Joyful defiance to carceral logic (Philippians 4:10–20)

Joyful defiance to carceral logic (Philippians 4:10–20) May 23, 2022

Paul as Champion for Christ

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in children’s church based on Philippians 4:13:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me;
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me;
Day by day, hour by hour, I am strengthen by his power;
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!

This verse has become a motto for people pursuing great achievements in life.

While “John 3:16” is shorthand for the gospel of salvation, “Philippians 4:13” is shorthand for the prosperity gospel.

Have faith in Jesus, and Jesus will empower you to achieve your dreams! With Christ strengthening you, you can climb mountains, lift heavy weights, or win championships! This is the “champions for Christ” reading of this verse.

But while this reading can serve as a nice motivator to work hard and have self discipline, taken literally, it’s just not true. At this point in my life, no matter how much faith I have in Christ, I am never going to dunk a basketball on a 10-foot rim, much less lead a team to an NBA championship. And even for those who are gifted athletically, for every team that wins a championship, there are dozens of teams that don’t. And there are Christians on those teams too, some of whom likely have their own Philippians 4:13 tattoo.

Paul as Stoic for Christ

Recognizing that we have limits to what we can achieve in this life is healthy for a mature believer. With this recognition in mind, many a preacher has gone back to this verse and noted that, in its immediate context, it isn’t about achievements. When Paul writes that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him, he isn’t talking about his ability to achieve all things. He is talking about his ability to endure all things.

“Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have,” he writes. “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11–13).

Paul seems to be saying that the secret to life is learning to be content in any life situation, strengthened by Christ to endure anything. This gets us a little closer to the meaning of the passage. But instead of making Paul into a competitive weight lifter, it makes Paul sound more like a Stoic philosopher.

The Stoics believed that everything that happens is the result of fate or divine reason. There’s no point reacting emotionally to hardships since they must have a purpose in the grand scheme of things. If you stub your toe on a rock, you don’t let out a cry of pain. Instead, you learn to subordinate your emotions to reason. And reason tells you that your toe hitting that rock at that time was all part of the plan of the universe.

Paul here can sound like a Stoic who simply replaces fate with Christ. With Christ strengthening him, Paul is able to hover above the hardships of life. And by implication, we should be able to do the same.

Be content in any situation. 

Don’t show “negative emotions.”

Be a Stoic for Christ.

But, then, when someone comes to us experiencing pain and expressing the range of emotions that accompany it, instead of responding with attention and care, we can become callous. Such people need to learn to “better control their negative emotions,” we reason, which is just our way of deflecting corporate responsibility to acknowledge the pain underlying the emotion. What at first appears to be a Christian virtue of contentment can quickly become a harmful vice of indifference.

Fortunately, as with the “champions for Christ” reading, so too the “Stoics for Christ” reading takes this passage out of the context of the letter.

As it turns out, Paul himself expresses a whole range of emotions throughout his letters. In his letter to the church in Rome, he expresses deep sorrow and grief at times and great joy at others. In his letters to the Corinthians, he expresses sorrow, anguish, fear, distress, and despair as well as joy and gladness. In his letter to the Galatians, he expresses fierce anger, while here in his letter to the Philippians his predominant emotion is joy.

And his emotions are directly related to the things he is experiencing or writing about. He is angry when he encounters other believers excluding fellow believers from table fellowship. He is sad when he reflects on those who have rejected the gospel. And he is joyful when, as here in Philippians, his fellow believers encourage him with their generosity, solidarity, and faithful partnership.

Paul as Prisoner for Christ

So if we aren’t to read Paul here as a champion for Christ or a Stoic for Christ, how are we to make sense of this passage?

Paul tells us directly at the beginning of the letter: “It is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart,” he writes. “You share with me the special favor of God, both in my imprisonment and in defending and confirming the truth of the Good News. God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus . . . And I want you to know, my siblings, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear” (1:7–8, 12–14).

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay

This is Paul not the Stoic for Christ but Paul the prisoner for Christ. What he’s expressing in this letter, and in this passage in particular, is not Stoic indifference but joyful defiance.

He writes the Philippians believers that they are to live as “citizens of heaven,” which doesn’t take them out of this world but reframes their engagement with it. “We are in this struggle together,” he writes. “You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it” (1:30). Paul is writing in the midst of great struggle, and he is encouraging his friends that they are going to get through it together.

Recently, my friend Cory Martin, a chaplain with the Elkhart County Jail Ministry, produced a video that I think portrays this image of Paul the prisoner’s joyful defiance well. While the circumstances differ, Paul’s situation is much closer to these county jail inmates than it is to an ivory-tower philosopher.

What strikes me about this video is the juxtaposition of the joyful dancing and confetti with the lyrics of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

You think I’d crumble?
You think I’d lay down and die?

Oh no, not I, I will survive.

This is the message Paul the prisoner is communicating in the close of his letter:

The Roman carceral state can limit my movement, but it cannot limit my mission. No matter how much this palace prison may try to devalue me, my value is found not in my citizenship in Caesar’s empire but in my citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.

These are the defiant words of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”:

No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

Joyful Defiance to Carceral Logic

My friend Ryan Schellenberg studies the relationship between Paul’s letters from prison and contemporary prison correspondence. Based on this study, he writes in his book Abject Joy: Paul, Prison, and the Art of Making Do that in this passage Paul is “enact[ing] an alternative performance of his imprisonment, one that contests his degradation by refusing the common-sense notion that prison has reduced him to helpless dependency.”

Schellenberg identifies three ways Paul does this.

First, while Paul is clearly filled with joy due to the material gifts he has received from the Philippians, “he describes the Philippians’ material support not only as a gift to himself, but also as an offering rendered to God, who is sure to reciprocate by providing the assembly’s every need.”

We can see this when Paul describes their gifts as “a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable and pleasing to God” and says that “this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.”

In Roman society, if someone gives you a gift and you can’t reciprocate it, they become your benefactor, and you are their dependent. But by describing their gift as made to God and not to himself directly, Paul is able to maintain his dignity and assure them that God will reciprocate their gift, even if he is unable to.

Because of this, second, Paul is able to describe their relationship not as benefactor and dependent but as partners in the gospel. He writes to them, “You have done well to share with me in my present difficulty.” Here Paul uses the word koinonia to describe their partnership–that deep fellowship of mutuality where, as Schellenberg  describes, “each party provides the resources it has at its disposal–for Paul, this means proclaiming the gospel; for the Philippian assembly, it means providing economic support.”

And, finally, third, Schellenberg writes that “Paul avoids appearing dependent on the Philippians’ support by insisting that he did not really need it.” This might seem like a strange way of saying thanks to the Philippians. But, again, it allows them both to avoid viewing their relationship as benefactor and dependent. It’s Paul’s way of saying, I’m not your charity case, but I appreciate your friendship and partnership in our shared work together.

As Schellenberg observes, “The imprisonment of Paul’s body was intended as its subjugation. It was calculated to degrade, humiliate, efface. Paul’s counter-assertion of contentment is one means by which he refuses this degradation.”

Throughout his letters, Paul repeatedly employs the imagery of Christ’s body for the church. And, while he doesn’t use that imagery explicitly in this passage, the same logic is at work here. Because we are each members of Christ’s body, when we help one another through times of need, we don’t do so through the world’s logic of benefactors and dependents. Instead, we follow the kingdom logic of partnership, of koinonia, of Christ’s body, which dignifies and humanizes each member. In so doing, we joyfully and defiantly resist the state’s carceral logic that attempts to degrade and dehumanize.  

As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, when “all the members care for each other,” it “makes for harmony among the members” (1 Cor. 12:25). This means that, rather than hiding our pain and suppressing our emotions, we can share them openly with one another. For, as Paul continues, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad” (1 Cor. 12:26).

“We are in this struggle together,” Paul writes the Philippians. And, as the letter to the Ephesians describes, Christ “is the head of his body, the church.” As such, Christ is indeed the one who gives us strength. Christ “makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Ephesians 4:15–16).

About David C Cramer
David C. Cramer is teaching pastor at Keller Park Church in South Bend, Indiana, and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. He is co-author of A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence (Baker Academic, 2022). You can read more about the author here.

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