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.

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