by Member-in-Discernment Brooke Dooley
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
The first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the people of Philippa is intimately vulnerable. It was written while he was in prison, living with a daily fear of death and violence. “...dying is gain,” he writes. “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (Philippians 1:23-24 NRSV). It reads very much like a song by The Clash, Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. If I stay it will be double.
Paul understood the risks of his ministry, mirroring the sentiment of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Paul was no stranger to the imminent threats of violence and persecution faced by those who defied the empire with justice-seeking action, and here he is acknowledging that his community will no doubt face “the same struggle…” (Phil 1:30 NRSV)
Dr. King not only lived with the daily threat of death, but the reality of such within his community. James Cone wrote in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree that Dr. King adopted a sense of humor in order for him and others to endure this constant threat. Cone writes that, “He preached mock funeral sermons for his friends.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, pp. 83).
Like Dr. King, Paul is honest about the devastating reality of systemic injustice, and moreover, that it affects the people whom he loves. Just as Dr. King wrote in the Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And like Dr. King, it is Paul’s faith which sustains him. Mirroring the testament of Dr. King’s letter, Justin Tanis writes in the Queer Bible Commentary that Paul’s epistle is “a letter by and to those that the larger society viewed as unacceptable and illegitimate” (Queer Bible Commentary pp. 639). Like The Clash song, Should I stay or should I go now? Paul is also sustained by his commitment to the well being of his community. Justin Tanis commented on Paul’s mentality, “There is continuity in community.” Indeed, we need each other. “The community is that which embodies the longings, the dreams and the actions of all of us” (Queer Bible Commentary, pp. 643). May we all be sustained knowing that we are committed to one another through the justice-seeking love of Christ.