Monday, March 12, 2007

The Resistance of Radical Love: Part V: The Radical Use of Hidden Transcripts in Romans 13.1-7

The Radical Use of Hidden Transcripts in Romans 13.1-7

The first clue that Paul is up to something other than presenting a first century version of ‘political realism’ in Romans 13.1-7 is the consequences, such rhetoric would have on the gospel Paul proclaims.[1] According to Käsemann the notions expressed in Romans 13.1-7, ‘that the authorities constantly seek to be God’s servants, is obviously exaggerated if not wholly incredible’; the ‘proof’ Paul offers for his exhortation is ‘forced’ and lacking in persuasiveness.[2] Forced, because one is left wondering how a community tempted to rebellion (13:2) by the exorbitant abuses of the tax gatherers, really would have had their minds changed by platitudes about magistrates serving the good and punishing only the bad (13:3, 4).[3] Even more troubling are the discrepancies within the immediate context of Romans 12-13. First, while the context of 12.1 is apocalyptic, there is a lapse of this in 13:1-7 and then present again in 13:11-12; Second, is the assignment of vengeance as God’s prerogative to avenge wrong-doing (cf. 12:19-20), which in Romans 13.4 is given the government authorities. Finally, Paul in 12.2 seems to imply that what is good, acceptable and perfect is tied up to the gospel; the vindication of crucified Lord, yet in 13:3 ‘traditional’ social values of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are accepted without qualification, even though in the surrounding context Paul anticipates that Christians will suffer unjust persecution from their neighbors (12:17-21), and exhorts Christians to ‘cast off the works of darkness’ that characterize the present evil age (13:11-13). These discrepancies are clues to the Christians at Rome that something more is happening than meets the eye. Paul, I believe, is extolling an exaggerated public transcript, in an effort to challenge his readers to see the Roman state ideology for what it is an idolatrous ideology that cannot coexist with the gospel in which Paul proclaims.[4]

Thus Paul’s exaggerated public transcript in 13.1-7 can not be properly interpreted without special attention to how Paul frames the text. Before Paul talks about the government he exhorts the Roman Christians to not be conformed to this world, but to rather be transformed by a renewed imagination (12.2). This call relativizes and at the same time contextualizes the statements of 13:1-7. The Christians of Rome are reminded that their primary commitment is not to any other authority, but rather to God. Paul calls them to distance themselves by remembering the ethics of the cross, and to avoid any straightforward identification with the Roman imperial system.[5] Paul continues by exhorting the Roman Christians toward an ethic of non-retaliation, summonsing them to repay evil with good (12.16-21). Paul seeks to remind them of the enormous breakthrough achieved by Jesus in his teaching and death; that to suffer innocently and not to retort or retaliate is to win a far greater victory than can ever be achieved by hitting back. It is to win a victory over evil itself.[6] Paul is thus calling the Roman Christians for nothing less than the imagination to live a life that is governed by Cruciformity, or as Theissen has so aptly put it, ‘the renunciation of status and the love for the ‘other’.’ This is exactly what the essence of primitive Christianity was all about, the symbiotic relationship between revolutionary love of the other, and the renunciation of status; as exemplified in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[7] In fact the list of practices that are delineated starting in chapter 12 are all implications of and follow from the apocalyptic vindication of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Just as the remarks immediately preceding Romans13.1-7 help to elucidate the text, of equal importance for framing the purposes of Paul’s text are the verses that immediately follow. Paul concludes the section dealing with the governing authorities with the language of debt. In fact in Romans 13.7 Paul says to ‘Pay to all what is due them. . .’ This language is not only an admonition to give to the authorities what they require, but as Kathy Ehrensperger perceptively notes is, ‘also an inherent hint not to give anything more than that.’[8] In verse 8 Paul returns to the language of debt stating that despite, what has just been previously stated, the Roman Christians are required to ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’ Paul’s juxtaposition of dept language (ovfeila,j/ovfei,lete) and love (avgapa/n, avgapw/n) again challenges the Roman social structure as an absolute authority and offers the concept of a ‘debt of love’ as an alternative system of authority, as a measuring stick which gauges the actions and intentions of both individuals and governing institutions. Paul moves beyond the traditional ideas of indebtedness and challenges the community to understand their debt to humanity as the logical consequence of love.[9]

The revolutionary nature of the ‘hidden transcripts’ found in Romans 13.1-7 is that they do not conform to the regular nature of hidden transcripts themselves. Paul’s aim is not for the Christians of Rome to do clandestine things ‘offstage’ that might subvert the Roman Empire. Rather Paul is calling for the Christians at Rome to be much more like Walter Brueggemann’s insightful description of Garrett Green’s idea of a ‘Copula of Imagination’.[10] Brueggemann states that when Paul desires to reorganize and reshape the imaginations of the Roman Christians, he often uses the language of ‘as.’ The ‘as’ that Paul proclaims is not the ‘as’ of empire, it is not the ‘as’ founded in the reality of the hear and now, but it is the ‘as’ that looks forward, it is the ‘as’ grounded in the apocalyptic vision of the cross, the ‘as’ of a new reality made possible by the vindication of the Lord Jesus Christ.[11] Paul offers the ‘as’ of the paraenesis over against the ‘as’ of the empire by encouraging the community of believers to act in a manner that gives priority to personhood in God, not to the judicial or legalistic prescriptions of the law or the hierarchal and exploitive social relations of the Roman state.[12] For Paul the ‘hidden transcript’ must be made the public transcript of love. A radical transcript that is not merely for ones neighbors, but also for ones enemies, a transcript that does not only seek out vengeance when wrong, doesn’t even wish for vengeance, but allows for the final vindication of God in Christ Jesus on the last days, a public transcript that is to embrace ones enemy, not in order to punish them, for how can that be love, but is offered as an opportunity to manifest the ethic of cruciformity, and a public transcript that should never thwart even the most modest inquiries into our government’s complicity in repression or evil.[13]

[1] If in Romans 13:1-7 Paul was in fact addressing the subject of the Christians responsibility towards the government, then it would be the only significant treatment of the issue in the whole Pauline corpus. C.f., Elliott, "Imperial Propaganda," 184-5.

[2] Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. Geoffrey William Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 357-59.
[3] Elliott, Liberating Paul, 219-20.
[4] I use the term exaggerated because of Elliott’s study done on the contemporary discussions of the maintenance of public order and the political rhetoric of peace used by the Roman Emperors of this time to discount the use of the sword. Elliott claims that this is evidence of polemic by Paul directly contrasting the Empires wishes to be seen as peaceful and ruling through benevolence. See Elliott, Liberating Paul, 219-20; Neil Elliott, "Strategies of Resistance and Hidden Transcripts in the Pauline Communities," in Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Semeia Studies 48; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 97-102.

[5] Kathy Ehrensperger, "A Subversive Reading of Paul: A Response to Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance"," 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), 199.
[6] Wright, "The Letter to the Romans," 723. What Paul wants here is not to stop the Christians in Rome from taking to the streets, but rather he wants to keep them from private resentments and from the calculation of one’s just deserts, for these are the spiritual roots of scapegoating violence. It is impossible to be caught up in scapegoating and to live the ethic of mutual compassion and striving for the common good. C.f., Elliott, Liberating Paul, 223. It also may be noted that Paul was not advocating that the Roman Christians live peaceably among all in order to ‘effect a change in the abuser’ or achieve ‘the conversion and reconciliation of opponents.’ But rather Paul maintains that for those who believe in the vindication of God, this is how the community participates in the defeating of evil itself. C.f., Zerbe, "Paul's Ethic of Non-Retaliation and Peace," 177-222.
[7] This point is made explicit in ethics section of Gerd Theissen, A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion (London: SCM, 1999). For a philosophical treatment of the ‘other’ see Emmanuel Lévinas, Otherwise Than Being, or, Beyond Essence (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1998), Ch. 4. On the importance of the crucified Lord in Paul’s thought see Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
[8] Ehrensperger, "A Response to Stubbs," 200. Interestingly enough the subtle acknowledgment that the ‘ministers’ power is not established by their own will, but only by the will of God, is a clear limitation and thus a relativising of any absolute power claim
[9] Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 188. See also, the comments by, Ehrensperger, "A Response to Stubbs," 199.
[10] Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 137-45.
[11] Walter Brueggemann, Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 14.

[12] Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 189-90.
[13] Elliott, Liberating Paul, 226.


mi said...

hey... somebody's been busy working :) v.good. are you planning on posting the rest of your thesis? looking forward to it! mi

metalepsis said...

Yea I have a lot more to do, but I will post bits here and there. Thanks for reading, how are things up in The Wales?

Peace n Love