remixing romans 13: overcoming imperial zombification

1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that
exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and my subsequent reflections, I was confronted with numerous comments and questions regarding the above passage from Romans 13. One friend commented that, in light of this passage, he thought armed intervention was completely within the scope of government as taught the New Testament.

What I offer here is not a criticism of my friends, but a challenge to the way we read passages like Romans 13.

Back in 2008 Brian Walsh* penned a piece on the Empire Remixed blog (no relation…) entitled To Hell with Romans 13. In it he challenges the standard reading of Romans 13, which interprets Paul as legitimating “unswerving obedience to oppressive and deceitful regimes” such as the Roman Empire of his day. Walsh goes on:

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.

And while we are at it, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who say that we should not criticize the Canadian government [Walsh is Canadian – MCA] for leading us into a military intervention in Afghanistan that had more to do with paying debts to our powerful neighbours to the South than any concern for either international terrorism or the well-being and democratization of the Afghani people.

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.

Walsh assumes upfront that Paul is not an idiot, and that he does not blatantly contradict himself in his letters (especially within the space of one epistle).

Here he has been writing a letter to a community at the very heart of the empire and from the get-go it has been clear that this is a counter-imperial gospel that he proclaims. It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that these Christians are called to submit to.

It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that is to shape their lives together as a unified community of Gentiles and Jews. And it is in Jesus Christ our Lord that we are more than conquerors when that false Lord Caesar imposes on us hardship, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril and the sword.

“For we are convinced,” the apostle writes, that “neither death…nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let the rulers and powers throw at us what they will, we have the victory in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Indeed, Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 not to be conformed to the pattern of this age. He concludes chapter 13 by saying “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” (v.12).

The question in Romans 13, remarks Walsh, seems to be, “how do we live wisely as children of light in the midst of an age of darkness?” Alternatively, how does a transformed body-politic (the church) relate to the imperial body-politic?

According to Romans, the Christian community is called to be:

  • a body-politic that is rooted in the offering of our very bodies as living sacrifices to God, instead of participating in the pagan sacrifices of the empire
  • a body-politic that is rooted in shared gifts for mutual upbuilding, not a hierarchy of imposed duty
  • a body-politic which undermines the status system of honour in the empire by deliberately associating with the lowly and exercising hospitality to the outsider
  • a body-politic that rejects the violence that is the very foundation of the imperial regime because it insists on blessing those who persecute them, feeding their enemies and refusing to overcome evil with evil

That is to say, the Christian community is meant to embody a way life diametrically opposed to the way of the “Lord Caesar”, who is the opposite of the “Lord Jesus”.

So Romans teaches we should obey Jesus in the personal sphere and to submit to the contrary authority of Caesar in all other areas of life.

Right? Wrong!

Walsh identifies three things that we must take notice of in Paul’s words in Romans 13, and they are worth here quoting at length:

First, he undermines the self-appointed divine authority of Rome. It is not Rome’s virtue, nor is it Rome’s gods that allows Rome to have authority.

All authority is rooted in the God of Jesus Christ – the very God that Rome rejects in its persecution of Jews and Christians alike. This is not providing divine sanction for Rome’s rule, it is a relativization of Rome’s rule.

Second, he makes it clear in his very description of this state that it is diametrically different from both the body-politic of the Christian community and from its own self-perception.

You see, it is one thing for Paul to contrast a political regime of fear, wrath, violence and bloodshed with a community of love, blessing, care and non-violence rooted in Jesus Christ.

But you also need to know that Nero took pride in the fact that he had not won his empire by the sword, and that under his rule the golden age of Augustus had been renewed and that his was a time of unprecedented peace.

Paul, the Jews of Rome, and the Christian community know differently. The imperial sword is not idle, it continues to pierce the bodies of those who will not submit to Nero’s body-politic.

And third, Paul’s rhetoric here is certainly less than enthusiastic in his call for submission to the state. Live in fear, and be afraid, he says. And well we should live in fear of a regime that bears the sword.

And yes, give taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due. Why? Because you are also wise to give fear to whom fear is due and “honour” to whom “honour is due.” My hunch is that he says that we should have our eyes wide open and be fearful of the state that wields such violent authority.

And when he says “honour” I think that that word should be in quotation marks. Give imperial “honour” to those demand such honour, while you are diligent in associating with the lowly – with those who have no honour in this regime.

Walsh summarises that Paul is basically teaching we are to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves; that is to say he is bringing a reality check on life under the empire. It is like a slave who “says, ‘yes Master, no Master, whatever you say Master,’ obeying his Master in everything, bringing no attention to himself, as he quietly plans the escape of his fellow slaves along the underground railroad.”

And that slave then sings about how his God is “a-going to trouble the water” and the Master has no idea that that troubled water is the water of liberation. And then 20th century African Americans sing “precious Lord take my hand” and the authorities are happy that these people love Jesus, but they have no idea that this is a Jesus who will take oppressed people to freedom.

In other words, “do not be naive about the violence of the state.” Some authorities should be feared, but fear is not the final word:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)

Hitler employed Romans 13, and it worked on most German Christians...

Of course, this reading goes against the standard reading of Western interpreters. This however does not make it wrong.

Indeed, we must ask whether it is appropriate to read this passage from the seat of empire. After all, we who live in the rich Western world read this passage from the perspective of Rome, and not from a position of marginalisation, as the original audience would have done. In reality we probably don’t at all understand the life situation of those to whom Paul was writing because most of us do not know what it means to be marginalised.

But perhaps a simple set of subversive questions will give us a sense of what this passage could mean:

What happens when another superpower rises up, and attacks America? Or indeed, Australia?

What happens when the power of our Western countries is exhausted and another alliance of nations becomes the world’s “policing force”?

What happens if we don’t like their ideology (just as many hate that of the West)? What happens if they treat us horribly (as the West currently does to many)?

What will Romans 13 mean then? If God appoints all authorities, will we extend the same level of obedience to them too?

After all, Paul says we should, right?!


* Brian Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto and Adjunct Professor of Theology of Culture at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology. He is the author of The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview with Richard Middleton (IVP, 1984), Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), and Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire with Sylvia Keesmaat (IVP, 2004). He is also the author of Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (Alta Vista Press, 1993).

Posted on May 19, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Conflict and Nonviolence, Current Events, New Testament, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. John McKinnon

    Brian Walsh, along with his wife Sylvia Keesmaat, are the keynote speakers at TEAR’s national conference in July 2012. Given this sample, I can’t wait.

    Walsh was also a student of NT Wright. While on the subject of OBL, Wright’s view is also worth a read.

  1. Pingback: q&r – bin laden and just war « life.remixed

  2. Pingback: show me the tribute money: a perspective on “render unto caesar” « life.remixed

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