Honor the Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision


Posted on 11.25.2014

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul chastises the members of the Corinthian church for taking each other to court. Suing each other was one of the many ways that church expressed and experienced disunity.

We don't know why the members of the Corinthian church were taking each other to court. But scholars are relatively confident that the lawsuits were being brought by the wealthier members of the church against the poorer members.

Given the power structure at play in Corinthian society the legal system "worked" for the wealthy and disadvantaged the poor and less privileged. Thus, lawsuits could be used by the wealthy to get their way.

In his book Conflict & Community in Corinth Ben Witherington describes the situation and its relevance for the problems Paul calls out in 1 Corinthians 6:
From at least the time of Augustus certain people--fathers, patrons, magistrates, and men of standing--were basically immune from prosecution for fraud by some kinds of other people--children, freedmen, private citizens, and men of low rank. Only if the lower status person had a powerful patron was there a likelihood that he or she could bring suit against someone higher up the social ladder...

To the wealthy, well-born, and well-connected went the chief rewards of the legal system, along with many of the other benefits available in society. There was a strongly aristocratic bias to the whole culture. Justice during the empire was far from blind and was often looking over its shoulder.

The importance for this for 1 Corinthians 6 is that at the very least one or both of the Christians going to court were probably well-to-do and hoping to exploit the judicial system to their advantage.
I'm bringing attention to the situation in 1 Corinthian 6 as I think it is relevant to how the White and Black communities are and will be responding to the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict officer Derran Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Specifically, and eerily similar to the situation in Corinth, the church is being split by how it judges the fairness and integrity of the legal system.

Similar to how the wealthy and powerful members of the Corinthian church viewed their legal system, many Whites in the US view the American legal system as "working." This is, by and large, because legal systems tend to advantage privileged groups. Then and now.

By contrast, and similar to how the poor and less powerful members of the Corinthian church viewed their legal system, many Blacks in the US view the American legal system as "broken." This is, by and large, because legal systems tend to stack the deck against disadvantaged groups. Justice isn't blind but biased. To say nothing of how legal systems are often straightforwardly antagonistic and hostile toward disadvantaged group, tools of injustice and oppression.

Thus we have two groups of believers--the rich and the poor in Corinth and Whites and Blacks in America--with divergent views of the legal system resulting in disunity within the church.

For White America the justice system "works." Consequently, the grand jury decision not to indict Derran Wilson is trustworthy. The system did its job so we should abide by the decision. Justice has been done.

For Black America the justice system is and has been "broken." Consequently, there is no reason to trust the grand jury decision. The system is rigged. Always has been. No way justice was going to be done in this instance.

I want to be clear. From an evidential and legal standpoint I cannot say if the decision to not indict Derran Wilson was appropriate. I wasn't on the grand jury.

What I am talking about are the perceptions of trust Whites and Blacks have of the US legal system and how those perceptions affect the unity of the church in light of how we are responding to the news coming out of Ferguson. I especially want to draw attention to how many White Christians will harshly judge and condemn the outrage within the Black community regarding the grand jury decision. Many White Christians will ask, Why all the anger and outrage? The rule of law was followed, the grand jury did its job, the system worked.

But this easy confidence that the system "worked" is a luxury of the privileged. It is the same easy confidence that allowed the wealthy members of the Corinthian church to expect justice to break in their favor when they took their brothers and sisters to court.

The Corinthian church experienced division and disunity because its members had very different opinions about the degree to which the legal system was trustworthy versus broken, the degree to which the system was biased for or against them. The privileged and powerful trusted the system because it worked for them. And the same holds true for White America today. And you abide by decisions you trust.

But the less privileged and powerful in Corinth distrusted the system because it worked against them. And the same holds true for Black America today. And it is difficult to abide by decisions you deeply distrust.

And as these opinions divided the Corinthian church they divide the American church today.

So what's the solution?

I think one answer in moving toward greater unity is the same one Paul gives later in the book in 1 Corinthians 12. In that chapter Paul succinctly says, "But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body."

Unity is achieved by giving greater honor to the members of the church that lack it.

Unity is achieved in the church by rehabilitative honoring, caring and respecting, with the privileged and powerful giving greater honor and care--not balanced or equal honor and care but greater honor and care--to those who have lacked privilege, prestige, power or status.

And whatever that might mean for White Christians today I think it means at least this much, that we honor the outrage.

Agree or disagree, you honor and show care for the outrage.


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