Monday, July 16, 2007

Paul vs. the Empire

Yesterday, I filled in for Tim Woodroof in the class he's teaching on Paul, and my chosen subject was Paul vs. the Empire. I'm going to put my outline, talking notes, and the images that I used here for perusal and comment. Oh, and it's really, really long.


  • Rome at the time of Paul
  • Methods
    • Military might
    • Engineering
    • Spreading their culture
    • Cruel enforcement of their methods (floggings, crucifixions)
  • As Western Christians, we have a unique insight into Rome
    • As Westerners, we enjoy many of the benefits of Rome
      • Learning
      • Culture
      • History
      • Influence on our language
      • Even in our movies
  • As Christians though we see the dark side of Rome.
    • We see the floggings that Paul endured
    • Ultimately, we also see the crucifixion of Jesus. (Crucifixion)
  • So we see Rome as the victorious conquerors and we see it from the view of the conquered as well.

  • An ideology that has recently been gaining a lot of traction in Biblical interpretation is the idea that Paul was using Christianity in direct opposition to the Roman Empire, that he was saying that the Roman Empire was a hollow man and ultimately just a shell. That Caesar was a false god. Which requires some explanation.
  • When Julius Caesar was famously murdered in 44 BC, his great nephew Octavius claimed that he had seen Julius’ spirit rise to heaven in a comet. Since the Comet was seen by everyone (possibly the Hale Bopp comet) and recorded by the historian/biographer Suetonius, that meant that Caesar was deified, that he became a god. Which meant that Augustus (as Octavian became called) was the son of a god. And in fact, Augustus put this ideology on one of his coins.
  • The thinking is that Paul not only put Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah, but that he was also the Lord of the world. And if Jesus is Lord of the world that means that Caesar is not.
  • We see this most prominently in the book of Philippians, specifically Chapter 2:5-11
    5
    Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
    6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
    7but made himself nothing,
    taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
    8And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!
    9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
  • The word Lord there is a very interesting one, really with a double meaning.
    • The Greek word is Kyrios On one hand, it was the Greek word that was used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) for YHWH, the personal name of God that in many of our translations of the Old Testament is the word LORD So, on the one hand, this is a statement of Jesus’ divinity.
    • On the other hand, one of the common phrases of Caesar’s power is that Caesar is Lord. And by saying that Jesus is the Lord/Kyrios Paul is saying that Caesar isn’t. And what he is ultimately saying is that where the Empire fails, where the Empire falls short, where the Empire uses force and fear and might to conquer, the community of Jesus is the counter point to that. I could go on and talk about some other Greek words, like evangelion (the gospel, the good news) and talk about how Paul subverted that language and subverted the Emperor, but you can look a lot of that up.
      Questions so far?
  • Another place in Philippians where we can see this subversion even more clearly is in Chapter 3, verses 17-21
    17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body..
    • To give context, in verses 1-11 of this chapter, Paul has recounted his Jewish credentials. Talked about how all of that was refuse, garbage compared to knowing Christ.
    • In 17-21, Paul talks about citizenship, a very important concept to the Philippians. Many, not all, but many Philippians were Roman citizens like Paul, and those that weren’t would have liked to have been. By making this statement, Paul is saying that citizenship is in the Roman Empire is the same as Paul’s Jewish credentials: refuse, compared to what it means to know the Lord (kyrios again) Jesus Christ. Once again, another subversion of the Empire.
  • One final place to look at which states this the most clearly is Acts 17:7
    7and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." here Paul and Silas are in Thessalonica and are dragged before the city officials with the charge that they are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”

  • So I hope I’ve added some spiritual buttressing to this idea that Paul is trying to subvert the Roman Empire with the message of the Kingdom of God and Jesus as the king.
  • One objection that might come up to this mindset is, “Phil, what about Romans 13, where Paul tells them to submit to the authorities?” To which I would say, “let’s take a look at it.” 1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
    • Now, a couple of things that I think about this, guided by the Bishop NT Wright in his book Paul in Fresh Perspective .
    • First of all, notice that Paul says that the rulers are appointed by God, which means that they aren’t gods themselves. A significant step down for Augustus or Tiberius or Caligula or Nero. It ultimately makes them answerable to God for what they do.
    • Secondly, Wright says "precisely because of all the counter-imperial hints Paul has given, not only in this letter but indeed by his entire gospel, it is vital that he steer Christians away from the assumption that loyalty to Jesus would mean the kind of civil disobedience and revolution that merely reshuffles the political cards into a different order." "The main thing Paul wants to emphasize is that, even though Christians are the servants of the Messiah, the true lord, this does not give them carte blanche to ignore the temporary subordinates whose appointed task, whether (like Cyrus) they know it or not, is to bring at least a measure of God's order and justice to the world. The church must live as a sign of the kingdom yet to come, but since that kingdom is characterized by justice, peace and joy in the Spirit (14.17), it cannot be inaugurated in the present by violence and hatred." Which casts an interesting eye on the American Revolution, albeit Wright is British so that might cast an interesting eye on him as well.
  • Another objection is that if Paul was such an objector to the Empire and to Caesar as a god, why does Paul not renounce his Roman citizenship or not use his citizenship to his advantage as he does in Acts 16:37 37But Paul said to the officers: "They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.", Acts 22:29 29Those who were about to question him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains. And then even appealing to Caesar in 25:11 11If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!"?
  • And to me, this is where the application to today can come.
  • Now, I don’t want to make a direct comparison between the Roman Empire and America. I think it’s unfair and inaccurate. America doesn’t typically flog those that disagree with us or crucify those that rise up against us. However, much like Rome 2,000 years ago, America is the dominant force in the world. The influence of this country on culture, language, history, even the movies is unparalleled in the history of the world. And much like Rome of the time, not everyone likes it.
  • I will be honest. I think Paul would speak in much the same language to us today as American citizens as he did to the Philippians. That he would tell us that however highly we envision our citizenship as Americans, it should be rubbish compared to our citizenship in the Kingdom. In his outstanding book, Mere Discipleship our own Lee Camp had this to say about Nationalism: "When Paul asserted that all fundamental markers of identity, particularly those that buttress separation or estrangement, must be submitted to our identity found in Christ, he included three of the most powerful sources of estrangement in his day: ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class. Since Paul wrote before the advent of the modern nation-state, we should add 'nationality' to the list, for it is, in the contemporary Western world at least, the most revered source of identitiy and separation from others. But Paul insists that Christ come first; everything else must either find its place underneath his lordship or be cast aside. Nationalism inverts this relationship, having us (whether theologically or practically) place national citizenship as the first marker of identity. Blood, country and homeland are powerful sumbols that are made to serve as gods. The god of 'God and country' is a nationalistic deity that does not baptize into the Spirit of Christ, but the spirit of homeland security; this god baptizes not in the blood of the Lamb, but the blood of soil and country."
  • I think Paul would agree with that. That where our citizenship in this country contradicts the Kingdom, we’re called to be the voices against that. I don’t think we’re called to revolution (although we are the benefactors of a revolution).
  • And to answer the question about why Paul doesn’t renounce his Roman citizenship is the same reason that we don’t renounce ours. It’s useful. Paul was able to use his citizenship to gain access to the halls of power. Our citizenships as Americans are powerful tools. With them we can travel throughout the world. We can be the ones that help the poorest of the poor. Our currency is extremely strong. With what costs few dollars to us, we can help those for whom a mosquito net can mean the difference between life and death. Our citizenship is in heaven, but most of us won the genetic lottery to be born here in America and that can be used for good. Just as here in Nashville, the power that even many in this room here have can be used to affect positive change.
  • To conclude, I don’t believe Paul was either/or. I don’t believe he was preaching politics or theology. I think they were intertwined, but both were so revolutionary that they reshaped the world and even succeeded in reshaping an Empire (although as Lee points out in Mere Discipleship, the Empire also succeeded in reshaping Christianity).
  • I think we are called to be subverters of the Empire we exist in as well. I think we’re called to be the voice of God and to be the ones that continue to say, “No. This isn’t God’s way!” And perhaps it’s using some of the tools of the Empire, perhaps some are called to divest themselves completely of all aspects of the Empire, particularly pernicious ones like materialism and perhaps even security, but the truth is, whether Jesus returns today or 200,000 years from now, the Kingdom will continue. It outlasted Rome, it will outlast America, and whatever follows America.

2 comments:

Jim said...

We tend to get so concerned with understanding Paul's messages in our time that we forget there was application to specific happenings in his time as well.

Sam Marsh said...

[...] Phil Wilson's slides are also worth a skim through, found at jphilwilson.blogspot.com/. [...]

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