When Paul says that “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake,” (1 Cor. 4: 5) he is forcefully rooting his identity not in himself but in Christ. We are easily prone to the illusion that we each have a self that belongs to me and is mine to do whatever I please with it.
This illusion of an individualistic self is the veil “that has blinded the minds of the unbelievers who are perishing.” It is the “god of this world” who has cast this veil. The veil is what René Girard identified as the persecutory mechanism that has marred humanity since the dawn of civilization. It was precisely this system that was exposed in the Gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. When Paul says that the Gospel is veiled to those who are perishing, he does not mean that God is casting people into hell; he means that as long as the Gospel is veiled, we perish in our own violence without even realizing it. When we are not rooted in Christ so as to proclaim Christ rather than ourselves, we are caught in the winds of human desires that carry us in all directions, all of them prone to collective violence. Moreover, we fall into cunning and falsification of God’s word and the shameful things we hide. These reflections seem to continue Paul’s discussion in the previous chapter of this epistle of the veil that covers the faces of Jews when they read the Torah, but by universalizing the veiling, Paul moves the unkind words about his own people. Universalizing the veil has the great advantage of showing that neither Jew nor Gentile has the thicker veil; all of us have it when we fall into systemic scapegoating violence.
Paul appeals to creation as providing the light that takes away the veil and gives us a glimpse of the world as it is meant to be. “For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord” (2 Cor. 4: 6). It is the fall into systemic violence that has obscured this glory. It is inspiring that this glory of the created world shows us the face of Christ, a hint that Jesus planned to enter into Creation to enjoy the world with us and didn’t come up with the plan to be incarnate just to make repairs when things went wrong.
It is perhaps this vision of creation unveiled that inspired Pope Gregory to discern what elements of the English culture could be converted rather than rejecting them wholesale. He advised Augustine of Canterbury to convert the temples rather than destroy them. Of course, just as we have to practice discernment as to what must and can be converted and subverted in another’s culture, we have to practice the same discernment with the veils placed over our own faces by our own culture. The famous story of how Gregory, before he became pope, was inspired to promulgate an English mission is a case in point. Upon seeing some fair youths in the slave market in Rome, Gregory asked who they were. On being told that they were Angles, Gregory, in uttering one of the most famous of puns, said that instead, they should become angels. If anything embodies the persecutory mechanism, it is slavery. Chesterton suggested that Gregory could (or should) have meant: “not slaves, but souls.” The veil lifted enough for Gregory to see the youths as humans in need of salvation and, as pope, he sent a mission to do just that, but the veil did not lift enough for Gregory to agitate for the abolition of slavery, much as he was willing to be a slave himself for the sake of those in need of his pastoral care. That job was left to an energetic descendent of the people converted by Gregory: William Wilberforce.
Preaching in the face of such veils, not least our own, is a daunting task and it is no wonder Paul urges us not to lose heart in the process. It is enough to make us feel like clay and Paul tells us that feeling like clay is exactly the way we should feel when faced with the task of preaching the Gospel. When we realize that we are made of clay, as Genesis 2:7 teaches us, we appreciate what a great gift are the treasures inside the clay jars that are us, a gift from God so that we can “commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).