Romans 13:4 and irony

Romans 13 is often invoked (usually somewhat unthinkingly) as an objection to my ideas about Christian political engagement. The argument goes, as best as I can reproduce it here very simply, that Paul says we should submit to authority, the government is here for our own good, and we owe them certain things by virtue of the simple fact that they exist.

Each of these are highly questionable points, though I am not now going to systematically examine them or the passage in full. For now let me just examine two points of irony, one involving how the text is often invoked (at least in the United States), and one having to do with the text itself.

The first point of irony is that Americans who invoke Romans 13 as God’s blessing on the US government are justifying the results of a revolution approximately 230 years ago, while using the passage to delegitimate the principle of revolution. The same people who invoke Romans 13 generally (though not always) tend to be the sort of people who see the US as a blessed nation and some kind of agent of God’s work in the world. This is mildly ironic.

The second, more serious for our general purpose here, is that Paul himself makes reference to Roman propaganda in such a way as to cast the pallor of irony against all his seeming exhortations of the state as God’s servant and agents of good. Nero’s teacher, Seneca, wrote a letter to Nero called On Clemency (De Clementia) in which he says Nero can claim for himself the statement “with me the sword is hidden, nay, is sheathed.” Paul specifically refers to the ruler’s wielding of the sword – it certainly is not sheathed! This subversion of Roman proclamations of the Caesar as a ruler of peace casts irony on the passage as a whole, as one can imagine the ancient Roman Christian reader nodding along with the passage in realization that this is exactly how the establishment presents itself, though all know it is at least stretching the truth. Paul’s subtle twisting of the official party line undermines, not reinforces, the legitimacy of the governing authorities.

Reading these statements as irony makes perfect sense if one reads Romans 13 as a continuation of the line of argument found at the end of Romans 12, not as its own independent section, thus making the injunction to “be subject to the governing authorities” an example of how to love one’s enemy, not as an independent command without reference to literary context. Indeed, given the demonstrably subversive nature of Paul’s Gospel, it could hardly be otherwise. This is not the only time Paul’s letters make subversive reference to Roman propaganda (for one particularly potent example, see Colossians 1:15-20).

I’ve had a more comprehensive treatment of Romans 13 brewing in the back of my head for some time, but haven’t had time to put it together. Hopefully this post will help me consolidate my thinking and move me towards making the effort. My contention is that Romans 13 fits exactly within the Christarchy framework, and not at all into a collaborationist/correlationist system. I shall make this argument more fully in the future. Until then… Shalom!

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5 Responses

  1. Hi Jason,

    I replied.

    Blessings To All,

    Tom Usher
    Real Liberal Christian Church

  2. I did a little test where I replaced “authority” with “Saddam Hussein” in Romans 13. http://destroyideas.blogspot.com/2008/05/all-authorities.html

  3. Yeah, I remember that. It brings home a good point.

    Another point you could make from that is if people really believe that Romans 13 legitimates human governments and their actions, why should they believe it legitimates the action of one government over another? If people insist on sublimating the church into the state, what makes any one state more legitimate in God’s eyes than another? The text, read that way, could show the absurdity of Christian support of one regime overthrowing another.

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