Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Resistance of Radical Love: Part IV: Romans 13.1-7 and the Role of Apocalyptical Language as Subversive to the Official Ideology

The Role of Apocalyptic as a Means of Subversion to the Official Ideology

One of the lenses in which Paul offers his communities to see things differently is that of apocalyptic discourse. Leo Perdue argues that paraenetic literature often functions as a method of subversion. Paraenetic literature is subversive because it offers an alternative system of ethics which appeal to nature, the gods, and tradition in order to support its own ideology. Moral exhortations are a powerful means of ideological control in the process of group formation. By offering a different totalizing system of ethics, the paraenesis starting in Romans 12 challenges the state ideology, even if in praxis it varies very little from it, namely because it calls into question the ideologies claim that it is the absolute way of being in the world.[1] Any insubordination to a totalizing system, even if it is a relatively small insurgency within the public transcript, is nevertheless a means of subversion simply because it attacks the symbolic Achilles heel of the state.[2]

The apocalyptic nature of the paraenesis is intended to turn the world the Romans live in upside down. Romans 12 starts with a call for the Roman Christians ‘to have their minds ‘renewed’ rather than be ‘conformed to this world’ so that they might ‘prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect’ (12:2), instead of asserting their rights regardless of the impact on the ‘weak’. The Roman Christians’ positive response to Pau1’s exhortation will mean nothing less than a ‘fore-taste’ of the eschatological worship in which Israel and the nations are to be joined (15:7-12); further, it will fulfill his sacred service by guaranteeing the sanctity of his ‘offering of the nations’ (15:14-16).[3] Gordon Zerbe concurs that the wider context of Romans 12 and 13 involves the theme of nonrivalrous love ( avga,ph avnupo,kritoj, 12:9) and “the apocalyptic conflict between the aeons of good and evil” (12:19-20; 13:11-13).[4] Walter Wink writes, ‘discernment does not entail esoteric knowledge, but rather the gift of seeing reality as it really is. Nothing is more rare, or more truly revolutionary, than an accurate description of reality’[5] Indeed the Seer’s gift is not to be immune to invasion by the empire’s spirituality, but to be able to discern the internalized spirituality, name it, and externalize it.[6] The paraenesis, at least at the level of thought, creates an imaginative breathing space in which the normal categories of order and hierarchy are less than completely inevitable.[7] Paul understands that there are real obstacles to resistance, but he wants to make sure that the inability of the Christians in Rome to imagine a counterfactual social order is not one of them.[8] Paul’s hope is to empower the Christians at Rome to break through the idolatries of “worldly” structures and build a community and an ideological stance grounded in offering their minds and bodies to the worship of God through the voluntary indebtedness (love of neighbor)’ and the only way this can be achieved is for them to be able to see reality as it really is.[9]


[1] Perdue, "The Social Character of Paraenesis and Paraenetic Literature," 6-9. Yes; and this is perhaps part of the point. If the gospel of Jesus, God’s Son, the King who will rule the nations (1:3-4; 15:12) does indeed reveal God’s justice and salvation, which put to shame the similar claims of Caesar (1:16-17; Phil 2:5-11; 3:19-21); if it is true that those who accept this gospel will themselves exercise a royal reign (5:17); and if Paul suspects that his audience in Rome are getting this message-then it is all the more important to make it clear that this does not mean a holy anarchy in the present, an over realized eschatology in which the rule of Christ has already abolished all earthly governments and magistrates. Precisely because Paul is holding out for the day when all creation will be renewed (8:1- 27), when every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus (Phi12:10-11), it is vital that the excitable little groups of Christians should not take the law into their own hands in advance, so Wright, "The Letter to the Romans," 718-9.
[2] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 106.
[3] Neil Elliott, "Romans 13.1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda," in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), 195. The flip side of this is that Paul’s exhortation is an attempt to wrest from the empire the right to declare where justice is to be discerned; see Elliott, Liberating Paul, 215.
[4] Gordon Zerbe, "Paul's Ethic of Non-Retaliation and Peace," in The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament. , ed. W. Swartley (Studies in Peace and Scripture 3; Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 177-222.
[5] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 89.
[6] Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, 89.
[7] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 168. In using the term imagination, I acquiesce to Brueggemann’s definition to mean, ‘very simply the human capacity to picture, portray receive, and practice the world in ways other than it appears to be at first glance when seen through a dominant, habitual, unexamined lens. More succinctly, imagination as the quintessential human act is a valid way of knowing,’ So Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 13.
[8] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 81.
[9] Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 190.

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