Monthly Archives: August 2008

Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans

I believe that we should understand the Apostle Paul to be presenting a radical message that combines pacifism with resistance to the Roman Empire. What follows is a paper presented August 13, 2008, at a conference, “On Being a Peace Church in a Constantinian World” at Messiah College. This paper utilizes the thought of John Howard Yoder to make a case for this kind of reading of Paul.

Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans—8/13/08—Ted Grimsrud

John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian and advocate for Christian pacifism, as much as anybody in the last half of the 20th century, popularized the critique of Constantinianism, which he understood as a Christian problem. For Yoder, “Constantinianism” refers to a way of looking at social life. Constantinians believe that the exercise of power is necessarily violent, that God’s will is funneled through the actions of the heads of state, that Christians should work within the structures of their legitimately violent nation-states and take up arms when called upon to do so, and that history is best read through the eyes of people in power.

Most people who have read the Gospels agree that Jesus stands in tension with Constantinianism. I remember in grad school, my teacher Robert Bellah stating that John Yoder had convinced him that Jesus indeed was a pacifist. However, once Christians began to take responsibility for society in the fourth century (and it was a good thing that they did, according to Bellah), they simply had to look elsewhere than to Jesus for their ethical guidance.

For most Christians in the past 2,000 years, the Apostle Paul has been a key bridge who prepared the way for the Constantinian shift in the 4th century. Thus, it is no accident that after Constantine, Paul’s writings become central for Christian theology (much more so than the Gospels). For Yoder, though, it is misreading Paul to see him presenting something other than a reinforcing of Jesus’ message.

My interest today is to look at Yoder’s non-Constantinian reading of Paul. I will suggest that indeed Paul’s theology provides us powerful resources that might help us walk faithfully with Jesus today as peace churches in a world still all too Constantinian. Yoder devotes his book The Politics of Jesus to explaining what Jesus’ life and teaching have to say to Empire. He outlines a way of reading the entire Bible in light of Jesus, including paying close attention to the writings of Paul, seeing Paul’s thought as resting in full continuity with Jesus.
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