Paul’s antidote to Empire: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 1; 1:1-17) [Peaceable Romans #8]

Ted Grimsrud—February 28, 2022

I have long believed that the Apostle Paul, and especially his letter to Jesus followers in Rome, is a friend to peacemakers, not a thorn in our flesh. And I have often argued with various friends over the years who don’t agree. The issue, in essence, has been whether Paul is a friend or enemy for peace-oriented Christians. I’d say “friend!”; they’d say “enemy!” And off we’d go.

Part of the problem for me has been that many of Paul’s biggest supporters have not been people I necessarily would want to be allied with—those who oppose welcoming gays into the church, those who support patriotic wars, those who teach a gospel of human depravity and the need for an individualistic kind of personal conversion (what I was taught years ago as the “Romans road to salvation”). Paul’s most famous piece of writing, his letter to the Romans, contains what are surely two of the most hurtful, destructive passages in all of the Bible. I’m thinking of the part of chapter one that seems to condemn gays and lesbians. These verses are almost always cited when Bible-believers speak against Christians taking a welcoming stance. And I’m thinking of the verses in chapter 13 that begin, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” I know from my research that Romans 13 is by far the most important part of the Bible for those who argue against pacifism and in favor of “necessary” war.

Paul’s antidote to Empire

Yet, still, I want to say, to paraphrase Paul’s own words: “I am not ashamed of the Apostle Paul and his letter to the Romans.” I want to explain why in a series of blog posts that will work through the letter. I will show that the typical uses of Romans to support hostility toward gays and to support going to war are misuses. More than refuting misuses of Romans, though, I want to show how Romans can be a powerful resource for peace in our broken world. I want to show how Paul gives us an “antidote to Empire.” Paul presents a story that is meant to subvert, counter, even overturn the story the Roman Empire told about what matters most in life. Sadly, we need this subversion, countering, and overturning of the story of Empire as much today as ever.

Read through this condensed version of the first half of chapter one of Romans and think about what kind of impressions—positive or negative—you have had about this book over the years. What have you thought or felt about Romans—or about Paul? Have you tended to see this book more as an asset or liability to your faith?

Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which was promised beforehand through prophets in the holy scriptures. This gospel concerns God’s Son, a human descendant from David who was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. It is through this Jesus Christ, our Lord, that we have received grace to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of his name.

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. Without ceasing I remember you in my prayers and ask that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in visiting you.  I long to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is just will live by faith.”

As with most subjects of analysis, so much depends on what our interests are in taking the subject up. What are we looking for? Is Romans about personal salvation? About our doctrine of God? About church conflict? I think of the saying, attributed to Abraham Maslow: “If you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.” Or, one could say, “If you’re interested in social justice, every text in the Bible will be about social justice.” Or, to be a bit more specific, “if you are interested in writings about resistance to the Roman Empire, then you will find that just about every passage in the New Testament is about that resistance.”

This tendency to find the kind of data that we start out looking for surely does explain quite a bit about how I approach Romans. But what I would like to think is that if we start with such questions, but then actually let the text speak for itself, we will discover that in fact Paul does intend to write a resistance text—or maybe better, a counter Empire text. Paul’s point, we will see, is not simply about saying no but about saying yes to a way of life, saying yes to a set of convictions, that actually do lead to the kind of peace the Empire only pretends to provide.

We may find many examples of stories we are told over and over about the sources for our nation’s security and about priorities for the investments we make with public monies. For just one example, back with Barak Obama, we saw a tragic transformation in American public opinion. At one point, say in the Fall of 2013, US public opinion was strongly opposed to military intervention in Syria. But then that changed. As peace activist Medea Benjamin wrote: “The credit for selling Obama’s war on ISIS must go to the mainstream America media. Day after day, night after night, the press relied on propaganda from both ISIS and the US government to whip up fear and thirst for revenge in the American public. Gruesome beheading videos distributed by ISIS were played over and over. The media not only regurgitated official US messages but packaged them better than the government itself ever could.”

That propaganda assault displayed the effectiveness of what Noam Chomsky labeled many years ago, in a classic book, “the manufacturing of consent.” The story is that war is necessary to provide security, that the US is the world’s one indispensable nation, and that of course it’s necessary and appropriate to spend billions of dollars to fund our world empire—even in face of global warming, disintegrating highways and bridges, a terribly broken medical system, inadequate schools, and so many other problems we seem committed to ignoring.

So, if the New Testament is our master story as Christians, we should expect it to be valuable in thinking about how to resist this other story of Empire. Or at least we should hope that it might be valuable. Or, at the very least, we should try hard to see if the New Testament could possibly be valuable! Well, I believe the New Testament is valuable. But we may need to make some adjustments to the lenses through which we read Romans.

A starting point for reading Romans: Social wholeness, not doctrine

Let me suggest one key starting assumption. Most North American Christians pick up Romans expecting to read about religion, to read about doctrine, to read about how to go to heaven. And so, when they see certain words: say, “gospel” (1:1), “Son of God” (1:4), and “salvation” (1:16), they put these words into a religious grid—the “gospel” as accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior; “Son of God” as confessing Jesus as God incarnate; “salvation” as about going to heaven when we die.

What if we look at these words differently? Let’s remember that this letter, provocatively, is sent to “God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Today, if we read a letter sent to Christians in Washington, DC, we might read it a bit differently than if it were a letter sent, say, to Christians in Upper Grassroots, Nebraska, or in West Podunk, Oregon. We’d suspect that there might be a political agenda in a letter sent to the heart of the Empire, to the belly of the beast. So, this is a letter going to the center of the Roman Empire. These words might have significantly different connotations than those religious ones I just mentioned.

And they do. The word “gospel” or “good news” was commonly used in Rome in relation to the emperor. His birthday was “good news.” His victories in war were occasions for celebrations, the “gospel” of victory. So, Paul is, in effect, thumbing his nose at the standard use of this word. We think of “gospel” as a religious word, the teaching of a particular religion. But when Paul uses it here, he means to counter Roman propaganda about the centrality of Caesar. What he proclaims is the gospel of God. This statement in itself, of course, could actually refer to the emperor, worshiped as a god. But Paul immediately clarifies: “the gospel concerning God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” “Gospel” is a term signifying loyalty—political loyalty. Paul signals that those followers of Jesus celebrate a different, even totally contradictory, gospel than those who accept Rome’s claims for the emperor.

This is seen more clearly when we consider a couple of additional “religious” terms. Paul writes of Jesus the “Christ”—Christ means Messiah, which means king. Then Paul mentions Jesus as “Son of God”—also a term for king. When Paul starts with these two titles in a letter to Christians in Rome, he couldn’t have been more clear or provocative. Caesar is not the king for Paul’s readers—Jesus is. Go back to when Jesus told his questioners, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” What he actually meant was that only God should be given the kind of loyalty that kings demand. For a follower of Jesus to “give God what is God’s” means that, while they perhaps can give Caesar some things, they are not to give Caesar what Caesar wants most of all—the ultimate loyalty due to a king. Jesus and Paul after him dethrone the emperor and the Empire.

Redefining power and security

Everything that follows in Romans, then, must be understood as part of this dethroning. Everything that follows in Romans presents Jesus’s gospel as a counter-message to the gospel of Caesar’s power politics, a counter-message to the gospel of the myth of redemptive violence. Two other key words take on a different meaning in light of this upturning of the standard notions of gospel and kingship. In light of the gospel of God seen in the ministry of Jesus the king, “power” and “salvation” are transformed from how the Romans used them.

What kind of power provides security? What kind of power stands at the center of our common life? For Rome (and for America, all too often), clearly the power that matters is the power of the sword, the power to dominate, the power to force one’s opponent to bend to one’s will. Security, it is assumed, requires the power to kill. Going back to the dark days of the Vietnam War, when it was clear that the American path was leading to defeat—President Nixon and his advisers refused to give in to the inevitable and added years and millions of deaths to the toll of destruction. They did so because, in Nixon’s words, we can’t be seen as a “weak, poor, pitiful giant.”

I was a little chagrined a number of years ago to get a sense in a very different way of how this myth that power needs to be overwhelming force is so pervasive in our society. Our granddaughter, Marja, when she was four or so, talked often about how great it was that her grandfather is so big, because I could fight and smash and crush—“even better than Papa!” Note, her parents are strict pacifists; she had no exposure to actual fighting (and at that point she’d lived outside the US most of her life). But she still absorbed these assumptions about power and security. The American way….

Salvation in a world dominated by empires

But even empires are not all-powerful. Even empires need the consent of their subjects. They must find ways to manufacture consent because they can’t rule without it. This is where the notion of salvation becomes so important. The myth of redemptive violence tells us—as it told the people in Rome—that “salvation” (read, security, meaning, an attractive future) comes through the sword. This is the “gospel” of Caesar—the good news of victory in war. Think of the civil religion of the United States and the centrality of celebrating our victories in war after war—the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is altogether different. It does claim, like Caesar’s gospel, to be “the power of God for salvation for everyone who trusts in it” (1:16). But how this power is expressed and how this salvation is achieved are not at all about violence and domination. The validation of the gospel according to Jesus, Paul tells us, comes because God raised him from the dead—after the empire executed him (1:4). It was God’s unconquerable love that vindicated Jesus. It is God’s unconquerable love that manifests the “power for salvation.”

And what is the consequence of this salvation? It is not dominating enemies. In fact, Paul suggests in Romans, it is making friends of enemies. Paul describes himself both as a slave to Jesus Christ (rather than being, as the proud Roman would be, a slave to Caesar)—and as such, a debtor “both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14). Paul has a debt of love to everyone (13:8), even the “barbarians” that all good Romans would have seen as enemies.

One of the biggest mysteries in American life is how so many people continue to trust in the policies of death that have been so present in our society for so long. Military service exacts a terrible toll on so many when they are pushed into these endless wars, but young people keep signing up, tax payers keep forking over the truckloads of cash that pay for these wars, disgraced pundits and former governmental officials continue to beat the drums of war on the airwaves—and few seem to question why. This trust can only exist because of a faith in the promise of salvation that Empire gives. But it’s a blind faith, a faith that Paul’s witness punctures: a witness to the gospel of God as opposed to the gospel of Caesar, to salvation by God’s mercy as opposed to salvation by the Empire’s military conquests.

For those who embrace Paul’s insight—we have a debt of love to all, Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, Israelis and Palestinians, Ukrainians and Russians, Syrians and Iraqis—it will be clear that any call to take up arms or to support those who do so is a false gospel, the gospel of Empire not the gospel of God. The gospel Paul proclaims, and he calls us to proclaim, is the good news of peace.

Let me end this post with words from a great witness to the gospel of peace, Daniel Berrigan, published shortly before he died, near the end of the Obama administration: “Every imperial state pronounces itself to be the last word in human evolution and the key to the future of humanity. Yet each one proves to be a deceit, a lie, and comes to an end eventually. Those of us opposed to war have to work as though the path of peace is the truth. We must proclaim that it is the truth. We must insist that it is the truth about human life. This truth is what our God looks like; it is what Jesus looks like. And it is what Jesus preaches to his church” (Irish Left Review, 2/19/2014).

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

3 thoughts on “Paul’s antidote to Empire: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 1; 1:1-17) [Peaceable Romans #8]

  1. As one of your friends who doesn’t agree with you about Paul, I notice Berrigan did not say it is what Paul preaches to the church.

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