Paul’s legacy – Romans 13:1-7: resolution
Posted by cherylem on October 26, 2007
This is my seventh post on Paul’s legacy, based mainly on Neil Elliott’s book: LIBERATING PAUL: THE JUSTICE OF GOD AND THE POLITICS OF THE APOSTLE, and this is my third post on Romans 13:1-7. I’ve taken a lot of time with these seven verses because they have been so important historically in the interpretation of Paul and because they have done so much damage within world history.
In my first post on Romans 13:1-7 Romans 13:1-7: the problem I outlined the problem these verses have presented historically. The second post (Romans 13:1-7: the confusion) surveyed several ways of trying to deal with these verses, all of which Elliott claims are unsatisfying, confusing, and distorting.
This third post will offer a resolution of the problem presented in Romans 13:1-7, as argued by Elliott in his book. At the end of the post (or perhaps in a brief separate one) I’ll also address the JST of these verses.
Elliott’s chapter that includes a long discussion on Romans 13:1-7 is the final chapter in his book, and is entitled Apostolic Praxis: Living out the Dying of Jesus. This chapter is 50 pages long; my summarizing post is pretty lengthy also.
Elliott begins this chapter with first making the argument that “the picture of Paul that emerges . . . is markedly different from the way he is often represented [as a social conservative]. I have argued that Paul’s visionary encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus shattered the fine calculus of sacred violence that had driven him to persecute the churches in Judea and Syria.” Elliott thus emphasizes the transformation of Paul – spiritually and politically – as a result of his conversion.
“If Paul could “think globally” of God’s liberation of an oppressed creation, did he also “act locally,” in his daily endeavors among his congregations, in consonance with that vision? Did the concrete decisions expressed in his letters reveal a coherent and liberative strategy?” Elliott answers this question: yes.
Elliott’s then argues that Romans 13:1-7 is given disproportionate [stand alone] influence, thus causing us to ignore several of Paul’s statements regarding the authorities of the day as evil and social structures that persecute others by their very nature as wrong. Any interpretations of Paul that limit him to teaching a gospel of spiritual transformation while leaving out social and political concerns “are distortions of Paul’s thought and work.” For Paul, Elliott argues, the spiritual, social and political were all one in the conversion process. “Living out the dying of Jesus” compels the convert believer to see his or her entire world with new eyes. “Living out the dying of Jesus” will be costly for the believer in every way. Thus Paul will tell of his own sufferings, arrests, imprisonments, and government-ordered punishments in order to make sure the convert clearly sees what he is agreeing to, what the new life will demand. One of the reasons the new life in Christ will be so demanding is that the authorities of the day will detect in Paul’s words and actions [the new Christian faith] a real threat to the established social order.”
Finally, Elliott says, The appropriate question fully acknowledges Paul’s understanding of the new life in Christ, and thus becomes: What contours did Paul expect of the Christian community’s life together to assume as they lived in anticipation of God’s coming triumph? Paul had a clear strategic goal: the “sanctification” of gentile converts and the formation of assemblies of the sanctified. Paul’s praxis had a cosmic horizon: the apocalyptic triumph of God. The question at the heart of the inquiry regarding these verses becomes: What political shape does Paul expect his readers’ lives to take as they “wait with patience” for the liberation of creation?
In the pages that follow Elliott answers that Paul expected his converts to discern the lies in the culture and politics which surrounded their everyday lives, and create something new and different (even revolutionary) and liberative for all, at great personal cost economically, socially, and politically.
Elliott organizes his following discussion as follows:
1) The ideological context: the theology of empire
2) Communities of discernment
a. Discerning the lie: “Peace and security”
b. Discerning the lie: “Justice and faith”
3)Communities of resistance
4)Communities of solidarity with the crucified
5) Challenging the ideology of privilege: 1 Corinthians
a) Discerning and resisting the ideology of privilege
b) A holy solidarity with those not yet free
6) Confronting the ideology of power (Romans)
a) The theological offense of Romans 13:1-7
b) The Historical problem of Romans 13:1-7
c) An exhortation against rivalry
I will try to do justice to Elliott’s arguments while not writing a post so long that it will lose your interest.
I have already written about “the theology of empire” in Paul’s legacy: sexuality. I will only repeat here that the theology of empire incorporated the idea that the Roman emperor, a god, embodied justice, and that Roman coins and other items included the inscription “faith.” Pax Augustus (the peace of Augustus) was taught as divinely ordained, even though it was won and enforced, on a continuing basis, violently.
Elliott writes: “The message of the Augustan gospel was clear. Justice and peace, the gifts of the gods, were now being made manifest on earth in the order and security imposed by Rome, whose subjects were invited to respond with gratitude, awe, and loyalty.”
Paul issued a different invitation, a different call. He repeatedly calls the Christian ekklesia to be:
• Communities of discernment (see Phil. 1:10; Rom. 12:2, 13:11).
Paul asks the Christian communities to throw off imperial illusions. For Paul, the rhapsodies about a “golden age” are a fraud and he refers to the present evil age in very derogatory terms: see Gal. 1:4, Phil. 2:15, Rom. 8:21, 1 Cor. 7:31, 1 Thess. 5:7, 1 Thess. 1:10, Rom 5:9.
In order to throw off the illusions of the present evil age, including that of the governing authorities of the time, Christian communities needed to:
• Discern the lie: “peace and security.”
Paul especially emphasizes this in 1 Thess. 5:3-6, which begins, “Just as people are saying ‘peace and security,” then suddenly destruction will come upon them.” Elliott says that this “peace and security,” (in Greek, eirene kai asphaleia) specifically refers to the theology of Rome, to Pax Romana. Here the words “peace and security” refer to “night and darkness.” (“We are not of the night and darkness” – 1 Thess. 5:5) [However, at least one commentator relinquishes this insight in view of the "triumph of the moderate in Romans 13:1-7. Again, this is the view the Elliott rejects.]
• Discern the lie: “justice and faith.”
Paul’s call to discern the lie regarding the Roman theology of “Justice and faith” is most clear in Romans, Elliott says. The justice and faith of the new communities of faith will be far different than the justice and faith of the theology of Rome.
Important to Elliott is the fact that antijudaism was rife in imperial circles, and this antijudaism had begun to infect the church as well. Elliott writes that in Romans, “Paul appeals to the Christians of Rome to throw off the mental shackles of the empire’s theology, to resist conformity to the world and embrace the transformation of their minds, and to come at last to share in God’s compassionate purposes toward humanity, and more particularly toward the covenant people of Israel.” It is here that Elliott argues [as I mentioned in the post on sexuality] that the justice of God is “God’s integrity, faithfulness to God’s own being and purposes. . . ” especially “God’s purposes” being “the redemption of the creation and the fulfillment of the covenant with Israel.”
Elliott argues strongly that Romans represents an argument of comparing God’s justice to the injustice radiating from Rome and its hirelings in Jerusalem. Paul, according to Elliott, is writing to an audience in Rome tempted to identify with Rome’s perspective on its victims. Thus Paul is engaged in a “mortal struggle to see who shall declare what ‘justice’ is.” Paul is concerned that the boast of the Gentiles [to be better than the Jews] will ultimately exclude the Gentiles from exaltation. In order to give up their boast, the Gentile Christians HAVE to discern the lie regarding justice and faith. The justice of God is not what the empire calls justice.
After discerning the lie of what the Romans call “peace and security” and “justice and faith,” Paul calls the Gentile Christians to:
• Communities of Resistance.
Elliott says that Paul’s shorter letters of exhortation show that the “repudiation of imperial illusion to which he called his audiences was costly.” This repudiation was, quoting Wayne Meeks, “terribly subversive to the basic institutions of society.” Elliott addresses 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, in terms of this subversiveness and its terrible costs to converts. Paul is calling the converts to a heavenly citizenship. Paul struggles against the timidity of “those gentile converts who would rather acquiesce in the religious roles dictated by their society than live out the challenge of the gospel.”
Thus, these “communities of resistance” to the theology of Rome become
• Communities of Solidarity with the Crucified.
Paul constantly exhorts his audiences to remember their baptisms. His exhortations are “saturated with metaphorical references to aspects of the baptism ritual,” in which members die with Christ and look forward to being raised with Him. Baptism is a change of status – a threshold that one passes through to a society in which social class and roles are abolished. Again quoting Meeks, baptism puts the community into a permanent “threshold state.” “The ekklesia itself, not just the initiates during the period of their induction, is supposed to be marked by sacredness, homogeneity, unity, love, equality, humility, and so on.”
This may sound lovely to us, but this equality ensured that “Pauline congregations experienced considerable tension between this ideal of community and the normal structures of the larger society.” Equality with slaves, eating and sharing community between rich and poor – this was not done in Rome or anywhere in its empire. Additionally, welcoming the scapegoated Jew into their community would have been an affront to those living within the Roman culture, and especially within the Roman capital. (think of a German befriending a Jew in Nazi Germany [and how few were able to see their way to do this] – by the time of Nero, it was not so different in Rome.)
Elliott spends some time (pages) talking about Paul’s transcendent vision of what it meant to be a follower of Christ. The risen Christ was more real to Paul than the iron of Rome. The changed lives he asked of the gentile Christians was essential to what Paul saw as the Christian essence, as Paul himself lived a life “poised between revelation and resurrection.” Historian Paul Brown writes, in Paul’s letters, “we are presented with the human body as in a photograph taken against the sun: it is a jet-black shape whose edges are suffused with light.” For Paul, the physical body was one to be used in worship and use for God as believers followed Christ.
For Paul, the new equality in the community of believers was not abstract. Collections were made for the poor. The rich should share what they had to alleviate the suffering of the have-nots. At the same time Paul himself refused the patronage of the rich (in Corinth), thus refusing, once again, the exploitive culture of Rome. In 1 Cor. 1:26-29 and 11:18-22 Paul writes of the powerful, the nothings, the haves, the have-nots.
While Elliott is clear that he is not forcing a 20th century sensibility on Paul (Paul is not feminist, for example), Elliott emphasizes that Paul writes that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. . . God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). Thus many gentile congregations – most – were mainly made up of the low-born, the uneducated, the powerless. Such congregations, Paul writes, forfeits its very being when the poor go hungry. Thus he urges the Christians in Rome: “Make your way with the oppressed.” (Rom. 12:16)
This ethos of discernment, resistance, and solidarity would encounter the most resistance among believers who stood to lose the most – those believers who were wealthy and upper class. This conflict among the believers is most apparent in 1 Corinthians, where Paul challenges the ideology of privilege, and about which I shall write very little, though Elliott devotes 10 pages to this discussion. I will note only that Elliott’s point is that the community of believers must take, according to Paul, conspicuous actions to renounce the privileges granted them within the City’s (Corinth’s) sacred order of honor and power. Men are not to cover their heads in church (as the emperor does), nor are they to participate in meals at pagan shrines (as would be expected of the upper class), nor are they in any way to show themselves superior to those who are routinely exploited, but instead are to show themselves as the equals of these “have nots.”
Finally, “it is the embodied sharing of Christ’s fate rather than the possession of privilege or power that marks the church.” Paul will go on to write about this in Romans 8:9-17, as Elliott summarizes: “The bodies of the powerless, too, are holy, even though the labor of their bodies may belong to others within the structures of society. Yet this affirmation does not mean that Paul acquiesces in imbalances of power and privilege within that society. The bodies of the poor are holy, though not yet free; their holiness is nevertheless the guarantee of their coming freedom.”
At last, after all that has come before, we come to Elliott’s section on
• Confronting the Ideology of Power (Romans)
Elliott says that previous interpretations of Romans have been based on:
1) the premise that the book represents a summary of Paul’s gospel and
2) since the time of Luther Romans has been read as Paul’s effort to address the relation of the Christian gospel to the Jews – that Paul was engaged in a debate with Judaism
Elliott rejects both these premises. Instead, he argues that Paul is writing to “wrest from the empire the right to declare where justice is to be discerned, and calls the Christians of Rome to abandon the futility and senselessness of an unjust age (Rom. 1:18-32), an age that is under the indictment of Torah (Romans 3:13-17).
According to Elliott, the whole of Romans is built around the call to throw of the coercive power of this age and to be so transformed that the new community may offer themselves in holiness to God (12:1-2; 6:12-14).
In order to be so transformed certain ways of thinking and being have to be changed. Specifically Paul calls on the gentile Christians to change the way they are looking upon Jews. In Rome the Jews are publicly denigrated as avaricious and wretched, misanthropic and eager to proselytize, barbarous, lecherous, smelling of strange foods and personal habits. In Roman eyes the Jews had proven themselves unsuitable as servants and subjects. Those who opposed Jewish apartheid were themselves violently persecuted. Now the gentile Christians were in a position to add a theological judgment as well against the Jews: The Jews’ stubborn loyalty to their Torah was the foolish obstinacy of a doomed race.
Elliott argues that the “burden of Paul’s argumentation throughout Romans is to move these gentile Christians away from a theology that scapegoats the Jews as the victims of God, as well as of Rome, to embrace an ethos of solidarity with them. The climax of the letter’s argument is reached when Paul solemnly warns the Gentiles not to imagine in their conceit that they have replaced the Jews in God’s favor (Romans 11). In Romans the gentile Christians are admonished to defer to “the weak” (that is, the Jews) at common meals (Rom. 14:1to15:3). This attitude toward the Jews is grounded in the necessity for Christians to resist conformity to this world (12:1-2). Gentile Christians are to accept a vision of justice centered on the resurrection of the crucified Messiah. “We who are powerful are to make up the deficiencies of the powerless, and not satisfy ourselves . . . for Christ did not please himself; but as it is written, ‘the reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” (15:1, 3).
In the midst of these chapters we find Romans 13:1-7. Elliott rejects the idea that these verses are an interpolation. He emphasizes how much suffering these verses have caused. “But the fault has not been Paul’s,” he writes. “For that flood of suffering, each generation must bear its own responsibility.”
In previous posts I’ve talked about “the problem” and the “confusion” so I will not repeat myself here. Rather, I will move to Elliott’s resolution regarding these verses. As I warned in “the problem” you may or may not find his resolution satisfying.
• An exhortation against rivalry
Elliott writes that “If Romans 13:1-7 really belongs to this letter, we should read these verses as part of an argument addressed to a church in which the gentile Christian’s inclination to dispossess the Jew, politically as well as theologically, has provoked the apostle’s concern. That much is evident from the letter’s climax in chapter 11.
“It is the emerging theological consensus of gentile Christianity, not the “dangerous” view of an embattled Jewish minority, that Paul confronts here. What sense can we make of Rom. 13:1-7 in that context?”
Elliott then goes through some historical events:
Twenty years before Paul penned Romans, the Jewish population in Alexandria (the largest concentration of Jews outside of Judea) had undergone a terrible pogrom, with scars still evident today. Specifically because the Jews refused to worship the emperor (Caligula) their synagogues were desecrated, they were deprived of their civil rights, moved into ghettos, had their property confiscated, and members of the Jewish council were arrested. The Alexandrian Greeks were whipped into a frenzy of pillaging, destruction, beatings, torture, murder of the Jewish population.
This ‘war against the Jews’ was continued in Rome itself. Interestingly, Jews were not taxed like the rest of the population, and when people were angry about being taxed, their anger was deflected (scapegoated) against the Jews. Any popular outcry against taxation would automatically be deflected “onto the most vulnerable population in the city: the Jewish refugees, who come directly in view in Romans 14:1 – 15:13.”
Again, Paul urges the ekklesia to “welcome the weak” at common meals (15:1), appealing to the example of Christ, who bore the insults of others (15:3) and “became the servant of the circumcision” (15:8).
Elliott notes the curious combination in 13:1-7 of pragmatism (13:2, 4b) and idealism regarding the authorities (4a, 6). Elliott suggests that these verses are not (quoting Luise Schottroff) meant to “propound philosophically grounded theories concerning the essence of the state.” Rather, Paul is trying to keep the gentile Christians from making trouble in the streets. Paul wants “to deflect his audience from private resentments and from the calculation of one’s just deserts, for these are the spiritual roots of scapegoating violence against the poor; and to impel them rather toward mutual compassion and striving for the common good.”
Elliott doubts that Paul’s statement that the authority is already the “servant of God on your behalf for good” (13:4) and that one pays taxes because the “authorities are ministers to God, diligently attending to the same thing” (13:6) constitutes Paul’s assessment of government authority in general or specific. Rather these verses, Elliott theorizes, are “meant only to focus the audience’s attention on the discernment of “the good” (compared 12:1-2) which finds expression in recognizing one’s obligations to others (12:3-13).” Ultimately this instruction will lead to giving revenue, respect and honor as due, and to lead to the exhortation to “owe no one anything but mutual love” (13:8).
Elliott then makes the arguments that these verses, placed where they are in chapters 12 and 13, emphasize mutual accommodation and harmony within the ekklesia along with an ethic of nonretaliation toward one’s enemies. The wider theme of these two chapters is nonrivalrous love (agape), as shown by Gordon Zerbe in other writings.
Within this context, “Paul’s exhortation to be subordinate to the authorities focuses the ethic of nonretaliation on a potentially volatile situation.” Elliott insists that these verses have to placed in the context of 12:18-20, (living peaceably with all men and leaving vindication to God), 12:21 (overcoming evil with good), and 13:3 (doing good within the city). They are not to take the righting of wrongs into their own hands in rivalrous situations.
Elliott will later argue that this reading in context does not mean that the Christian ekklesia will not be in opposition to Roman government and theology – indeed, they will be in opposition. It is just that they will not be in violent opposition. Paul will also be teaching (13:11-14) that God’s redisposition of the powers is imminent anyway. God will overthrow Rome.
In the meantime, 13:1-7 does not in any way represent a theology of the state. That Paul would write that the authorities are made “servants of God” is no more than Jeremiah wrote, or Daniel wrote, apocalyptically, or Isaiah wrote, when they described certain authorities as being God’s servants (Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar, etc). That is, in Paul’s world view, all authorities are God’s servants and only rule because God allows it. However, these rulers are not permanent, and eventually their evil will be replaced by God’s good.
Elliott points out that Paul cannot be enjoining unqualified obedience to the authorities, because he himself was not obedient, and suffered the violent results of his nonobedience. In fact, Christian martyrs through the first two centuries quoted 13:1-7 as the moment of their executions, both to state their loyalty and to condemn the authorities who were executing them.
One example of this is Polycarp, who declares before the proconsul who will sentence him a moment later to death that “we have been taught to show appropriate honor to the principalities and powers ordained of God, if that does not compromise us” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 10).
Around 180 C.E. an African Christian named Speratus proclaims, “We have never done evil to anyone and have in no manner worked for the cause of injustice: we have never cursed, we have rather been thankful when were mistreated; therefore we give honor to Caesar”; another, Donata cries out: “Honor Caesar as Caesar, but fear God!”
And Elliott gives other examples also. For these early Christians, 13:1-7 becomes a way of saying that they have not violently rebelled against the powers (even though by their Christian actions they have been perceived as being disobedient to the authorities). Thus the martyrs declare their innocence while participating in non-rivalrous disobedience.
In this context, “Rom. 13:1-7 loses its apparently singular character and becomes a link in the long chain of declarations of loyalty of the members of subjugated peoples toward Rome”; indeed, K.H. Schelkle declares these verses from Romans 13 ‘a requisite for the martyr apology.’”
Elliott writes: “The real puzzle of these lines . . . is not that they provide an inadequate program for direct action in resisting repressive governments . . . . The puzzle is rather our own willingness to yield to the deadly purposes of the empire’s functionaries the very phrases that were first found on the lips of martyrs. . . . Only the arrogant presumptions of our own privilege have allowed us to hear these verses as a sacred legitimation of power.”
Elliott concludes: “Perhaps the greatest irony of Paul’s legacy in our day is just this: that we cannot hear the blow of the executioner’s sword, let alone the sharp-edge proclamation that brought that blow down upon the apostle’s neck, above the chorus of imperial acolytes around us who hymn these verses as a magic charm to protect the policies and the profits of the already rich. Those of us who live in the heart of the empire would do well to surrender these verses to those who stand in the place of the martyrs today and accord them the right to interpret the apostle’s words, for Paul was one of them.”
• Closing notes
In a later section, Elliott reminds us that Jesus’ death was political: Jesus of Nazareth was tortured and executed as an enemy of Rome. He claims that Paul’s conversion to the cause of the crucified, and the theology of the cross that flows from it, are thus profoundly political. Paul “bids us look around and discern the body of Christ in our own world: the body offered to God as a living sacrifice, no longer at the disposal of the powers of injustice but mobilized for God’s justice; vulnerable, wounded, bleeding, bearing the marks of Jesus’ death, carrying about in human flesh the death Jesus suffered. “We are inundated by the cries of an entire creation,” Walter Wink writes: “the millions now starving to death each year, the tortured, the victims of sexual abuse and battering, the ill.”
Elliott quotes Romans 8:26-27: “God’s spirit is actually praying for us in those agonizing longings which cannot find words.” With Mahatma Gandhi, “we must never accept evil, even if we cannot change it,” because, as in Romans 8:39: “nothing in all creation shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Elliott believes that Paul continues today to call us to communities of discernment. He asks that we put ourselves in the place of the Corinthian elite, for instance, privileged, comfortable, spiritually content, confident that all we possess we deserve. And he asks that we put ourselves in the place of the gentile Christians in Rome, eager to celebrate our own relative safety as the blessing of God and ready enough (with proper regret, to be sure) to acknowledge God’s judgment on the victims of empire in our cities and in our history.
Paul calls the Corinthians out of privilege into service, and calls the Romans out of Roman safety and into risk. In both cases he makes the gentile Christian sure to understand the equality of the believers: poor with the rich, slave with the free, woman with the man. This is his political, and spiritual, understanding of the cross.
Then, having understood Paul’s meaning, let us further understand his call for a spiritual intifada, as urged in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds!” To be so transformed is nothing less than “to participate in life from the dead.”