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.

Yoder presents us with Jesus’ messianic ethic and then shows how Paul reiterates Jesus’ message. Jesus, Yoder insists, intervened directly in the socio-political realm. But rather than speaking the language of the existing assumptions of how social power should operate, he provided different content—still political, but reflecting a different notion of politics. His was a call to social transformation where servanthood replaces domination, restorative justice replaces retribution, and inclusion of vulnerable people replaces class warfare.

For Yoder, Paul does not lead away from Jesus’ messianic ethic. Jesus and Paul are not stage one and stage two of the development of Christian ethics that leads inevitably to Constantinianism. Rather, what is central to Jesus’ message remains central for Paul.

Justification’s social character

One central way the Christian tradition has placed a tension between Jesus’ life and Paul’s theology is in its understanding of Paul’s concept of “justification.” Even if Jesus himself taught and practiced a countercultural social ethics, according to the mainstream theological tradition, this part of his message has no long-term relevance. Paul understood that well and zeroed in on what matters most—justification by faith alone apart from “works righteousness.”

Is this an accurate reading of the story told in the New Testament of Paul’s actual teaching? Yoder says it is not, asserting that in fact for Paul “justification” has at its heart social concerns. According to Yoder, “the basic heresy Paul exposed was the failure of his Jewish Christian opponents to recognize that since the Messiah had come the covenant of God had been open to include the Gentiles.” So, the heart of Paul’s interests had to do with the social character of the messianic community.

Paul argued in Galatians that Jews and Gentiles must be joined together in one fellowship. “To be ‘justified’ is to be set right in and for that [new social] relationship.” The term “justification” in Galatians thus links with the later language in Ephesians about “making peace” and “breaking down the wall” that previously alienated Jews and Gentiles.

Paul’s letter to the Romans also emphasizes the social nature of justification. Yoder points out, “the issue of the polarity of Jew and Gentile is present at major turning points throughout the argument of the book. Paul cares not so much about systematic theological speculation about how human beings are to made acceptable to God, but rather the very concrete Roman situation in which Jew and Gentile, legalistic Christian and pagan Christian, needed to accept one another.”

Paul’s social analysis: The Powers that be

Another important way that Jesus’ messianic ethic has been marginalized in the history of Christianity is the assumption that he did not give us a social philosophy but spoke rather primarily to the personal realm. Even less has Paul been understood as providing a way of applying Jesus’ ethical directives to our social lives.

Yoder suggests, however, that we actually do have in Paul’s writings insights that are socially relevant. Paul’s idea of “the Powers” provides a way to speak of the structures of human life, realities beyond our individual persons or even beyond the sum of separate individuals—our institutions, traditions, social practices, belief systems, languages. The Powers language speaks about the discrete “personalities” and even “wills” that these structures have. According to Yoder, we may pull together from Paul’s writings an “exousiology,” that is, a theology of the Powers. It would include, in outline, the following elements.

(1) The Powers are part of the good creation. They were brought into being by God as a “divine gift” that makes human social life possible. When God created human beings, elements of human life such as language, traditions, and ways of ordering community life came into being alongside the individual human beings. Like the original human beings, the Powers were good.

(2) The Powers are fallen. They are so closely linked with humanity that when human beings turned from God so, too, did the Powers. The Powers then turn against human beings when humans are alienated from God. The fallen Powers seek to take God’s place as the center of human devotion, often becoming idols.

(3) The Powers remain necessary. In spite of their fallenness, the Powers nonetheless retain their original function. 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 living in our fallen world and a necessary part of whatever solutions might be found.

(4) The Powers must be redeemed. What is required for a potential resolution of the “Powers dilemma” is that the Powers be transformed (they cannot be abolished or ignored). The first step in such a transformation comes when people 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.

(5) Jesus redeems the Powers. Paul asserts that Jesus in fact has done precisely what was needed. He lived with genuine faithfulness. This life brought him to the cross. The Powers—in this case the most worthy, weighty representatives of Jewish religion and Roman politics—act in collusion to kill Jesus. Jesus, thus, in his life and death brings to light the Powers’ true character. As Colossians 2:15 tells us, on the cross Jesus “disarmed” the Powers, “making a public example of them and thereby triumphing over them.”

God’s presence in Jesus reveals that the Powers that kill Jesus are rebels against God, not God’s servants. They are unmasked as false gods by this encounter. Jesus’ victory over the Powers becomes more clear when God raises him from the dead. In the resurrection, it is clear that Jesus’ challenge to the Powers was endorsed and vindicated by God. In Jesus, God has ventured into the Powers’ territory, remained true to God’s loving character, and defeated them (that is, allowed them to defeat themselves by crucifying Jesus).

(6) The Christian vocation is to live in freedom from Powers idolatry. Jesus’ followers are called and empowered to embody his victory. We do so for the sake of witnessing to the entire world of the truthfulness of God’s message of mercy and wholeness. This witness is for the sake of the nations. A crucial part of the witness is the formation of communities of people whose common life manifests our freedom from idolatry to the powers. For Paul, that messianic communities must include reconciled Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus stands at the heart of the gospel—reflecting his own transformation from violent zealot to nonviolent servant of Jesus. This social reconciliation, as we saw above, reflects what Paul considered justification to be about.

Revolutionary subordination: Neither flight nor acquiescence

Paul knew, all too well, that freedom in Christ must be lived in a broken world. So, he reflects, profoundly, on how Christian freedom may be lived most faithfully in an unfree world. Paul’s perspective is what Yoder calls “revolutionary subordination.”

Yoder draws on Pauline writings concerning subordination in interpersonal relationships in order to deepen his analysis of how Paul reinforces and applies Jesus’ ethic. The German term haustafeln used by scholars in discussions of these themes means a set of “household rules” or expectations for interpersonal relationships within households.

Yoder sees in these rules, when read in the broader context of the New Testament, a message of what he calls “revolutionary subordination.” These household rules call upon Christians to walk with Jesus in their responses to their social situations. They are not regulations that simply endorse status quo power arrangements and require those in the “lower” positions to give all their power to their “superiors.”

Paul’s haustafeln, addressed to the one without power, treat his addressees as responsible moral agents who have equal worth as human beings with those with higher social status. They have indeed been liberated in Christ and welcomed into full membership in Christ’s assembly. However, quite likely these addressees are not in positions to claim that liberation fully while at the same time remaining (as they must) wholly committed to Jesus’ path of loving their neighbors.

Paul echoes Jesus in holding up two equally crucial convictions. We are free in Christ and we are called to love even our enemies. In this love we refrain from smashing existing social arrangements. Paul’s haustafeln are best seen as part of his thinking on the processes of negotiating this liberation/path of love tension.

Contrary to expectations in the broader culture where submission is a one-way street, the newness of Paul’s community may be seen in how Paul challenges husbands, masters, and parents also to practice mutuality, in some sense subordinating themselves those “below” them.

Yoder argues that this subordination is best defined by Jesus, who according to Paul in Philippians two, being free, subordinated himself for our sake and gave himself for us. And, Paul emphasizes in Philippians 2:5, believers should “let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

“It is natural to feel Christ’s liberation reaching into every kind of bondage, and to want to act in obedience with that radical shift. But precisely because of Christ we shall not impose that shift violently upon the social order beyond the confines of the church.” Of course, within the church, Christians have every right to challenge fellow Christian husbands, parents, and slaveholders to relinquish their dominance (as we see in Paul’s letter to Philemon).

In Romans, Paul does not directly discuss the haustafeln. However, taking seriously what he has in mind when he does discuss them might help us better understand his concerns in Romans. Romans has at its heart a strong concern for mutual subordination among the Christians in Rome. Paul develops his powerful theology of justification in order to emphasize, by the time we get to the end of the book, the crucial importance to the Roman Christians of loving one another, refraining from judging each other, avoiding making one another stumble, pleasing others and not oneself, and recognizing that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles together.

Paul advocates a genuine revolution against Rome’s hegemony. But the revolutionary means he advocates are consistent with the healing mercy of God extended to the entire world. The certainty Paul has in the world-transforming efficacy of God’s healing mercy undergirds lives of patient love, extended even (as with God Godself) toward enemies.

Turning “Romans 13” on its head

All that has gone before in this paper prepares us now to turn to Romans 13. This passage (specifically 13:1-7) serves as a counter testimony in the Christian tradition to the belief that Paul taught nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire and, more importantly for Yoder, Romans 13 is seen to go against the idea that Paul understood Jesus’ messianic ethics as normative for Christian social ethics.

Yoder insists (and I agree) that our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with reading these verses in light of its biblical context. The Bible, from start to finish, sees the relationship between the covenant community and the empires of the world as very important. From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the empires rebel against God and hinder the healing vocation of the covenant people.

The entire Bible could appropriately be read as a manual on how people who follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor negotiate the dynamics of hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.

Romans 13:1-7 thus stands in this general biblical context of antipathy toward the empires. If we take this context seriously, we will turn to these Romans verses assuming that their concern is something like this: given the fallenness of Rome, how might we live within this empire as people committed uncompromisingly to love of neighbor? Paul has no illusions about Rome being in a positive sense a servant of God. But Rome (in its fallenness) nonetheless exists and acts as it acts. We know from biblical stories that God can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes. Yet these nations also remain under God’s judgment.

In Romans, Paul begins by outlining social problems that followers of Jesus face as they seek to fulfill their calling. He discusses two major strains of idolatry: (1) the Empire and its injustices that demand the highest loyalty and (religious) devotion and (2) a legalistic approach to Torah that leads to its own kind of violence (witness Paul’s own death-dealing zealotry).

However, Paul understands these universal problems as a basis to affirm the universality of God’s healing response. Indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And all may find salvation in Jesus. The sovereignty of hostility to God ultimately bows to the sovereignty of God’s healing love.

In Romans 4–8 Paul develops further this message of the mercies of God—reflected in Abraham’s pre-circumcision trust in God that serves as our model, in God’s transforming love even of God’s enemies, in Paul’s own liberation from his idolatrous “sacred violence”, and in the promise that creation itself will be healed as God’s children come to themselves.

Chapters 9–11 involve Paul’s deeper wrestling with his own experience as a Jew who had failed to recognize God’s mercy revealed in Jesus. However, Paul’s failure (and the failure of many of his fellows) ultimately did not stop God’s mercy. God’s mercy will have its conclusion even with the unfaithfulness of so many of the elect people.

For the rest of the letter, in response to this certainty about God’s mercy, Paul sketches the practical outworking of living in light of this mercy—all for the sake of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth (i.e., “Spain,” 15:28).

Now, let’s turn specifically to Romans 12 and 13. These two chapters make up a single section in the structure of the book. Chapter 12 begins with a call to nonconformity, motivated by the memory of the mercies of God, and finds the expression of this transformed life first in a new quality of relationships within the Christian community and, with regard to enemies, in preserving love. The concept of love then recurs in 13:8-10. Any interpretation of 13:1-7 that does not also center on persevering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in this context.

Yoder helps us, finally, in looking more closely at the actual passage, 13:1-7, itself. I’ll mention seven of his points:

(1) Paul calls for a kind of revolutionary subordination in relation to government. These verses begin with a call to subordination, not literally to obedience. The term here reflects Paul’s notion of the ordering of the Powers by God. Subordination is significantly different from unconditional obedience. For example, the Christians who refuse to worship Caesar but still permit Caesar to punish, are being subordinate even though not obeying.

(2) Paul rejects any notion of violent revolution. The immediate meaning of this text for the Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of anti-Semitism and the arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution. The call is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government.

(3) Paul also relativizes the affirmation of any particular government. While opposing revolution, these verses also do nothing to imply active moral support for Rome (or any other particular government). Paul here echoes Revelation 13, a text often contrasted with Romans 13. But both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever powers that be—even while implying (certainly more clearly in Revelation) that this particular government is quite idolatrous and blasphemous.

(4) God orders the Powers—a different notion than ordaining the Powers. God is not said to institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them. God does not take responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that God orders them, that by God’s permissive government they line them up with God’s purposes. This sense of “ordering” implies that God’s participation in human life is much more indirect than often understood. All states are “ordered” by God and thus in some sense serve God’s purposes. However, no states are directly blessed by God as God’s direct representatives—least of all the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.

(5) Nothing here speaks to Christians as participants in the state’s work. “The functions described in 13:3-4 do not include any service that the Christian is asked to render. The ‘things due to the authority’ listed in 13:6-7 do not include any kind of participation or service.” Whatever it is that the state does, Paul is not endorsing Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform those tasks—especially if the tasks violate the call to neighbor love.

(6) Paul calls for discrimination. The words of 13:7 echo those of Jesus. “Pay to all what is due them” reiterates Jesus’ call for discernment: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, being sure not to give Caesar the loyalty that belongs only to God. 13:7 says “render to all what is due them;” 13:8 says “nothing is due to anyone except love.” The claims of Caesar are to be measured by whether or not what he claims is due to him is part of the obligation of love.

(7) Romans 13 is consistent with the Sermon on the Mount. The logic that uses Romans 13:1-7 as a basis for participation in coercive practices relies on a disjunction between Romans 13:1-7 and the Sermon on the Mount. However, both Romans 12–13 as a unit and Matthew 5–7 instruct Christians to be nonviolent in all their relationships. Both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in “vengeance.” Both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded bringing about a kind of order, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.

Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may best be understood as his response to this question: How might followers of Jesus living in the heart of the Beast truly witness to God’s healing love? They do so by holding together their rejection of Empire-idolatry with their commitment to active pacifism. Their most radical task (and most subversive) is to live visibly as communities where the enmity that had driven Paul himself to murderous violence is overcome—Jew and Gentile joined together in one fellowship, a witness to genuine peace in a violent world.

Such communities encourage a freedom from Powers idolatry. These are some of the imperatives from Romans 12–13 for living out such freedom:

• Nonconformity to the Roman world fueled by minds that are transformed, being shaped by God’s mercy shown in Jesus rather than by the culture’s “elemental spirits.”

• Humility and shared respect in the ministry of the faith community that recognizes and affirms all the gifts of those in the community.

• Active love for one another leading to a renunciation of vengeance and a quest to overcome evil with good rather than heightening the spiral of violence with violent responses.

• Respect for God’s ordering work in human government that—fallen and rebellious as it may be—still serves God’s purposes.

• A commitment to doing good (following Jesus’ model that implicitly recognizes that genuinely doing good as defined by the gospel could lead to a cross)—and repudiation of temptations to seek to overcome evil with evil through violent resistance.

• Work at discerning what belongs to God and what is allowable to be given to Caesar.

• An overarching commitment to authentic practice of Torah, summarized (following Jesus) as love of neighbor (here as in Jesus’ Good Samaritan story, including the enemy).

On being a peace church in a Constantinian world

I want to close with a few brief reflections on how this Yoderian analysis of Paul might be applied to our present.

(1) No to Empire. A definitive text for Christian ethics may be found in Jesus’ response to his disciples’ quest for power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”

Yoder’s Politics of Jesus challenges us to apply sayings such as these to our political life. With the awareness that Jesus did mean what he said here to define Christian political life, we are sensitized to see the entire Bible from the creation story to the New Jerusalem as a critique of Empire and guide to faithful resistance to Empire.

Yoder’s notion of “revolutionary subordination” seeks to hold together two uncompromisable convictions: resistance to empire and commitment to pacifism. Resistance without pacifism ends up only heightening the spiral of violence and serving the domination of the fallen Powers. Pacifism without resistance validates the stereotypes of the cultured despisers of pacifism—parasitic, withdrawal focused on purity, irresponsible.

So, those who would walk with Jesus in modern-day America have a responsibility to apply insights of biblical prophets to critique the empire in which we live. The story we get in our media and even institutes of higher education undermines such a critique. So maybe one key lesson to learn from Paul, Jesus, John of Patmos, and the other prophets is how to discern, how to recognize the self-serving propaganda of rulers, how to recognize the dynamics of “lording it over” and to insist on the norm of servanthood as our key criterion for political discernment. Such a criterion should foster a sense of profound suspicion not only toward the more obvious imperial moves of the neo-cons but also of the “soft imperialists” and their “humanitarian interventions” that still rely on military force.

(2) No to violent resistance. We must not let the Empire set our agenda or determine our means of resistance. We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, become evil ourselves. Now, I honestly am not around people advocating violent revolution very much. And I want to insist that those who, say, sharply critique U.S. foreign policy are not simply by doing that practicing violent resistance. Noam Chomsky, for instance, performs an essential service for all who would be free from empire-idolatry with his carefully reasoned, generally dispassionate but utterly devastating analyses of the evils our nation has and continues to engage in.

However, I do think we learn from our Yoderian reading of Paul that for those who would walk with Jesus, what should determine our agenda in relation to Empire should not be anger and hostility. Nor should it be a desire to wrest the steering wheel from the right-wingers through force and get the U.S. empire back on track as a “benevolent” superpower.

As Yoder points out, the true problem with Empire is not that some empires are not benevolent enough in their domination. It is the practice of domination itself. So, ultimately resistance to Empire that hopes genuinely to operate in harmony with God’s intentions for human social life must repudiate domination itself. Resistance that leads to more domination but with different figureheads on top ultimately is not nearly radical enough.

(3) Yes to communities of resistance. In the end, Paul’s message may be characterized as apocalyptic—but it’s an apocalyptic message (like that of Revelation) that centers on the revelation of God’s healing strategy. What God brings forth in response to human brokenness and the oppressions of the nations and their empires are communities of people who know God’s peace and share that peace with all the families of the earth.

The formation and witness of these communities leads ultimately, in the biblical story, to the healing of the nations. Paul especially emphasizes the significance of these communities being made up of reconciled enemies. In his response to Rome’s hegemony, Paul works tirelessly to create an alternative social reality, the ekklesia, that practices the politics of Jesus within the Pax Romana. These new communities (made up of Jew and Gentile alike) provide a context for human flourishing.

This kind of politics remains the call for we believers today who live within the Pax Americana. The most politically responsible work followers of Jesus can engage in is the work of sustaining communities of healing—places where enemies are reconciled, where prisoners are set free, where Jesus’ triumph over the Powers is truly embodied.

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