A reading of Philippians 1–2:18, a letter from prison (part 1)
It looks like I have a typo in my reading plan (if you’re following it that closely). Day 23 will be 2:19–3:1a, 4:4–9, 4:21–23. Sorry about that! In the Day 22 and Day 23 posts I cover themes from the overall letter, so please don’t worry if you ended up reading it in a different order.
In a nutshell: Paul gives an update from prison that doubles as an appeal to unity between himself and the supportive community at Philippi. He quotes an early creed or hymn in 2:6–11.
See to it that you do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be above reproach and without guile, untainted children in the midst of a dishonest and devious generation, among whom you stand out like lights in a dark world.
Thinking of You Always
I’ve been meaning to revisit the “loyalty loop” I brought up while reading 1 Corinthians. A refresher: “You should be loyal and present a united front because it will make other people want to join us in being loyal and presenting a united front.” On and on, unto perpetuity.
There’s a subtle logic behind statements like, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” even though it’s corny. Social groups play the loyalty loop game at risk of forgetting the substance of their relationship. Can you be loyal for loyalty’s sake? No. Loyalty is a secondary feature of morality—it is a quality of mind or mode of behavior that depends on others. Loyalty needs a buddy. It begs a follow-up question:
“But to whom or to what are you loyal?”
Let’s look at a wonderfully simple example of how intimate letters often focus on loyalty, unity, togetherness, to the exclusion of the to whom or to what. If you simply plucked the letter below from a table and read it, what would you know about the people named in it?
My very very dear Alex
I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart
First of all, you might not be sure whether the writer and recipient are male or female. You won’t know where Alex lives, or what sort of work either person does. You know one tantalizing detail: Marrakech. Not only is this word written in the letter but the charming drawing brings the setting to life with the beautiful veiled woman and the geometrical designs in the background. The veiled woman suggests a female participant in the letter, but if you jumped to that conclusion (as I did), you would be wrong.
Now, if you happen to be a purveyor of fashion, you might have guessed that the charming “Yves” is none other than the designer Yves Saint-Laurent and “Alex” is Vogue art director Alexander Liberman. Although hints of these identities exist in the letter, such as the beautifully rendered drawing, it was also possible to reach very different conclusions. Also, are they friends or lovers? Why should loyalty be at the forefront of Yves’ mind? Was it business related or was it personal? What is the quality of the affirmation of loyalty in this letter?
Some of these questions may have concrete answers, but my point is that a letter like this, minus context, becomes very difficult to pin down in terms of the character of the people involved. Case in point, consider this letter:
Mein Liebes Tschapperl,
Don’t worry about me. I’m fine though perhaps a little tired. I hope to come home soon and then I can rest in your arms. I have a great longing for rest, but my duty to the German people comes before everything else. Don’t forget that the dangers I encounter don’t compare with those of our soldiers at the Front. I thank you for the proof of your affection and ask you also to thank your esteemed father and your most gracious mother for their greetings and good wishes. I am very proud of the honor—please tell them that—to possess the love of girl who comes from such a distinguished family. I have sent to you the uniform I was wearing during the unfortunate day. It is proof that Providence has protected me and that we have nothing more to fear from our enemies.
From my whole heart, your A. H.
If you guessed that this letter is from Adolf Hitler to Eva Braun, you would be right. He sent it to her shortly after an attempt on his life on July 20, 1944. Notice once again that the actual content of the letter gives no hint about what it means to have a “duty to the German people.” For Hitler, that involved annihilating a whole group of people he felt were a threat to whatever he and his friends defined as “the German people.” That goes unmentioned. And why shouldn’t it? The purpose of this letter is to affirm loyalty and fidelity between lovers. In that respect, Hitler behaves as a perfect gentleman with perhaps a bit of a dramatic touch in his choice to send along the ill-fated uniform.
Loyalty in Paul’s Letters
I have just given two examples of very brief letters to make the point that appeals and affirmations of loyalty, unity, or fidelity (all appropriate words) can override everything else when communicating with your own partners and posse. Paul’s letters fall into that category. The good news is that most people let the substance of their loyalty bleed naturally into the way they talk about it, so Paul’s long letters give us more opportunities to observe that. Even though Paul talks a lot—a lot—about unity and loyalty and fidelity, he also drops enough hints and midrash into his letters that we get a feel for the shared content between himself and his communities.
Here are just a few examples of appeals to loyalty in today’s reading, Paul’s letter from prison. The content of the loyalty is not presented or celebrated or urged in these appeals, only the loyalty itself:
Whenever I pray for you all I pray with joy, because of your partnership on behalf of God’s world-changing news ever since we met. (1:5)
God knows how I long for all of you with a depth of feeling like that of the Anointed Jesus. I am praying that your love [for one another] may continue to grow in understanding and discernment, so that you will be able to recognize what really matters, be absolutely genuine and innocent of any offense on the day of the Anointed, and be filled to overflowing with the benefits of the integrity that Jesus the Anointed inspires in us. This is what will bring honor and praise to God. (1:8–11)
Just make sure you conduct yourselves in a manner that is worthy of the world-transforming message about the Anointed … [be] resolutely one in heart and mind, contending side by side with the unconditional confidence in God that the world-transforming message inspires, not intimidated in the least by our opponents. (1:27–28)
So if [you know] how uplifting it is to belong to the new community of the Anointed, if [you know] something about being motivated by love, if [you know] something about the spirit of fellowship and genuine compassion, then make me completely happy by sharing the same attitude, showing the same love toward one another, and being united in heart and purpose. (2:1–2)
Paul uses words like “fellowship” and “compassion” (literally, “suffer with”). He speaks of being “united” and “side by side” in “partnership.” Even the creed in 2:6–11 can be read through a unity lens, although there is other content in it as well.
The loyalty loop in Paul’s letters leads me to the following key observations:
- Paul’s focus on loyalty doesn’t mean his letters are devoid of other content. For example, I think it’s obvious that Paul’s answer to the question, “To whom or to what?” is Jesus and the God of Israel. What’s less obvious is what that means.
- Paul’s focus on loyalty is a normal human practice that is easily found in other letters written by and for people who are neither Christian nor often even religious. Loyalty is not unique to Paul or even to Christianity.
- Even though loyalty isn’t unique to Paul, Paul makes absolutely wonderful, beautiful statements about loyalty. Loyalty isn’t automatically bad; we just need to answer the question, to what and to whom?
- When we make claims about Paul’s thought and theology, we need to notice appeals to unity and ask why Paul included them. Sometimes they serve as pledges of fealty to the God of Israel and God’s chosen king Jesus. Sometimes Paul appeals to unity in order to bolster his own authority, quash dissent, and minimize attention from the authorities (often to protect his people from harm).
Questions for the Road:
- When is loyalty at its best? What are you loyal to?
- The danger of loyalty lies in uncritical “loyalty for loyalty’s sake.” Where do you see the risk of that in your life?
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.