I must admit the title of this article refers me to an unusual source. Yes, as I write a biblical commentary, I cannot help but recall a song that is not rooted in the Bible. It is a pop song – not a hymn, spiritual or sacred anthem – that pricks my attention. I am not a Janet Jackson aficionado, but her song, “The Pleasure Principle” from 1987 has a few lines that are still appealing almost 25 years later: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me...It’s the pleasure principle.”
In this song, Jackson declares that what she thought was going to be long-term happiness ends up as “part-time bliss.” Both parties are to blame in the relationship’s demise. One party needed security and self-assurance; the other sought affection and love. Each person attempted to use the other for the sake of personal fulfillment; this is the pleasure principle. It is a principle in Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, as well as the fabric of our 21st century society.
The way in which we manipulate our brothers and sisters for personal gain is not limited to intimate relationships. This sense of control for private benefit is not confined to sexual matters. Through other types and degrees of activity and speech, we try to please and consequently ascertain pleasure. People engage in extensive efforts to make someone happy while, at the same time, seeking that euphoria in return. Our world is filled with examples of the measures we take to get the applause so the hearer or recipient feels good. Yet, the real underlying motive is for the speaker to feel good about what she or he says. One gives a soundbite, and the audience explodes with approval. The audience affirms the message thus inciting the messenger to produce more of the same. The giver feeds this verbal hunger while at the same time needing to satiate her/his own desire. It is sick, circuitous cycle of pleasing to be pleased that pervades our political world.
The language of “food stamp president” appeals to a certain conservative base, while ignoring the dire reality of the nation’s poor, is one example of this pleasure principle. Constant references to “getting them a job” while gaining thunderous applause do nothing but spur racial separation and suspicion. Such notations disregard the fact that no one takes pride in insecure government handouts, and no one group has a monopoly on getting welfare checks. Nonetheless, such words purposely resurrect the nostalgia of the 80’s “war on drugs” rhetoric and “welfare queen” imagery. This syrupy oratory crosses both sides of the aisle. Whether one listens to the Republican debates or the President’s State of the Union Address, these cues, although given to rally the troops and demonize the other, “speak” to much of the political pandering and pleasing. Dare I interject another pop culture reference? The late Whitney Houston’s “Things You Say” posits ideas of the seduction of speech and talk. The song declares a love for words and “a lot of the things you say.” We want what we say to be pleasing to everybody.
Yet, this pleasure principle is not limited to talk. Public activity demonstrates it as well. A “simple” decision by executives at the Susan G. Komen Foundation proved to be quite complex. An associate trying to take a personal stand against abortions decided that withholding funds from Planned Parenthood was the right thing to do. Although Komen denied such, many believe the action was political and rooted in an attempt to please anti-abortion activists.
Within days of its initial decision, Komen issued a statement declaring it would preserve Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for future funding. This time Komen had to please a much larger and perhaps more powerful constituency. This latter group rallied to say women’s health care need not be political fodder.
The Affordable Care Act provides health care benefits for the poor, coverage to college students through a certain age and grants to help transition individuals from nursing homes to community programs. For many, it represents a much-needed health care overhaul; it is good legislation. For others, it was always problematic due to the contraception constraints it places on certain Catholic institutions; it was (and for some, still is) not-so-good legislation. While trying to please those whose income makes little to no room for health insurance, the President displeased Americans who averred that he had crossed the religious freedom line. Like Komen, within days of trying to implement this controversial contraception policy, the President had to do an “about face” to quiet the roar of religious leaders.
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In the Gospel of Mark, the author states that Jesus goes to John the Baptist to be baptized (1:9-11). Jesus, the Son of God, does not baptize John, but in an act of social reversal, John baptizes the one “who is more powerful” than he is. As Jesus comes out of the water, God tells Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”
God expresses pleasure with Jesus. This is quite ironic. According to Mark, Jesus has done nothing at this point. Jesus has not healed a sick person. He has not baptized a sinner in need of repentance. He has not even spoken to anyone. Yet, God is pleased with Jesus.
We must take stock of the efforts we take to please each other. The state of political affairs should challenge us to rethink what we say for applause and how we feed off such. The conditions in our society ought to propel us to reflect on what we do for a pat on the back or nod of approval. While we say this and do that so others may clap and shout in agreement, the biblical text makes it clear that without doing anything, God was pleased with Jesus. The onus of fulfillment or pleasure did not rest with Jesus, but it was in God’s hands. It was God’s ultimate doing and power.
The real pleasure principle is not a cycle of doing and getting and doing and getting to feed hubris and ego but where we are silent and still. It is a reversal where those of power dare to serve those who are marginalized and decentered. It is a reversal where the rich risk walking in the shoes of the poor; that is if the poor have shoes. The reversal, the conundrum, of the pleasure principle is that we should question whether anything we say or do is really pleasing to ourselves, pleasing to others, and ultimately pleasing to God. It is not what we do, but what God says that truly matters.
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Rev. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Ph.D. is an ordained Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister and teaches New Testament at Belmont University.