Ted Grimsrud—February 18, 2022
Christians have tended to hold Jesus and Paul in tension. On the one side, Christians of a more liberal persuasion have tended to take their cues from Jesus and see Paul as a supporter of the status quo. Others wouldn’t so much say there is a tension as assume (often without realizing it) that Jesus is not particularly relevant for their social ethics. His message is often seen to focus on personal ethics and the ideals of our future in heaven. For such conservatives, Paul teaches us more relevant political principles, especially about obeying the governing authorities and respecting the state’s police function.
Reasons not to dismiss Paul’s politics
Now, I definitely am on the Jesus-as-central side. Some years ago, I read a wide variety of Christian thinkers who reject pacifism. I was struck with how every single one of them—from evangelicals to Catholics to theological liberals—cited Romans 13 as a key biblical text that supported their anti-pacifist stance. In face of that consensus, I can understand why a more peace-oriented Christian might want to be done with Paul.
However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take the easy way out with Paul. First of all, I believe that the pro-war reading of Romans 13 is a bad interpretation. If we read those verses carefully, I believe we will realize that they do not support the standard account—even if that standard account is long-lived and widely affirmed. Just on the grounds of accuracy, then, Paul should not be seen as the advocate par excellence of Christian submission to the state.
Second, the message of the Bible’s story as a whole contradicts the assumption that Christians should issue the state a moral blank check and simply “submit to the state.” Christians generally have practiced that kind of submission going back to Augustine. But such an embrace was highly ironic (and tragic) given the strong biblical emphasis in opposition to empires going back to the story of the exodus. Especially striking is how Augustine give the Roman Empire the moral authority to discern when to involve Christians in war. This flies in the face of the New Testament: That same Roman Empire executed Jesus and that same Roman Empire was linked with Satan in the book of Revelation. So, it is strange that a short, cryptic passage from Paul’s writing would take precedence over the negative overall biblical message about the state.
Third, when we simply grant validity to the Paul-as-pro-submission-to-the-state position without argument we lose the main avenue for possibly persuading Christians not to grant such a blank check. This avenue is to ground one’s counterargument in the Bible. If we don’t question that interpretation of Romans 13, then the by far most important biblical basis for Christian acceptance of warism will remain in place—and it becomes difficult to imagine an effective way to persuade Christians not to support for the warring state.
So, I think there are good reasons to examine Paul’s writings more closely, with an openness that he might actually turn out to be much closer to Jesus in thought than has normally been recognized. I believe that, together, Jesus and Paul do provide a political perspective that is relevant in our world. Not only relevant, but I would argue that together Jesus and Paul give us essential guidance for creative and transformative political engagement.
In this blog post and one to follow I intend to summarize the argument in favor of reading Jesus and Paul as complementary. First, I will briefly suggest some of the key parts of Jesus’s message about politics and then mention several ways Paul complements Jesus. In the next post I will focus directly on Romans and conclude with a Jesus-friendly analysis of Romans 13.
I will focus on Luke here, for efficiency’s sake. We may start with the words of Mary that present the life of her child as socially transformative. He will lift up the vulnerable and throw down the powerful. Jesus grew up in an environment that chafed against the domination of the outside great empire, Rome, that shared many characteristics with earlier empires that oppressed Israel. Those Jesus grew up around hoped for big changes. They wanted Roman domination ended and looked for a great leader to arise to lead the change.
Growing up in this environment, Jesus hoped for social renewal among his people. However, while he embraced the peoples’ hopes for transformation and came to see himself as being, in fact, the hoped-for great leader, Jesus revised the vision in crucial ways. He remained committed to political change but within a vision for a different kind of politics. He announced the “gospel” of God, the presence of God’s “kingdom.” These terms are both political terms. He envisioned an alternative to the Empire’s “gospel” and “kingdom,” based, as they were, on domination and exploitation.
Jesus affirmed two central parts of people’s hopes. First, the time is now for a new work of the Spirit (“today this scripture is fulfilled,” 4:21) and second, this new work will result in social transformation (this is now “the year of the Lord’s favor,” 4:19—that is, the time of Jubilee in line with the promises of Torah). He announced the present reality of a social movement that would bring wholeness into their broken world. As would be expected, based on the experiences of other prophets, Jesus faced sharp opposition from the start. He combined that verbal message with a social group that actually embodied what were recognized as messianic ethics effecting genuine change. This gained the attention of the guardians of the present order.
Jesus’s social philosophy had as its core two key elements: imitating God’s love even for God’s enemies (6:35-36) and practicing a style of life utterly different from the “natural law” behavior of people in the world (6:32-34)—going beyond simply loving those who love you and doing good to those who do good to you.
Jesus’s ministry of social transformation led directly to his death. His teaching and practice posed a powerful threat to the status quo. He called for social transformation where compassion replaces domination, restorative justice replaces retribution, and inclusion of vulnerable people replaces their exploitation. When God raised Jesus from the dead, the story did not end—nor did its political relevance. Jesus’s political message would work on the ground, in the context of Rome and all the other nation states of the world to create space to be human in all settings. His followers would be salt and light, leaven in the bread of all societies.
Paul did not turn things in a different direction. He was a faithful and accurate interpreter of Jesus’s message. Jesus and Paul are not stage one and stage two of a development that leads inevitably to the Christian embrace of empire. Rather, what was central to Jesus’s message should be understood as also central for Paul. Let’s look at some of the points Paul makes in his writings. I will mention four themes that show that Paul’s message reinforces the way of Jesus. First is simply the call to imitate Jesus, to follow his path, to look to him as the decisive guide for Christian practice. Second is to see salvation as a social reality, an emphasis on inter-human reconciliation. Third is the analysis and critique of the social structures of domination. Finally, is the call to exercise power that actually breaks the spiral of violence. In all these areas, if we read the New Testament with care, we will see that Paul reinforces the message of Jesus.
Paul on imitating Jesus
Jesus stated it succinctly: “take up your cross and follow me.” By that, he means imitate the elements of his life that caused trouble with the powers-that-be. Show care to the vulnerable, those often outside the circle of establishment approval. Welcome outsiders. Oppose domination and exploitation. Question authority. Challenge tyrannical leaders. “Take up your cross” means live in a way that could easily put your life in danger.
Paul also emphasizes self-sacrificial love, forgiveness in face of hostility, embracing the way of the servant as what it means to live like Jesus. I will cite just a few typical examples. “The person we once were has been crucified with Christ…. We shall also come to life with him…. In dying as he died, he died to sin … and in living has he lives, he lives to God. In the same way you must regard yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:6-11). “I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). “Surely you must show yourselves equally lavish in this generous service…. For you know how generous our Lord Jesus Christ has been; he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:7-9). “Rivalry and personal vanity should have no place among you, but you should humbly reckon others better than yourselves…. Let your bearing toward one another rise out of your life in Christ. For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he … made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave” (Phil 2:3-14). “Be generous to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
Salvation and inter-personal reconciliation
In Christian tradition, the words and deeds of Jesus ended up on the margins of theological development supposedly due to Paul narrowing down the core of the gospel to justification by faith alone. Paul, in this reading, opposed focusing on ethical behavior in ways that turn toward human good works rather than toward God’s free gift. Even though Jesus himself taught and practiced countercultural social ethics, for Paul what matters most is correct belief and an acceptance of salvation as a free gift apart from “works righteousness.”
Is this an accurate reading of the story told in the New Testament of Paul’s actual teaching? No. In fact for Paul, “justification” itself has at its heart social concerns. His central concerns were with the social character of Jesus’s community. Would it be one community miraculously including as equals both Jews and Gentiles? Or would it be a loose association of distinct Jewish and Gentile sects? Or would it be only those who took on the ritualistic practices of Judaism? Paul’s emphatic answer was the first of these options—the new community was to be a place of reconciliation among humans, a place where former enemies practice mutual love.
The root of the word translated “justification” is dik, the Greek word for “justice.” In the Bible, “justice” has a strong social meaning—reconciliation, restoring relationships, creating whole communities. “Justification” itself has a social emphasis. Likewise with the word often translated “righteousness.” That word may be translated as “justice” to make clear that at the heart its meaning is social healing—humanity reconciled with God and with other human beings. Communities, not only individuals, made whole.
In Galatians, Paul challenged the movement within the Galatian community to limit Gentile Christian access to the community based on what was to him a sinfully exclusionary reading of the gospel. Paul himself had violently persecuted followers of Jesus in the name of strict and exclusionary boundary markers that would keep Gentile Christians out (Gal 2:13-14). Paul’s theology of justification of faith in Galatians and Romans emerges directly from his own experience as the perpetrator of social injustice—and speaks to how important he now saw it to be that the churches embody the new social reality Jesus inaugurated. The reconciliation of former human enemies reflects the reconciliation that is most central for Paul. He was not nearly so much concerned with the end of “hostility” between God and human beings (as a good Jew, he always understood God to be merciful) as with the end of Jew vs. Gentile hostility.
In Paul’s theology, this reconciled community is then to be the locus for God’s work in the world to bless all the families of the earth. That is, the peace and restorative justice expressed in the faith community becomes the model and empowering initiative to spread peace and restorative justice in other human communities.
Paul’s social analysis: The powers that be
Paul actually speaks to the challenge of responding creatively to the perennial problem of unjust social structures. A handful of theological thinkers including Hendrikus Berkhof, William Stringfellow, Jacques Ellul, and John Howard Yoder developed what has been called a “Powers analysis,” that was then analyzed in much more detail by Walter Wink. This analysis helps us understand how Paul can be read as a social critic.
If we trace a few key terms in Paul’s writings—especially “powers,” “principalities,” “authorities,” “elemental spirits” and a few others—we can see how Paul understood human life to occur in an environment of social structures that impact us greatly. The language of “the Powers” provides a way to speak of the structures of human life, realities beyond simply our individual persons or even beyond simply the sum of separate individuals—our institutions, traditions, social practices, belief systems, organizations, languages, and so on. The Powers language speaks metaphorically about the discrete “personalities” and even “wills” that these structures have and helps us see how these Powers shape our social lives.
These Powers, the structures of human society, are simply part of how human life is ordered. As such, we could say, they are part of the good creation, they exist according to God’s will. They include such necessary elements of life as language, traditions, and ways of ordering community life (see Col 1:15-17). At the same time, the Powers are so closely linked with humanity that when human beings turn from God, so, too, do the Powers. It is as if when human beings turn against God, the Powers turn against human beings. The fallen Powers seek to take God’s place as the center of human devotion, often becoming idols. They thus try to “separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:38) and seek to hold us in servitude to their rules (Col 2:20). We may thus understand dynamics such as nationalism, militarism, racism, and consumerism.
However, human beings still require the “regularity, system, and order” that only the Powers provide. Consequently, the Powers are both a huge part of the problem human beings face in our fallen world and a necessary part of whatever solutions might be found. Thus, the Powers must be transformed (they cannot be abolished or ignored). People need to have their own awareness of and attitude toward the Powers transformed. Ultimately, the Powers have only the power that we give them by our allegiance and acceptance of their distorted portrayal of reality. We must continue to understand ourselves as subject to the Powers even as we resist their tendency to become idols. The Powers must be put in their place.
Jesus modeled a life of freedom from the Powers in his commitment to serve human wellbeing. The Powers responded with hostility and the first century domination system sought to end Jesus’s life—the empire, the Temple, and the leaders of the implementation of Torah. In this response to Jesus, though, the Powers actually facilitated their own defeat. Jesus remained free from their allure and brought to light their true character (see Col 2:15).
The Powers that killed Jesus are rebels against God, not God’s servants. The religious and political leaders serve death, not God. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 2:8, “none of the rulers of this age,” who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, “for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” In Jesus, God ventured into the Powers’ territory, remained true to God’s loving character, and defeated them (when they defeat themselves by crucifying Jesus). The Powers’ main weapon—deluding people to give the Powers loyalty—was taken from them. They were disarmed by Jesus’s faithfulness. Such a disillusioning revelation frees all who walk with Jesus to embrace life and wholeness.
The power of the powerless
Jesus called his followers to seek social healing, resist domination, and live free from the Powers. Nonviolence and love of enemies were indispensable parts of the healing work. Jesus calls for resistance that breaks the spiral of violence and does not repay evil with evil but rather overcomes evil with good (see Rom 12).
This freedom in Christ must be lived in a broken world. Paul wrote about subordination in interpersonal relationships as part of his application of Jesus’s ethic. In doing so, Paul seemed simply to reenforce traditional understandings of submission to authority. However, when read carefully, the teaching about subordination takes on a different sensibility. Paul’s exhortations about subordination call upon followers of Jesus to walk with him in our responses to our social situations. They are not regulations that simply endorse status quo power and require those in the “lower” positions to give all their power to their “superiors.”
Paul’s teaching, when addressed to the one without power, treats these addressees as responsible moral agents who have full (and equal) worth as human beings with others. These addressees have indeed been liberated in Christ and welcomed into full membership in Christ’s assembly. However, they likely are not in positions to claim that liberation fully while at the same time remaining (as they must) wholly committed to Jesus’s path of loving their neighbors. The tension is to live in light of their freedom, but not to turn toward violence in doing so.
Paul echoes Jesus in holding up two equally crucial convictions. We are free in Christ, and we are called to love even our enemies. Paul’s teachings about subordination are part of his thinking on negotiating this tension. Paul challenges expectations in the broader culture where submission is a one-way street. In the newness of the messianic community, Paul calls on husbands, masters, and parents also to practice mutuality, even subordinating themselves to those “below” them (see Eph 5:21). A key term, hyptoassesthai, is best translated “subordinate yourself,” better than flatly “submit to.” It does not connote slavish obedience but means to be like Jesus. According to Phil 2, Jesus, being free, subordinated himself for our sake and gave himself for us. Followers should “let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s readers appropriately respond to the gospel with a desire to embody the freedom of the gospel in all of life. Their sense of the world has radically changed; part of their new calling as followers of Jesus is to resist domination and to seek healing. However, they also realize that the means to bring about change must be consistent with the ends of healing (for everyone). Thus, the call to live at peace with everyone—which is simultaneous with the call to obey God and not human beings. Subordinate yourselves to others while also seeking to transform society.
Paul advocates revolution against the Rome’s hegemony. However, the revolutionary means he advocates are consistent with the healing mercy of God. The certainty Paul has—and all followers of Jesus should have—in the world-transforming efficacy of God’s healing mercy undergirds lives of patient love, extended even (as with God Godself) toward enemies. In important ways, Paul’s thought about the power of the powerless foreshadows the insights of thinkers and activists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (note several recent works that address these themes: Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless;” Elizabeth Janeway, Powers of the Weak; and James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak). Seek social transformation and do so in a way that stays on the path of love, not of violence.
In the post to follow, I will focus at more length on Paul’s letter to the Romans in reflecting on the politics of Paul and the way of Jesus. Drawing on some of the points I have mentioned in this post, I will conclude by providing a way of reading the infamous passage Romans 13:1-7 in a way that shows it actually to be consistent with the way of Jesus.