Romans as a Peace Book: A Yoderian Reading

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.9

[Published in Sharon L. Baker and Michael Hardin, eds., Peace Be With You: Christ’s Benediction Amid Violent Empires (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2010), 120-37.]

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 Christian critique of Constantinianism.[1] “Constantinianism” refers to a way of looking at power in social life.  The term evokes the Roman emperor Constantine who, in the fourth century, initiated major changes in the official policies of Rome vis-à-vis Christians, changes by and large embraced by the Christians.  Indicative of the changes, at the beginning of the fourth century few Christians performed military service due to a sense of mutual antipathy between Christians and the military.  By the end of the fourth century, the Empire had instituted rules that made it illegal for anyone who was not a Christian to be in the military.

Yoder has been criticized for being overly simplistic in his use of Constantine as such a central metaphor.[2]  I think the criticisms are largely unfair, but for this essay I want to concern myself with Yoder’s application of this symbolic label more than whether it’s fully historically appropriate or not.  That is, what Yoder means by Constantinianism is simply this: believing that the exercise of power is necessarily violent, that the state appropriately holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, that God’s will is in some sense funneled through the actions of the heads of state, that Christians should work within the structures of their legitimately violent nation-states taking 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.  For most Christians in the past 2,000 years, the apostle Paul has been seen as a key bridge who prepared the way for the Constantinian shift in the early 4th century CE.  Thus it is no accident that after Constantine, Paul’s writings become central for Christian theology (much more so than the Gospels)—we see this already the great “Father of the church,” Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Augustine is still considered Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Paul (along with the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther).

For John Howard Yoder, though, the Constantinian shift was not inevitable and certainly not a good thing, and Augustine and Luther are not definitive interpreters of Paul.  In fact, for Yoder, Augustine’s and Luther’s interpretations of Paul have led to great mischief—not least in how these interpretations have leant themselves to presenting Paul (or at least Paul’s theology) as a servant of Empire.

My interest here is to look at Yoder’s non-Constantinian reading of Paul and to 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[3] to explaining what Jesus’ life and teaching have to say to Empire.

A central part of his argument has to do with a way of reading the entire New Testament (and, implicitly, the entire Bible) in light of Jesus’ life and teaching.  This way of reading includes paying close attention to the writings of Paul.  One of the many ways Yoder challenges the standard account of Christian faith is to make the case (in some detail) for reading Paul’s thought as resting firmly in full continuity with Jesus.

The messianic ethic

What is the “messianic ethic” that Yoder sees embodied by Jesus? Yoder develops his portrayal of Jesus’ ethical message from a reading of the Gospel of Luke.[4]  We start with the words of Mary in Luke one that present the significance of the life she carries in her womb in terms of social transformation, lifting up the vulnerable and throwing down the powerful.

Luke makes it clear that the hopes among the people with whom Jesus related centered on the social and political renewal of Israel.  They expected the Messiah they hoped for to implement a transformation in history.  Yoder believes that the key to understanding Jesus’ ethical stance lay in recognizing that he embraced these hopes and presented himself as fulfilling them—but in ways very different that anticipated.  Political?  Yes, but a new kind of politics.

Jesus works to embody God’s kingdom on earth, to serve as a political leader who will indeed liberate Israel and thereby provide “a light to the nations” (Luke 2:32).  Jesus announces the “good news” of God, the presence of God’s kingdom.  These terms “gospel” and “kingdom” are both political terms.  Jesus’ work will have direct social and political significance.

When Jesus begins his public ministry (Luke 4:14-30), he affirms two central parts of many people’s hopes.  First, the time is now for a new work of the Spirit of God through God’s anointed Servant (“today this scripture is fulfilled,” 4:21), the promised Messiah, 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). (31)

What Jesus had in mind with these opening words is clear, Yoder insists.  He announces “a visible, socio-political, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God” (32).  As seen in Jesus’ hometown, and as would be expected, based on the experiences of earlier prophets in Israel, Jesus faced sharp opposition from the start.  Since he proposed concrete changes, the forces that benefited from the status quo resisted ferociously.

In face of the opposition, Jesus formally created a counter-culture, a new social entity.  Simply to proclaim a subversive message, while upsetting to people in power, would not threaten their status.  However, to combine that verbal message with a social group actually embodying the messianic ethics and thereby effecting genuine change—now this would definitely gain the attention of the guardians of the present order.  Jesus presented “an alternative to the structures that were there before, challeng[ing] the system as no mere words ever could” (33).

With his initial program stated and his new community established, Jesus goes on (in Luke’s story) to spell out in some detail the general social philosophy of this new transformative community he establishes.  The messianic ethic he articulates has as its core two key elements: imitating God’s love even for God’s enemies (Luke 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.  This ethic, Yoder points out, only makes sense if the kingdom truly is present and if the kingdom indeed has to do with real, present, social and political life (34).

Jesus’ ministry of social transformation led directly to his death.  His “public career had been such as to make it quite thinkable that he would pose to the Roman Empire an apparent threat serious enough to justify his execution” (50).  One piece of evidence for this assertion may be seen in the comment that one of the disciples’ made to the “unknown man” he and his friends walked with on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ crucifixion.  “We had hope that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).  This comment reflects the perception that Jesus’ ministry indeed had the impact of exciting hopes of direct political intervention.  His was a call to social transformation where servanthood replaces domination, restorative justice replaces retribution, and inclusion of vulnerable people replaces class warfare.

Yoder makes two central arguments in The Politics of Jesus.  The first, which we have just summarized, is to show that it is possible to read the story of Jesus (in fact, it is the best reading of this story) to teach that he is “of direct significance for social ethics” (11).  The second argument is that what Jesus actually said and did in relation to social ethics remains truthful and applicable for our present day.  In making this second argument, Yoder turns to the writings of the Apostle Paul since these writings have so often been interpreted in ways that marginalize Jesus’ own message.

Rather than seeing Jesus and Paul as representing two more or less mutually exclusive approaches to ethical life, Yoder suggests that we should see Paul as a faithful and accurate interpreter of Jesus’ message.  Jesus and Paul are not stage one and stage two of the development of Christian ethics that leads inevitably to Constantinianism.  Rather, whatever we understand to be central to Jesus’ message should be understood as also central for Paul.

Yoder spells out his affirmation of the close link between Jesus and Paul—and the latter’s central relevance for our appropriation of the messianic ethic—in a series of chapters on four key elements of Paul’s thought.  These include discussions of Paul’s portrayal of the social character of justification, Paul’s challenge to the hegemony of the Powers, Paul’s call to revolutionary subordination, and Paul’s political perspective according to Romans 13.

Justification’s social character

One central way that the Christian tradition has placed a tension between Jesus’ life and Paul’s theology is in its understanding of Paul’s concept of “justification” (212).  In the tradition, the words and deeds of Jesus end up on the margins of theological development as a result of seeing Paul to be narrowing down the core of the gospel to justification by faith alone.

Paul, in this reading, opposed approaches to salvation that could be focused in piety, religious practices, or ethical behavior in ways that turn the believer’s attention toward human good works rather than toward God’s free gift.  However, Yoder asks, “Does not the insistence that justification is by faith alone and through grace alone, apart from any correlation with works of any kind, undercut any radical ethical and social concern?” (213).

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 (215).  According to Yoder, Paul’s central concerns were with the social character of the messianic 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 made up only of those who “have first to become Jews according to the conditions of pre-messianic proselytism?” (216).

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 (Galatians 2:13-14).  Paul’s theology of justification of faith in Galatians and Romans emerges directly 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.

When Paul proclaimed the “righteousness” (or justice) of God—the message of justification—he emphasized that the message goes forth “to both Jew and Gentile.”  That is, the message goes out to both, together, with the intent that they join in one new community devoted to embodying the way of Jesus.  This reconciliation of these 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 understood God to be merciful) as the end of the hostility between Jew and Gentile.

Paul argued in Galatians (see especially 2:14-21) 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 hence links with the later language in Ephesians about “making peace” and “breaking down the wall” that previously alienated Jews and Gentiles. (220)

Paul’s most detailed theological statement, his letter to the Romans, also picks up this sense of 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, as well as in the introduction and conclusion.  The foreground meaning of the issue of the place of the law was not systematic theological speculation about how human beings are to made acceptable to God, but rather the very concrete Roman situation in which Jew and Greek, legalistic Christian and pagan Christian, needed to accept one another” (223-24).

Paul envisions in Romans a faith community that embodies Torah but without the exclusionary emphasis on defending boundary markers that had led Paul himself to become violent.  Torah would be embodied most of all, according to 13:8-10, by the Romans loving their neighbors.  The place of “justification” here is bringing together Jewish and Gentile Christians in one “just” (whole) community, established “apart from the law” by God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26).

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.  “One of the strands in the argument against the normative claims made by or for Jesus has always been that his radical personalism is not relevant to problems of power and structure” (134).  Even less has Paul been understood as providing a way of applying Jesus’ ethical directives to our social lives (135-36).

Yoder suggests, however, that we have in Paul’s writings insights do speak directly to social ethics.  And these insights help us make sense of Jesus’ message and strengthen both the link between Jesus’ social ethics and Paul’s and between theirs and ours.

Yoder, borrowing from insights gained especially from Hendrikus Berkhof,[5] teases out Paul’s social thought under the rubric of “the Powers.”  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.

(1) The Powers are part of the good creation.  They were brought into being by God as a “divine gift” (140) that makes human social life possible.  When God created human beings, necessarily elements of human life such as language, traditions, and ways of ordering community life all came into existence alongside the individual human beings.  And like the original human beings, the Powers were also good.

This aspect of created reality is linked with Jesus Christ himself in Colossians one: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17).

Today, we may want to say that this “Powers” language (not only “Powers,” but also in Colossian one “thrones, dominions, rulers” and in Galatians, “the elemental spirits”) metaphorically describes the necessary “regularity, system, and order” that human beings require in order to function socially.  The Bible teaches that God has provided for these needs.  The provision is part of the goodness of creation (141).

(2) The Powers are fallen.  They are so closely linked with humanity that when human beings turned from God—spoken of traditionally as “the fall” and described in the story of Adam and Eve—so, too, did the Powers.  It is as if the Powers, as part of created reality, turn against human beings when humans are alienated from God.  The fallen Powers then seek to take God’s place as the center of human devotion, often becoming idols.

Yoder writes: “The Powers are no longer active only as mediators of the saving creative purpose of God; now we find them seeking to separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:38); we find them ruling over the lives of those who live far from the love of God (Eph 2:2); we find them holding us in servitude to their rules (Col 2:20); we find them holding us under their tutelage (Gal 4:3).  These structures which were supposed to be our servants have become our masters and our guardians” (141).

(3) The Powers remain necessary.  In spite of their fallenness, the Powers retain their original function.  Human beings still require the “regularity, system, and order” that only the Powers provide.  Human life still requires ordering; the Powers are still used by God in the sustenance of human social life.

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.  The human dilemma in relation to the Powers is that they simultaneously are a necessary part of our God-ordered existence and an inevitable force that seeks to corrupt this existence and separate us from God.

(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.

We must continue to understand ourselves as subject to the Powers.  “Subordination to these powers is what makes us human, for if they did not exist there would be no history nor society nor humanity.  If then God is going to save his creatures in their humanity, the Powers cannot simply be destroyed or set-aside or ignored.  Their sovereignty must be broken” (144).

That is, the Powers must be “put in their place.”  We need them but they should be our servants (on behalf of life) not our masters (idols that make us become like them).  Such a putting the Powers in their place can only happen when we see them as what they are—creatures, not God substitutes.

(5) Jesus does redeem the Powers.  Paul asserts that Jesus in fact has done precisely what was needed.  He lived, Yoder writes, “a genuinely free and human existence.  This life brought him, as any genuinely human existence will bring anyone, to the cross.  In his death the Powers—in this case the most worthy, weighty representatives of Jewish religion and Roman politics—act in collusion” (144-5).

In responding to Jesus in this way, though, the Powers actually facilitated their own defeat.  Jesus’ cross was actually a victory.  He remained free from their allure, even in face of the deadly violence.  In doing so, he brings to light their true character.  “By the cross (which must always be seen as a unit with the resurrection) Christ abolished the slavery which, as a result of sin, lay over our existence as a menace and an accusation.”  As Colossians 2:15 tells us, on the cross he “disarmed” the Powers, “making a public example of them and thereby triumphing over them” (146).

The Powers all too often are accepted as “the gods of the world.”  Jesus’ faithfulness to the death shows that such an exaltation of the Powers is based on deception.  God’s presence in Jesus reveals that the Powers that kill Jesus are rebels against God, not God’s servants.  The religious and political leaders serve death, not the God of life.  “Obviously, ‘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’ (1 Cor 2:8).  Now they are unmasked as false gods by their very encounter with Very God; they are made a public spectacle” (146).

Christ’s victory over the Powers, already present in the cross, becomes even more clear when God raises Jesus from the dead.  In the resurrection, it becomes 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).

The Powers’ main weapon—deluding people to give the Powers loyalty—was taken from them.  They were disarmed by Jesus’ faithfulness.  Such a dis-illusioning revelation frees all who walk with Jesus to embrace life and wholeness (146-47).  No Powers can separate us from God’s love unless we let them.

(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 (see Rev 21:24), indeed for all of creation (Rom 8:19).

A crucial part of faithful witness to the Powers, the nations, and all of creation is the formation of communities of liberated people whose life together manifests their freedom from idolatry to the powers.  For Paul, the way messianic communities 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.

“The very existence of the church,” Yoder states, “in which Gentiles and Jews, who heretofore walked according to the stoicheia (‘elemental spirits’) of the world, live together in Christ’s fellowship, is itself a proclamation, a sign, a token to the Powers that their unbroken dominion has come to an end” (147-48).

Romans, when read in light of Paul theology of the Powers, becomes a powerful witness against bondage to the values of Empire and the values of Torah-legalism.  Both of these idolatries are challenged in Romans, reflecting the dynamics of both sides of the violence and alienation in Paul’s own life.  Romans proclaims a salvation from Empire-idolatry and from Torah-idolatry.  This salvation, accomplished “apart from the law” (that is, apart from legalistic adherence to sharp boundary markers that reflected Torah-idolatry) and also, apart from Empire, must be practiced and thereby displayed to the Powers, to the nations, to all of creation.

Revolutionary subordination: Neither fight nor flight

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.  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 has commonly been used by scholars in their discussions of these themes.  Haustafeln means a set of “household rules,” expectations for interpersonal relationships.

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 our responses to our 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 full (and equal) worth as human beings with those of higher social status.  These addressees, according to Paul, 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.

Paul makes challenges contrary to the expectations in the broader culture where submission is a one-way street.  In the newness of the messianic community that Paul speaks to, we see a calling on husbands, masters, and parents also to practice mutuality, in some sense subordinating themselves to those “below” them (178).

The main term that Paul uses, hyptoassesthai, could best be translated something like “subordinate yourself,” better than flatly “submit to.”  It is not connoting slavish obedience.  It is best defined in relation to Jesus.  According to Paul in Philippians two, Jesus, 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” (180).

This is how Yoder states it: “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” (185).  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 (13:8-10), refraining from judging each other (14:1-12), avoiding making one another stumble (14:13-23), pleasing others and not oneself (15:1-6), and recognizing that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles together (15:7-13).

Paul advocates a genuine revolution against the Roman Empire’s hegemony.  However, the revolutionary means he advocates are consistent with the healing mercy of God extended to the entire world.  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.[6]

Turning interpretations of “Romans 13” on their head

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

Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with reading these verses in light of their broader biblical context.  From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible shows empires rebelling against God and hindering the healing vocation of God’s 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 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.  However, we know from biblical stories that God nonetheless can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes.  Yet these nations also remain under God’s judgment.

Turning to Romans, we see that Paul discusses two major strains of idolatry in chapters 1–3: (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 believes these universal problems provide an opportunity for him to witness to the universality of God’s healing response.  Indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Nonetheless, all may find found salvation in Jesus.  The sovereignty of hostility to God ultimately bows to the sovereignty of God’s healing love.

In Romans 4–8 Paul further develops this message of the mercies of God—reflected in Abraham’s pre-circumcision trust in God that serves as our model (chapter 4), in God’s transforming love even of God’s enemies (chapter 5), in Paul’s own liberation from his idolatrous “sacred violence” (chapter 7), and in the promise that creation itself will be healed as God’s children come to themselves (chapter 8).

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 the revelation of God’s mercy.  God’s electing mercy will have its merciful conclusion even with the unfaithfulness of so many of the elect people.

Finally, in chapters 14–16, 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).

Romans 12 and 13 should be read in the context of this broader flow of thought in the book.  They make up a single section in the structure of Romans.  “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 suffering.  The concept of love then recurs in 13:8-10.  Therefore, any interpretation of 13:1-7 which is not also an expression of suffering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in its context” (196).

Yoder helps us, finally, in looking more closely at the actual passage, 13:1-7, itself.

(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 of God.  Subordination is significantly different from unconditional obedience.  For example, the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying” (209).

(2) Paul intends to reject any notion of violent revolution.  “The immediate concrete meaning of this text for the Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of official anti-Semitism and the rising arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution or insubordination.  The call is to a nonviolent attitude toward a tyrannical government” (202-3).

(3) Paul also intends to relativize 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.  Both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever powers that be are in place (201)—even along with the implication (more clear 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 create or institute or ordain any particular governments, but only to order them.  “What the text says is that God orders them, brings them into line, that by God’s permissive government God lines them up with God’s purpose” (201-2).  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” (203).  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.  “Pay to all what is due them” echoes Jesus’ call for discernment: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” tells us to be 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.”  Is what Caesar claims is due to him part of the obligation of love? (208).

(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, there is no disjunction.  Both Romans 12–13 as a unit and Matthew 5–7 instruct Christians to be nonviolent in all their relationships, including the social.  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 and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry” (210).

Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may be understood as a statement of how the revolutionary subordination of Christians contributes to Christ’s victory over the Powers.  Christians 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 empower a freedom from the 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 analysis of Paul might be applied to our present.

(1) No to Empire.  Yoder’s Politics of Jesus challenges us to apply Jesus’ messianic ethic to our political life.  With the awareness of Jesus message as political, 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 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.

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.”

(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.[7]  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 whatever 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.  According to Paul, 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 Jesus 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.

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1] See, for example, John Howard Yoder, “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 135-51.

[2] See essays by Gerald Schlabach, “Deuteronomic or Constantinian: What Is the Most Basic Problem of Social Ethics?” in Stanley Hauerwas, Chris Huebner, Harry Huebner, and Mark Thiessen Nation, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999) 449-71, and J. Alexander Sider, “Constantinianism Before and After Nicea: Issues in Restitutionist Historiography” in Ben C. Ollenberger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds., A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contribution to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004), 126-44.

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

[4] “The Kingdom Coming,” Politics, 21-59.  References to Politics in the paragraphs to follow will be in parentheses in the text.

[5] See especially Hendrikus Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, revised edition (Scottdale, Pa., 1977).  In the years since The Politics of Jesus was first published in 1972, the authoritative work that has broadened and deepened Yoder’s insights has been Walter Wink’s three books: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

[6] In light of the 75th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s launch of the Catholic Worker newspaper, May Day 2008, it is useful to consider Day’s life and work as an extraordinary expression of revolutionary subordination—both in relation to the Catholic church and to the wider American society.  In her resistance to domination, Day nonetheless (usually) willingly subordinated herself to church authority and (by accepting her arrests) to state authority.  But she (and her community) remained unbowed and undeterred in their witness, with significant long-term transformative effect.

One example of the influence of the Catholic Worker movement may be seen in the increase of the number of Catholic conscientious objectors in the United States.  During World War I, we know of only one person who was identified as a Catholic who was a legally recognized CO.  By the time of the Vietnam War, more Catholics gained CO status than members of any other denomination.

[7] See Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).  Baker raises powerful questions about the moral impact of the prosecution of the War on American and British societies.

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