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.


dan said...

Hey Bryan,

This is a great intro to what sounds like a very interesting paper. Are you planing on posting the rest? I'd love to read it.

Grace and peace.

metalepsis said...

Thanks Dan. I am planning on it.

Karen said...

I'd love to read the rest of the paper.