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!


Empire Remixed: To Hell With Romans 13

I’ve added the Empire Remixed site to my blogroll under the “Christarchy” category. Check it out, there is a lot of good stuff there. Empire Remixed is a project that had its birth in the “Wine Before Breakfast” gatherings in Brian Walsh’s office at the University of Toronto. I’ve written a bit about Walsh and posted links to and excerpts from some of his articles, as well as discussed items from some books he has co-written.

This particular article really struck a chord deep with me. All over the place I go, when I speak of Christianity and radical ideas and engaging the empire and so on and so forth, almost always the question comes, something like the refrain to a bad pop song: “What about Romans 13?”

I have been planning for some time to make another stab at answering that question, since my last attempt on the matter was really more of a prolegomenon to answering the question than an answer to the question itself, in response to a discussion I’ve had on and off over the years with a friend out in California. I hope to get that up sometime this week, since I’m currently unemployed and have all kinds of time to write, so we’ll see. In the meantime, I give you To Hell With Romans 13 by Brian Walsh.

An excerpt:

“Well, how can you use language of subverting the empire when Paul says that we are to submit to the governing authorities?”

And for years I have attempted to be patient in my response. My patience has run out. In the light of Guantanamo Bay, the deceit of the administration in leading America into war in Iraq, the refusal of that state to submit to almost any significant international treaty, and the idolatrous protection of the revered “American Way of Life.”

In the face of undeniable evidence of the human impact on global warming, I’ve lost it. I’ve got no more patience for this appeal to Romans 13 to justify idolatry, deceit, violence, repression and imperialism.

To hell with the Romans 13 of the Religious Right! To hell with the Romans 13 of lackeys of imperialism! To hell with the Romans 13 of those who are comfortable in Babylon!

Indeed, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who somehow think that an American Revolution in 1776 was divinely sanctioned but no such revolution should happen in 2007 because we must submit to the governing authorities…

Or to make my point more biblically clear – to hell with Romans 13 read out of context of Romans 12, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the life of Jesus, and the whole prophetic testimony of the Hebrew prophets.

Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire, by N.T. Wright

article link

The good Bishop of Durham has summed up a lot of things quite concisely in one article that I spend pages and pages on this blog discussing. He goes briefly over passages from Romans and Philippians within the framework of a discussion of the term “Gospel” and Paul’s conception of Jesus as Messiah and Lord with some closing reflections on the subversive nature of the Gospel and how we might think about it today. It is especially worth reading for his brief statements on the idea of God’s righteousness/justice (the same Greek word, dikaiosune, can be translated both ways) vis-à-vis the Roman goddess/concept of Iustia.

I do find it interesting that he mentions that “the subversive Gospel is not designed to produce civic anarchy”. For all his care to avoid anachronistically reading back Protestant and modern categories into the ancient texts, including ideas such as equating “Gospel” with the doctrine of justification through faith and the history-of-religions approach that separates “religious” ideas in ancient texts from “political” ideas (just as modern thought tends to do), this seems to me to be a rather uncritical use of the term “anarchy”.

I agree that the purpose of the Gospel is not to replace one human political order with another (which is one of the thrusts of Romans 13), and I also agree that there is a kind of affirmation of the structures in scripture that have become the fallen powers and principalities, in that humans need structures to aid us in living life – but at the same time Christ is Lord over the powers and the church, I believe, is called to be involved in working to create redeemed structures to help us govern our lives. Anarchy as a political philosophy can very much be cast in those terms, though I tend to think more in line with my friend Bruce Wright’s idea that the ideal church would be made up of people who “live anarchistically in community”.

This is not to say that Tom Wright is dissing anarchists here, at most the question of anarchy is tangental to the whole article, but it’s interesting to me that he is generally so careful in how he relates present-day ideas to ancient texts and when the term “anarchy” comes up he seems to be rather uncritical.

another thought on Romans 13, the oppressiveness of Christianity

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a brief case for a different framework of understanding on Romans 13

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