The Peace of Jesus’ Body Versus the Violent Semantics of the Flesh

The semantic load that can be attached to the biological body is undergoing a continual extension, in that there is seemingly no end to the arrangement of gender identity. In a Lacanian psychoanalytic frame, the complete identity with the symbolic order though, is not really a multiplicity of types but is a singular type which he would dub “masculine.” “Masculine” does not refer to gender but to an orientation to the symbolic order. One might identify with these structures as they presently exist in the society or attempt to “bend the rules” but of course the rules are bent so as to conform to them. That is, the letter is prime reality and the biological body is divided or separate from this reality. The masculine (as opposed to the feminine, in a Lacanian frame) does not question the symbolic order as prime reality.

As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and having an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

In the masculine the symbolic order reigns supreme and the biological body is written over and made to conform to this semantic load. This is not really the problem of any particular group of people, but in Paul’s terms this is the universal problem. There is (in Eph. 2) the divided body which may refer to the individual (divided into mind and flesh in Eph. 2) or the division of gender, race, or social status. The divided body might be classed, as it is in Ephesians, as either circumcised or uncircumcised or elsewhere he will talk of male and female identity, but the point is that this division makes of the flesh a sign system, or a blank slate for inscribing the symbolic order of the law. Circumcised or uncircumcised is clearly the imposition of a sign system (the law), on the biological body. We know that male and female can also bear this same sort of cultural inscription in which the biological is overwritten with a meaning that is not inherently part of gender. To be female in Japan, for example, may bear a very different meaning than it bears in Korea or the United States. Female can be assigned the meanings of passivity, nurturing, or servitude, all of which bear meaning in a particular culture in conjunction with what it means to be male. So too, the idea with circumcision and uncircumcision is that it is a binary that is not simply a description of physical marks, but is a religious and ethnic division inscribed in the flesh (Jew/Gentile). Paul refers to it as a mind and flesh issue (2:3 – the very opposition which gives rise to the peculiarities of human desire).

Paul then calls this the “enmity of the flesh,” but of course inasmuch as Christ is going to destroy this enmity in his own flesh, the problem is not the flesh per se but the semantic load invested in the flesh. Paul describes this semantics of the flesh in connection to conforming to the world; a conformity in which death reigns, and which is controlled by the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). He also speaks of a lust of the flesh, which he seems to connect to a spirit mind duality (Eph. 2:1-3). There is an antagonism, a sacrificial economy, that in both Walter Wink’s and Rene Girard’s description, predominates in human culture and religion. We can read Christianity as either fitting into and as a support of this sacrificial economy (divine satisfaction or penal substitution, or the oppression of women, or the “domination system”) or we can read it as disrupting this economy and order.

This principle or power (as Paul also refers to the same force) may be what Wink calls the domination system or the system of redemptive violence. As Slavoj Žižek describes it, redemptive violence is inscribed deep within the human psyche. The original sacrificial relation is established within the Subject (with passage through the mirror stage) between the imaginary (the ego or “I”) and the symbolic (the superego) which establishes the alienated distance from the real of the body. The passage is from being a body to establishing a symbolic distance from the body (and having a body): “The body exists in the order of having – I am not my body, I have it” (Organs without Bodies, 121). Self-consciousness arises simultaneously with the realization and refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies (sexuality/castration) so that the Subject arises over and against the real of the body. The symbolic or the soul “has to be paid for by the death, murder even, of its empirical bearer” (The Žižek Reader, vii). Žižek, following Paul, describes the process as giving rise to two bodies. That body which one might think can be reduced to the biological dimension is refused: the “subject turns away from her biological body in disgust, unable to accept that she ‘is’ her body” (Organs without Bodies, 93). Since “the body refuses to obey the soul and starts to speak on its own, in the symptoms in which the subject’s soul cannot recognize itself” she rejects the body (Organs without Bodies, 93). But this body that is rejected cannot be equated with the biological body as the body has already been overlaid with the symbolic “forcefully distorting its normal functioning” (Organs without Bodies, 93). So, there is the biological body and this second body: “The body that is the proper object of psychoanalysis, the body as the inconsistent composite of erogenous zones, the body as the surface of the inscription of the traces of traumas and excessive enjoyments, the body through which the unconscious speaks” (Organs without Bodies, 93). It is this second body, and not the physical or biological body per se, which the Subject struggles against and which makes up unconscious experience constituting desire. The biological body with its biological interests (wellbeing, survival, reproduction) is not at the center of the human Subject but the true “interior” is this second body.

When “we penetrate the subject’s innermost sanctum, the very core of its Unconscious, what we find there is the pure surface of a fantasmatic screen” (Organs without Bodies, 93). Žižek describes the rise of this screen of the fundamental fantasy as an attempt to “outpass myself into death” (Tarrying with the Negative, 76). One hastens to assume death in the form of the letter or symbolic (“potentially my epitaph”) in order to avoid it (Tarrying with the Negative, 76). The dead are immortal in that they are no longer subject to dying, so identity through the dead letter achieves an enduring (immortal) identity.

As we see further on (in chapter 2 of Ephesians) Christ is going to resolve the various antagonisms of the flesh in his flesh, or as chapter 1 concludes through his body. The unity of the body is achieved in the incarnation (it is precisely our tendency toward a disincarnate dualism that is overcome). Paul describes a present tense resolution through Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the Christian participation in the same (Eph 2:5–6). Death is marked by the division within the body, but Christ overcomes this division, as can those “in Christ” – in and through the body of Christ.

Though he does not use the word flesh in his description of “works,” Paul is clearly talking of the flesh. Circumcised or uncircumcised, or keeping the works of the law, is a matter of maintaining the signs in the flesh of Jewish ethnicity, the most important of which is circumcision. Where we are caught up in the law, in the symbol system, of being Jew or Gentile, or taking on the identities of the flesh that depend upon division, love is incapacitated (precisely the “work” for which we were made and toward which Paul is aiming).

Giorgio Agamben and Žižek both provide a picture from Romans 7, which explains how law can potentially create an obstacle to love. In Paul’s illustration (in 7:1-3), Paul describes a masculine orientation to the law with the husband of the woman representing the law. The woman that has a husband is bound by law to the husband. The woman’s relationship to her husband is the prototypical social obligation, marriage being the foundation of the family and of society, but it is also the prototypical love relationship. The problem occurs when these two are pitted against one another; when “social life appears to me as dominated by an externally imposed Law in which I am unable to recognize myself … precisely insofar as I continue to cling to the immediacy of love that feels threatened by the rule of Law” (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 117). The law can only be said to “bind” when desire is in some way curtailed by the law. Love, understood as synonymous to this sort of desire, an element deep within the self which only refers to the self, can only experience the regulation of law as an imposition on the true nature of the self. The woman whose husband is alive, but who has fallen in love with another man, experiences the law as that which opposes her love. In fact, her love (her enjoyment or jouissance – evil desire) is here synonymous with sin (The Monstrosity of Christ, 273). Her notion that she is loved by her consort is, in turn, to imagine that deep within her is “some precious treasure that can only be loved, and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law” (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 117).

In Žižek’s logic of the exception (masculine sexuation), her “love” is a symptom of the prohibition and the prohibition has its force only in the exception. The exception, in Žižek’s view, could be seen as creating the rule. As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself (Reader, 45). The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it. If the woman in Paul’s illustration were to love her husband and not consort with other men, and if this were the universal case, the law would “disintegrate.” The law functions in this sense like a psychoanalytic symptom: “A symptom … is an element that … must remain an exception, that is, the point of suspension of the universal principle: if the universal principle were to apply also to this point, the universal system itself would disintegrate” (The Universal Exception, 171). The woman, as the one who is subject to the law, represents an orientation of inherent transgression: “The subject is actually ‘in’ (caught in the web of) power only and precisely in so far as he does not fully identify with it but maintains a kind of distance towards it” (The Fragile Absolute, 148). The dynamic of sin is an identity caught up in a web which tightens its grip the more it is resisted. In Žižek’s description of the couplet law/sin, the law is a transcendent “foreign” force that serves to oppress what is perceived as the love relationship (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The law becomes an obstacle to be overcome in order for love to be possible.

Žižek’s point is that this sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment (jouissance) in which the obstacle constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband is a necessary part of this sort of consorting, as he is the obstacle that makes the sexual relationship with the “other.” This construct is synonymous with sin: “‘Sin’ is the very intimate resistant core on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the Law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which the Law has to appear to the subject as a foreign power crushing the subject” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The Subject is attached to a “pathological agalma deep within itself” and it is attachment to this supposed exception or remainder that gives the law the specter of an oppressive foreign force (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). There is a resistant core, a holdout or remainder on the part of the Subject: “The notion that there is deep inside it some precious treasure which can only be loved and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The deception or illusion that sin works is to construe the law as a closure of identity which by its very nature – its absoluteness – excludes love. Sin mediates the law as a power over and against love.

It is from the seeming failure of interpellation or the failure of universality to account for the exception that the totalizing symbolic takes hold. From one perspective it can be said “that the subject never fully recognizes itself in the interpolative call … and this resistance to interpellation (to the symbolic identity provided by interpellation) is the subject” (The Indivisible Remainder, 165). The woman consorting with her lover only understands herself over and against the law, while she may imagine her relationship to her lover in some way pre-exists her relationship to the law. “Is not this hysterical distance towards interpellation … the very form of ideological misrecognition? Is not this apparent failure of interpellation … the ultimate proof of its success … that is to say, of the fact that the ‘effect-of-subject’ really took place” (The Indivisible Remainder, 166)? Ideological interpellation, from the Subject’s perspective, might appear to be relieved or in some way mitigated if the Subject simply maintains a cynical distance towards the interpolating power. The woman in Paul’s illustration might say to herself, “I know the law says not to consort, but the law does not account for my true self.” “Hegel’s Beautiful Soul maintains a cynical, passive distance towards power, but this is precisely the power of interpellation doing its work” (Reader, 229–30).

We are made for good works, and this is love, a love that is not available through a misorientation to law. Paul assures us these works are not of the ethnic kind and not works that are foundational: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (2:10) – this is the foundation.

The Gentiles and Jews have a flesh problem (Eph. 2:11-13): near and far, inside and outside, excluded and included, citizens or aliens. Christ has undone the gauge of distance, and of inclusion and exclusion. He has suspended (καταργέω) the effect of the misorientation to the law.  If body (sῶma) is the Subject with the qualifiers of death and sin (“the body of sin and death” according to Paul) describing the orientation to the law, to crucify the body of sin so that it is suspended or brought to nothing (καταργέω) describes the profound reorientation brought about by participation in the body of Christ.

Christ has suspended this problem of the flesh:

“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing (καταργήσας) in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph. 2:14-15).

We can specify what Christ has done and how he has done it. In Wink’s terms, Christ has abolished notions of redemptive violence and he has defeated the domination system. There is an undoing of the violence of the law which has been coopted by sin and domination. This law plays out in nearly every realm of psychological and social life.

Relief is brought from the domination system of the family:

I believe Jesus was so consistently disparaging because the family in dominator societies is so deeply embedded in patriarchy, and serves as the citadel of male supremacy, the chief inculcator of gender roles, and a major inhibitor of change. It is in families where most women and children are battered and abused, and where the majority of women are murdered. In a great many cultures, men are endowed with the inalienable right to beat, rape, and verbally abuse their wives. The patriarchal family is thus the foundation on which the larger units of patriarchal dominance are based.[1]

There is an undoing of Jewish purity laws and the markers of inside and outside:

Table fellowship with sinners was a central feature of Jesus’ ministry. These sinners, notes New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, had been placed, or had placed themselves, outside the holiness code of Israel as it was being interpreted by certain circles in first-century Palestine. To include such outcasts in the realm of God was to reject the views of those who valued separation from the uncleanness of the world. Jesus’ table fellowship with social outcasts was a living parable of the dawning age of forgiveness.[2]

The gender divide is defeated, as male and female are no longer a mode of securing identity:

Respectable Jewish men were not to speak to women in public; Jesus freely conversed with women. A woman was to touch no man but her spouse; Jesus was touched by women, and touched them. Once, a prostitute burst into an all-male banquet, knelt at Jesus’ outstretched feet, and began to kiss them, washing them with tears of remorse and relief, wiping them with her hair and anointing them with oil. Despite the shocked disapproval of the other men, Jesus accepted her gift and its meaning and took her side, even though she had technically rendered him unclean and had scandalized the guests (Luke 7: 36– 50).[3]

Jesus’ system, the ontology or ground of his work, is one of peace and nonviolence:

Jesus rejects violence. When his disciples request permission to call down fire from heaven on inhospitable Samaritans, Jesus rebukes them (Luke 9: 51– 56). Instead of praising the disciple who, in an attempt to save Jesus from arrest, cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus reacts: “No more of this!” (Luke 22: 51)— an injunction the church took literally for the next three centuries. According to Matthew, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26: 52).[4]

In place of a system of division, hierarchy, and domination, a system of equity prevails, beginning with a different economy:  

The gospel of Jesus is founded on economic equity, because economic inequities are the basis of domination. Ranking, status, and classism are largely built on power provided by accumulated wealth. Breaking with domination means ending the economic exploitation of the many by the few. Since the powerful are not likely to abdicate their wealth, the poor must find ways to overcome the Domination Epoch from within.[5]

In short there is an ending of the domination system:

The words and deeds of Jesus reveal that he is not a minor reformer but an egalitarian prophet who repudiated the very premises of the Domination System: the right of some to lord it over others by means of power, wealth, shaming, or titles. In his beatitudes, his healings, and his table fellowship with outcasts and sinners, Jesus declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.[6]

The real world defeat of the violence of the flesh inscribed with the law is accomplished in the suspension of this violent “ontology” and economy in the unifying peace of the body of Christ – this is the work for which the body was made.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (p. 76). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 73-74).

[3] Wink, 69-70.

[4] Wink, 68

[5] Wink, 66.

[6] Wink, 65.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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