me to lead you but I’ve got to go where I’m called. At the same time I get the feeling you want to have more room to make your own decisions, too.
Cass: It’s true, Paul, we do want to make our own decisions. We know the situation of the person you were concerned about. We really think it’s fine to forgive them, not to expel them from the community.
Paul: I’m not disagreeing with you! Fine, you want to make that decision. Go ahead. If you forgive, I forgive.
Cass: But you don’t seem satisfied by that. You tell us you’re struggling, but you also seem to want us to seek your guidance. Help me understand what you want from us.
Paul: It’s flattering to be needed. I don’t mind answering your questions and giving advice. If you want to do what you want—forgive somebody I told you to expel, whatever—then fine, I trust your judgment on local matters like that. But I still feel I’m like a father to you. That hasn’t changed, has it?
Cass: It sounds like you’re still anxious that we respect what you have to offer us as a leader and founder of our community, even if we’re also making our own decisions.
Paul: Isn’t that what any father would hope for? Is that asking too much of you?
Cass: Not at all. We do respect and treasure your relationship, Paul. That’s why we reassured Titus on that front. Are we right in thinking, then, that you just want to be confident in us to make good decisions that respect what you’ve taught us in the past?
Paul: Yes! When you lead by good example, it helps me, too. I want to put all our disagreements and confusion behind us and move on. Titus brought me such an encouraging report, even with some of our disagreements, that it seems like this shouldn’t be asking too much of you. That’s why I decided not to come and visit. What if the whole thing just blows up again?
Cass: You were worried about causing more pain right when you were starting to feel reassured about us.
Paul: That’s right. And besides, you ought to realize that your suffering is for your own good!
Cass: What do you mean? How can suffering ever be good?
Paul: When I challenged you, look at all the feelings it excited in you: intense concern, self-defense, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, and vindication. Sometimes a little suffering helps us understand our true needs more clearly.
Cass: Suffering isn’t all bad, then?
Paul: I don’t believe suffering is all bad. Even for me, I found my trust in God vindicated. He rescued us this time, but even if he hadn’t we would know the threat of death is only temporary.
Cass: What I’m hearing, then, is that you’d like us to change our thinking. We should view suffering and struggle as an opportunity to grow, especially in our understanding of God.
Paul (satisfied): Yes, yes, exactly. We suffer, but we’re united through it and facing in the same direction together. I trust you to handle the small stuff while still respecting my guidance.
I came out of this exercise pleasantly surprised by how much of this content was readily available in Paul’s letter, even though it was often couched in self-conscious posturing on Paul’s part. I like that Paul wasn’t afraid to share his emotions or acknowledge the emotions of the Corinthians, even to the extent of amending his previous advice based on their collective judgment.
There is no rule of communication that states all people must agree. A little empathetic listening goes a long way. At his best, Paul is compassionate, loving, and indeed, empathetic. It’s pretty easy to pick out occasions in Paul’s letters when he has taken the time to rephrase questions and concerns of his communities to demonstrate that he heard them.
I do believe Paul’s need to be respected as an authority was probably one of his larger hurdles in communication with others. Paul is most likely to be sarcastic when he thinks he’s speaking to an equal or somebody who wants to steal his authority out from under him. He can be completely disrespectful when he feels this has been challenged—think of the Galatians! This isn’t a good quality of Paul’s communication, in my opinion, but at least I can relate with his fear.
Questions for the Road
- If we read Paul with his personal fears somewhat bracketed and set aside, what would be left over? What’s the real core of Paul’s message?
- What emotions do you bring to your reading of Paul? Do you see him as an authority, as he would like to be seen? Is he more like a peer? Or do you feel you could perhaps teach Paul a few things? How does this relationship influence your reading?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.