Monday, February 26, 2007

The Resistance of Radical Love: Part III: Romans 13.1-7 as the public transcript

Romans 13.1-7 as a Hidden Transcript

The reasons Paul’s discourse in Romans 13.1-7 works well as an examination for possible hidden transcripts is two fold. The first is the convincing scholarly development of placing the Pauline corpus over against the rhetoric of the Roman imperial order.[1] The second is that it allows Paul’s use of apocalyptic language to be something other than mere rhetoric.[2]

The Official Ideology of the Roman Imperial Order: Romans 13.1-7 as The Public Transcript

The logic of Romans 13.1-7 on its surface is that everything has its right place, and is ordered by cosmic law. What ultimately maintains this order is a system of retribution which, on the one hand, sustains life and grants well-being to those who live in harmony with the cosmic law, yet on the other hand, brings punishment and destruction to any violators. Moreover this order is deemed an element of creation itself, and is enforced by the power of the state and her laws. The world that Rome offers, is a ‘practical’ totality (a totality constituted and characterized by relationships of praxis), a system or structure of prevailing, dominant social actions and relationships, and elsewhere in the Pauline corpus described as under the hegemony of evil.[3] In the Roman State it was the religion (esp. the imperial cult) that legitimated its social institutions, patterns and laws, and its festivals and rituals were designed through mythic enactment to sustain the natural and social order.[4] Conformity to the social rules and obligations of the Roman society was required, while variance from the laws and customs of the prevailing order was labeled as deviant behavior, threatening the well-being of both the individual and the society. Change was viewed as disruptive and consequently was resisted by both political power and through symbolic rituals.[5]

This paradigm is fortified by the use of divine characteristics throughout the argumentation in Romans 13:1-7, divine characteristics such as ‘every person should submit to God,’ ‘God punishes those who resist his ordinations,’ ‘God always does what is good’ and ‘everything belongs to God’. Through a strategy of transitive argumentation, these values are transposed to the authorities – primarily to warrant the claim that authorities are ordinations of God and should therefore be obeyed by everyone. Accordingly authorities have a specific place within the Roman society. Indeed their function and authority form part of the cosmic order. The authorities are instrumental in maintaining this order through a system of retribution and punishment. Those who live in harmony with this order, that is, in this specific context, those who submit to the authorities, are characterized as people who ‘do good’ (13:3). To ‘do good” is to conduct oneself in accordance with the divine characteristic, ‘God always does what is good.’ Those who ‘do good’ are retributed; they receive the authorities’ approval and praise (kai. e[xeij e;painon evx auvth/j, 13:3), and their life and well-being are assured. This approval or bestowing of praise from the authorities is specifically grounded with a reference to the function of the authorities in terms of their divine ordination: (qeou/ ga.r dia,kono,j evstin soi. eivj) to. avgaqo,n (the authority is a servant of God for your good, 13:4). Note that what the ‘good’ consists of is not ever expanded upon, rather it is an unspoken assumption that everyone knows what the good is (and inversely what the bad is). This general and unspoken assumption is a further example of an all pervasive ideology.

Those who violate this ideology which nature itself attest too, in this case by resisting the authorities, will be punished: they will incur judgment ( oi` de. avnqesthko,tej e`autoi/j kri,ma lh,myontai,13:2). The punishment is explicated with the reference to the ‘sword’ being carried and used by the authorities (ouv ga.r eivkh/ th.n ma,cairan forei/, 13:4). The implication of this reference is clear, namely, the punishment consists of the fact that the authorities will execute those who do ‘bad.’ This may also be taken as an assumption presupposing a cosmic order of harmony and order. Again because everyone knows what is bad, thus to resist the authorities is one specific example of ‘bad’ conduct. To resist the authorities, therefore, endangers the harmony of the divinely ordained cosmic order sustained by the divinely ordained authorities. Therefore ‘bad’ behavior should be rooted out to ensure the continued harmonious existence of the cosmic order. [6] Representing the ruling elite’s ideology the moral exhortation of Romans 13:1-7 is a powerful means of ideological control in order to enforce submission to its authoritarian rule and its conception of ‘law and order.’

It seems that at face value Paul is in collusion with the ruling elite’s, and that he is making sure that his communities will be safeguarded against any imperial backlash. But it is my contention that what Paul is doing is identifying how the Roman government wants to co-opt its subjects into good servants of the state. [7] Paul offers an exaggerated public transcript which on the one hand warns his communities that there are real dangers to standing up to those in power, but on the other hand, reminds the Christians at Rome of the importance in acknowledging the ideological system in which they live, because it is only by being cognizant of the system, that they can refrain from being subjected by it.[8] What Paul offers his communities is the freedom that comes only with reflection, a freedom that Monya Stubbs remarks, ‘involves participation in the governing structure with the discerning awareness that it represents one but not the absolute way of being in the world’.[9]


[1] There has been a steady percolation in biblical studies regarding the (re)interpretation of Paul against the backdrop of the Roman imperial order. This attention for biblical scholars is long overdue, since classical studies have been pushed to re-evaluate the Imperial Cult due to the ground-breaking study of Simon Price’s 1986 monograph S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Price’s study set out to understand the Imperial Cult without the classical, western, or ‘Christian’, notions of religion setting the limits of discussion and has been confirmed and enhanced by the study of Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). This methodological innovation resulted in the study of the Imperial Cult as a serious religion, with rituals that not only helped define the public space, but which were essential to the maintenance of the hegemony of Roman rule. Although many biblical scholars have been reluctant to see Paul’s manuscripts as possible political polemics, for fear that Paul the theologian might be relegated to the sidelines, there is a growing number within the guild that see the polemics against the Roman imperial order as a natural out-growth of Paul’s own Jewish apocalyptic soteriology. See, Elliott, Liberating Paul; Richard Horsley, "Submerged Biblical Histories and Imperial Biblical Studies," in The Postcolonial Bible, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (Bible and Postcolonialism 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998); Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004); N. T. Wright, Paul: Fresh Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

[2] In using apocalyptic, I prefer Wright’s pragmatic definition, that insists that, ‘Apocalyptic is a way of investing space-time events with theological significance; it is actually a way of affirming the vital importance of the present continuing space-time order,’ no matter how bad in ‘reality’ things had become. Apocalyptic was a way of reclaiming the imagination by denying that evil will have the last word, by opening up a ‘reality’ that is otherwise closed off, and by calling into account the sustainers of the imperial imagination. SeeN. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 280-99.

[3] Enrique Dussel, Ethics and Community (New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 29.

[4] See, Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion; Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Price, Rituals and Power.

[5] Leo G. Perdue, "The Social Character of Paraenesis and Paraenetic Literature," Semeia 50 (1990): 6-7.

[6] Jan Botha, Subject to Whose Authority?: Multiple Readings of Romans 13 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994), 204-05.

[7] Paul in effect recognizes the power of the ideology of the Roman Imperial order, its cultural norms, institutions, and traditions, to mold patterns of individual behavior. So, James D. G. Dunn, Romans, 2 vols., vol. 2 (WBC 38b; Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 712.

[8] Monya A. Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance: An African American Reading of the Three-Dimensional Process of Empowerment in Romans 13 and the Free-Market Economy," in Navigating Romans through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, ed. Khiok-Khng Yeo (Romans through history and culture series; New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 186. Wright notes that what Paul is saying is that ‘preaching and living the gospel must always be announcing and following Jesus, rather than Caesar, as the true Lord. But the eschatological balance must be kept. The church must live as a sign of the coming complete kingdom of Jesus Christ; but since that kingdom is characterized by ‘righteousness, peace, and Joy in the Holy Spirit,’ it cannot be inaugurated in the present by chaos, violence, and hatred [cf. 14:17]. The methods of the Messiah himself (12:14-21) must be used in living out his kingdom within the present world.’ See, N. T. Wright, "The Letter to the Romans," in The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 720.

[9] Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 183.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Resistance of Radical Love: Part II: Hidden Transcripts

James C. Scott Hidden Transcripts a Way Forward?

For this we enlist the methodological frame provided by James C. Scott in his recent study Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Scott’s work opens up a new interpretive frame, which allows us to analyze Romans 13.1-7 without succumbing to a ‘political realism’ which would undermine the cruciform communities in which Paul seeks to create. Indeed Scott’s study allows for the apocalyptic aspects of Paul’s gospel to remain in the forefront, calling the community to see that the Roman imperial order is but an illusion, an ideology, and giving them the resources to live differently.

Scott suggests that in any political situation where an elite class dominates segments of the population, you have an implicit or explicit ruling ideology, with differing levels of discourse throughout the population. Like performers in a play, there is an official script in which the performers are expected to perform; this script, according to Scott, is managed by the ruling elites, and is made up of the ruling ideology, and is designated the ‘public transcript’. Scott likens the ‘public transcript’ to that of a ‘self-portrait,’ a painting demonstrating how the dominant elites would like the rest of the population to see them.[1] This is contrasted by the ‘hidden transcripts’ which are the discourses that take place ‘offstage,’ beyond the intimidating gaze of power holders, and which diverge from the official script.[2] The oppressed group’s survival in such a society usually depends on their seeming compliance and obedience to the ‘onstage’ script, which follows the political play of the elite, hoping to find recourse for their interests within the prevailing ideology, without appearing in the least bit seditious.[3] Of course this is not the only recourse for the oppressed, the ‘hidden transcripts’ which while relegated to the ‘offstage’, beyond the scrutiny of the power holders, offers the oppressed group, a ‘politics of disguise and anonymity that takes place in public view, but is designed to have a double meaning in order to shield the identity of the actors.’[4]

Scott further nuances his discussion of both ‘public’ and ‘hidden’ transcripts to include both the elites whom have power and the oppressed who reside at the other end of the spectrum. Accordingly, each group manifests to some degree the ability to perform both ‘public’ and ‘hidden’ transcripts. Thus, for example, the oppressed in peasant societies may partake in activities such as poaching, pilfering, clandestine tax evasion, and intentionally shabby work for landlords. All such activities are part and parcel of the hidden transcript. Yet for dominant elites, the hidden transcript might include clandestine luxury and privilege, the covert use of hired thugs, bribery, and tampering with land tides. These practices, in each case, are in breach of the public transcript of the ruling elites and are, if at all possible, kept offstage and unavowed.[5] Meanwhile the public transcript remains quite stable, albeit taking a good deal of maintenance in order to consistently evoke the ruling ideology through symbols of domination, demonstrations and various enactments of power. According to Scott, ‘Every visible, outward use of power, each command, each act of deference, each list and ranking, each ceremonial order, each public punishment, each use of an honorific title or a term of derogation is a symbolic gesture of domination that serves to manifest and reinforce a hierarchical order.’ Of course the persistence of any pattern of domination is always problematic, and is always a balance between the amount of resistance there is to the ruling elites and the ‘force’ required to keep it in place.[6]

Scott’s detection of the hidden transcript depends largely on the context of domination in the society. Since the hidden transcript is a social product and a result of power relations among the elites of society and their subordinates, he likens it to a type of folk culture, “the hidden transcript has no reality as pure thought,” he states “it exists only to the extent it is practiced, articulated, enacted, and disseminated within these offstage social sites.” [7] It is the detection of this double entendre that is especially hard to do in ancient texts since the texts in question can often be read as being complicitous with the official transcript, thus often providing ‘convincing’ evidence of willing, even enthusiastic participation with the forces which dominate.[8] However since it is this seemingly willingness to contribute to the sanitized official transcript that often allows the oppressed to avoid detection; the reader of ancient texts must carefully look for clues that might tip off ‘insiders’, that something else is indeed going on.[9] According to Scott the typical way to rebel against the official transcript is to hide under the protective flattery which ensures that once the oppressed come under any scrutiny from above the rebels can claim to be perfect citizens.[10] In fact it is not uncommon for the oppressed to clothe their resistance and defiance in ritualism of subordination that serve both to disguise their purposes and to provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the consequences of possible failure.[11] Following Scott’s lead we may then consider the dominant discourse as a plastic idiom of dialect that is capable of carrying an enormous variety of meanings, including those that are subversive even while resembling the dominant discourse itself.[12] Scott reminds us that unless the group has completely revolutionary ends the terrain of dominant discourse is the only plausible arena of struggle.[13]

[1] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 18.

[2] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 18.

[3] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 18.

[4] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 19.

[5] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 14.

[6] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 45. Scott further states that. “Rituals of subordination are a means of demonstrating that a given system of domination is stable, effective, and here stay (66).”

[7] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 119.

[8] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 86.

[9] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 87.

[10] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 89-90.

[11] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 96.

[12] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 103.

[13] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 103.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Resistance of Radical Love: Re-reading Romans 13.1-7

The following is a paper that I have been polishing up, It will probably be an addendum in my dissertation, let me know what you think in the comments! All constructive feedback is welcome.

The Resistance of Radical Love: Re-reading Romans 13.1-7

Reading Romans 13.1-7 in the Public Square

The text of Romans 13.1-7 has been used to sanction a litany of terrible offenses throughout its history of interpretation. In fact it is impossible to read these seven verses and remain unshaken by our own agonizing awareness, that these verses were used to sanction such offenses as the American slave trade, the horrors of Auschwitz, South African apartheid, and the disappeared in Latin America. How can imagine to speak the bible in the public square when to many around the world these texts are nothing but another means of oppression. More pointedly for our purposes how do we reconcile the Pauline plea for the status quo here, and those injustices and crimes against humanity that have hidden and continue to hide behind these verses?[1]

While the answers to these questions are not easy, any examination of such issues must start with a discussion of Pauline ethics. There has seemingly always been two ways to read the ethical statements of Paul throughout the history of interpretation. The first is to see all the ethical teachings of Paul as God’s commandments and thus eternally and universally binding; the second is to see Paul’s ethical teaching as primarily outmoded, irrelevant, ridiculous and anachronistic.[2] What this rather simple dichotomy seems to miss is the paramount importance of the ethics of interpretation in any ethical discussion. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her 1987 SBL presidential address called for a re-centering of biblical studies into a more liberating praxis, which has taken an exceeding long time in my opinion to reach the evangelical circles. Schussler Fiorenza called for biblical scholars to ask such penetrating questions as (1) who is reading the text (whether individual or group) (2) which Bible does the interpretive community hold to, what authority does it grant to the text (that is, what view of the text does the interpretive community hold, what authority does it grant to the text) (3) how does it interpret the texts (which methods are used) and (4) why does the individual or community interpret the text (whose interests are at stake, what does the interpretive community want to achieve with their acts of interpretation)? With these questions, power becomes central to the interpretive task: Whose interests does the interpretation serve? What kind of worlds does the text envision? What roles, duties and values does it advocate? These questions, Schussler Fiorenza maintains, require a double ethics – an ethics of historical reading and an ethics of accountability.[3] It is the ethics of accountability which has been largely ignored when Christians attempt to speak in the public square. This paper aims to explore an interpretation of Romans 13.1-7 focusing primarily on two questions: (1) what kind of world does the interpretation of the texts envision, and (2) what might a responsible interpretation, attempting to mitigate the negative effects these seven verses have had throughout the centuries, look like.

Being mindful of the ethics of interpretation when dealing with a passage as controversial and potentially oppressive as Romans 13.1-7 is important not only because of how this passage has been used in the past to not only tolerate, but also to reinforce oppression, but also because it has been used unwittingly to distort and dismantle the cruciform ethics of the Cross. The problem here is twofold: (1) how do we reconcile Paul’s words here with what we have come to conclude about the Gospel elsewhere and (2) how do they fit with what we have come to understand about Paul? These questions are again not easily answered, in fact many modern day interpreters would rather disregard this text as unauthentic then to deal with its potentially embarrassing statements.[4] Trying to reconcile what we know of the Roman Empire and what Paul says here is often difficult as the statement by Joseph Klausener suggests:

When one considers all the shameful deeds of oppression, the murders and extortions, of the Roman government in every place where the hand of its authority reached, and particularly in the lands and provinces where Paul lived and traveled, one cannot escape a feeling of resentment and protest against this recital of praise for the tyranny of Caligula and Nero, or of Gessius Florus. One is forced to see in it flattery of the rulers.[5]

For the twenty first century mind, with our ability to teleological asses the general tenures of governments, Paul’s rhetoric seems at the very least to be over stated, and more appropriately flat out wrong.[6] One wonders whether Paul had forgotten that it was the Romans who were ultimately responsible for the death of the Christ; could he really believe that Governments only punish those who do wrong (Romans 13.4), and could he, a reputed prisoner, come to the honest conclusion that only those who have done wrong have reason to fear? Could Paul really be that deluded about the systemic evil of the Roman Empire?

Romans 13 has puzzled scholars for ages namely because it seems to offer a defense of the Roman Imperial order, and how can such a message be reconciled with the revolutionary defense of the orphan and widow. Many answers have been given to this conundrum whether Paul is simply flattering the powers, or merely an unconcerned proprietor of the status quo, none seem to make sense of what Paul is doing in the letter to Romans as a whole, much less how it fits in to the paraenesis. I hope in this paper to at least explore an alternative option that might help de-stable the sort of conservative readings of Paul so often lauded by those who have a stake in power.

[1] Winsome Munro, "Romans 13:1-7: Apartheid's Last Biblical Refuge," Biblical Theology Bulletin 20, no. 4 (1990): 161-68; Stanley E. Porter, "Romans13.1-7 as Pauline Political Rhetoric," Filologia Neotestamentaria 3 (1990): 115-39.

[2] Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 25.

[3] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "The Ethics of Interpretation: De-Centering Biblical Scholarship," Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 1 (1988): 14-15. See also, Daniel Patte, Ethics of Biblical Interpretation: A Reevaluation, 1st ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 1-12.

[4] See the discussion in Leander E. Keck, "What Makes Romans Tick?," in Pauline Theology Iii: Romans, ed. David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 3-29. Also c.f. James Kallas, "Rom 13:1-7: An Interpolation," New Testament Studies, no. 11: 365-74; J. C. O'Neill, Paul's Letter to the Romans (Middlesex: Penguin, 1975), 207-08.

[5] Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul, trans. William F. Stinespring (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 565.

[6] One suspects that if Paul himself could be summonsed from the grave he would surely rephrase this evaluation of government.

Monday, February 05, 2007


I started reading Gilead over the weekend and could not help but reflect upon a passage in Jonathan Franzen's essay entitled "the reader in exile." Where he discusses how books are both a catalyst for self-realization and a sanctuary. He quotes from Sven Birkets' on this topic:

Inwardness, the more reflective component of self, requires a "space" where a person can reflect upon the meaning of things.

and a persons absorption in a novel, which he likens closer to a state of meditation, allows for this space. Birkets' beautifully describes my short engagement with Gilead perfectly:

I feel a tug. The chain has settled over the sprockets; there is the feel of meshing, then the forward glide.
Now the trick is to find the time to get back to that place!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Fundy's have new transportation!

took this while I was on my way to work, my wife could not figure out why I was laughing.