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Book Review: Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice

Tuesday, 28 May 2019  | John McKinnon

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice

By Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh

(Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2019)

The book of Romans: Paul’s systematic theology
par excellence for evangelicals. This is the go-to book for the technical low-down on sin, salvation, justification by faith, substitutionary atonement and pre-destination, not to mention the definitive view on homosexuality, the historicity of Adam and God’s ultimate use of all our tragedies for good.

As such, it has become a weapon in our tribal wars. Romans (along with a few other texts) has been aimed at and fired against the LGTIQ community - witness the Israel Folau controversy. It has been used to validate oppressive regimes via the traditional interpretations of Romans 13. As the authors state in the preface, it has for centuries been ‘used theologically as an instrument of oppression and exclusion’. Hence the title Romans Disarmed – Paul’s letter ‘needs to be disarmed’.

But this book is not just about debunking those traditional views - it also has a very positive aspect. What if Romans, rather than a timeless systematic theology, is really a pastoral letter to those living at the heart of the Roman Empire that seeks to disarm the violence of that first-century power?

This double entendre spells out the mission of authors Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh. Using the creative style that characterised their first book Colossians Remixed – modern day targums, fictional re-enactments and dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor – they present an incredibly fresh and refreshing reading of Paul’s important work.

Building on the ‘new perspectives’ interpretative paradigm that restored to Paul his context as a second temple pharasaical Jew, they add the context of the hegemonic Roman Empire and the more local context of the Roman house churches. Expelled under Claudius, Jews had recently returned to Rome under Nero, and the house church congregations now included Jewish Christians along with with Gentile believers, barbarian slaves and Roman masters - all learning how to co-exist in the body of Christ. Taking this context into account makes a huge difference to how we understand this letter.

The authors take the original context seriously in seeking to understand Paul’s intent, but also take our modern day 21st century first-world context seriously in making the book relevant today. Like the first-century Romans, we also live under an oppressive empire, struggle with issues of exclusion and marginalisation, and have to work out how to live as God’s people in such circumstances. Ultimately then, this is a book about discipleship. In the hands of Keesmaat and Walsh, Paul’s letter to the Romans becomes not a theological treatise but a pastoral letter encouraging the readers to faithfully follow Jesus in their time and place. As such, it becomes a far more useful and positive resource for Christians today.

Readers of NT Wright will find some familiar ground, ranging from discussions of faith/faithfulness and righteousness/justice through to Wright’s analogy of the Bible as a drama in which we play out the final act. Both Keesmaat and Walsh have worked with Wright and they remain good friends. However, Romans Disarmed avoids the technical discussions of Wright and moves beyond these by asking ‘so what?’ This is the departure point for the authors - faithful exegesis and full appreciation of the original context is paramount but the Bible is only useful to us if we can answer this question.

In translating a letter written to house churches at the heart of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago into discipleship challenges for people living today at the heart of global capitalism and US hegemony, the authors cover some wide ground. Homelessness, and the displacement and consequent marginalisation of indigenous people, is their starting theme. In fact, they provide a reading of the whole letter in terms of home, homelessness and exile. While homelessness is a favourite theme (Walsh co-authored Beyond Homelessness in 2008), it does pick up the idea of Wright and others that the Jews in the second temple period were still longing to return from exile. However, the theme also works for Gentile believers in Rome and certainly applies to our much-displaced and rootless society today. In fact, the authors make the point that global capitalism inevitably destroys home through its emphasis on mobility of capital and therefore labour.

A large section is devoted to the environment and creation care. The environmental destructiveness of the Roman Empire is not known as widely as it should be, but our environmental problems are front and centre today and framed as a natural consequence of the pathologies of empire. Readers of Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything, 2014) will find in Keesmaat and Walsh a very similar critique of our capitalist society but from a more Biblical and Christian perspective. Perhaps more in this section than any other, the authors relate their personal response to the issue. This is both powerful, demonstrating a willingness to ‘put their money where their mouth is’, but also risky, as readers may be tempted to take issue with their particular responses and therefore downplay the bigger picture. My suggestion to readers is to take the authors’ lifestyle decisions as examples of possible responses and to discern for themselves what is appropriate in their own context – do not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

Economic justice is another key theme that emerges. How could it be otherwise, when the house churches consisted of returned Jewish exiles and foreign slaves alongside slave owners and Roman citizens? Keesmaat and Walsh present a comprehensive vision of economic justice from the epistle that causes their imaginary questioner to ask, ‘why didn’t anyone tell me this before? How did it all get lost?’, something I have said about the Bible many times over recent years. While the authors admit this is a bigger question than can be answered in their book, they do point to the Constantinian capture of the church and its continuance to this day, most apparent in the US evangelical church’s support of President Trump. They describe this as a betrayal – ‘a sense that something had to be kept hidden, that Christian faith had been watered down to personal piety married to social and cultural legitimacy ... this ends up being apostasy dressed up in piety’. Strong words indeed, but they go on to give powerful examples of how the book of Romans has been ‘rendered powerless’ in the very issue that is at the heart of the book, namely the question of justification of the sinner. For those of us raised on penal substitutionary atonement theory, this is an exciting invitation to read the text anew and find there a positive message about how ‘God makes it possible for humans beings to do justice’. Suddenly we have a very positive and very practical message from Paul that gets to the heart of discipleship and away from technical soteriological debates.

Given what I have described so far, it is not surprising that Romans 13 and the issue of relationships with the state are covered in detail. The authors find it incomprehensible (and I find myself in total sympathy) that, given everything Paul has said in chapters 1 through 12, we could interpret chapter 13 as recommending a submissive and blind obedience to the state. We really have paid lip service to reading texts in context! As the authors point out, if one verse contradicts the previous one then perhaps something other than a literalistic reading is required. Given how commonplace it is in our daily lives, surely Paul’s use of irony and subversive language should not surprise us.

I mentioned at the start the current ‘Israel Folau’ issue here in Australia. Because homosexuality and gender diversity has become such a flashpoint for the modern church, Keesmaat and Walsh return to it and cover the key texts from both within Romans and elsewhere in some detail. This discussion does move outside the exclusive province of the epistle to the Romans but clearly the authors consider it a key question of 21st century discipleship and Christian community. They include a discussion (first published by Keesmaat in 2004) of how the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) could be a model of how to resolve thorny issues today.

Finally, the authors cover the issue that most of us would have previously said was what Romans is all about – salvation. Given all that has gone before, what does Paul mean by ‘saved’ in Romans 10:9? Certainly not a one way ticket to a disembodied heaven. Again, the context of second temple Judaism and the marginalised communities in Rome provide us an alternative that makes sense of both the epistle and our modern day discipleship.

I thoroughly recommend this book. It brings the text alive and makes me hungry to read the Bible again. It makes the Bible relevant to my everyday life and to the challenges I feel in the wake of our recent election in which issues such as climate change, economic inequality, refugees and religious freedom were front and centre. It is a book for those who want the Bible to challenge and inform their day-to-day discipleship and to help them find a faith that is meaningful in today’s world. It is a gift to those frustrated with a faith that seems divorced from life and I want to thank Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh profusely.

Photos: Bust of Nero; Roman coin with inscription: ‘Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’, source: Wikipedia.

John McKinnon has a PhD in Development Studies and a Masters in Biblical Studies. After careers in finance and international development, he now works with a number of NGOs involved in climate change mitigation and economic fairness.


June 9, 2019, 10:09PM
> It has been used to validate oppressive regimes via the traditional interpretations of Romans 13.

I suppose Romans has been used in all sorts of ways - including blind obedience - but Romans 13 does not validate oppressive Regimes [or any Regime - since every human Regime tends towards tyranny at one point or another] - even while it recommends eyes-wide-open submission to governing authorities. Governing authorities have a real and legitimate role. That role is given by Jesus, and Jesus sets the boundaries of that role. When [any] government acts inside the parameters that Jesus sets for government, it is to be obeyed.

When [and only when] government steps *outside* of the role given to it by Jesus, is it to be disobeyed. But Christian disobedience of the state is *not* like worldly disobedience. Christian disobedience is Christoform [Cross-shaped]. Christian disobedience submits to whatever penalty the state wishes to impose - confident that a higher authority exists [Jesus] who will vindicate Christian disobedience when he returns - even as the Christian dies [just like Jesus died at the hands of an unjust state].

This attitude of open-eyed submission to state authority [even while disobeying it when it strays outside of those parameters set for government by God Jesus] is not confined to Romans 13, but finds itself also in the letters of Peter [for example, 1 Peter 2:13-25]. The 1 Peter passage is helpful because it outlines what the government is *for*, and also how one ought to respond to unjust government, and why.

Submitting in this way to state power is not in any way to validate *any* regime - nevermind an oppressive one. It is, rather to express supreme confidence in the regime of Jesus who is utterly in control of all earthly regimes, and who has absolute authority and power over them [regardless of how it might seem in this temporary present], confident that Jesus is the [only] one who judges justly, and who *will* judge justly when he returns to judge the living and the dead.

As Peter summarises in 1 Peter 5:19: 'So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good'.

> The authors find it incomprehensible (and I find myself in total sympathy) that, given everything Paul has said in chapters 1 through 12, we could interpret chapter 13 as recommending a submissive and blind obedience to the state. We really have paid lip service to reading texts in context!

Romans 13 does NOT recommend *blind* obedience to the state. Rather, it is promoting open-eyed submission to to the laws of the state - even when we must *disobey* them - by accepting the penalty – and thereby express supreme confidence that Jesus has already won the victory against all the forces of evil.

> Paul’s letter ‘needs to be disarmed’.

No, Paul's letter needs to be *understood*, and then it needs to be obeyed.
February 4, 2020, 6:39AM
David: the letter as a whole, and chapter 13 in particular, has been wielded as a weapon. We have witnessed deadly interpretations throughout church history. That's why the title is 'Romans Disarmed'.
Karoly Haasz
August 19, 2020, 6:20AM
David is correct that Romans 13 does not 'recommend' blind obedience. But neither the review nor the book actually say that it does. It is important to address what people actually say. Both the book and this review say that the text has been "interpreted incorrectly. It is a text that, popularly and even academically, has been understood to mean that our obedience to the state should be unquestioning. So, for example, Romans 13 has used to justify obedience even to rulers such as Hitler and has been used to relativize the teaching of Jesus on love of enemies.

The issue is not simply what the text says, but how the text can be misheard, misread or misunderstood, either accidentally or deliberately.

To further illustrate the point, I and many others of my generation can point to another, perhaps slightly more trivial, example: The Ten Commandments enjoins children to honour their parents. There is nothing wrong with that, but "honour" has often been understood as meaning that parents may expect and may enforce unquestioning obedience from their children - sometimes even from their adult offspring. Such an understanding ignores or is completely unaware of the teaching that parents not exasperate their children. [I am aware that Paul spoke to fathers, but in our context both parents share authority and both, obviously, can exasperate their children!]
Clearly, the whole biblical witness intends mutual love and respect within families; but this is not how people have actually behaved.

Whatever your views on Romans, or any other biblical text, it is only honest to recognise that the Bible has been misused in ways which are abusive of people and of the text itself. To accept that people sometimes do misrepresent and misuse the Bible is a long way from saying that Scripture is abusive or that its authors would condone such abuse. I understand the book's purpose is to help readers get behind such mis-readings to what they perceive to be the original intent of the text (which is the aim of any serious commentary) and to enable them to apply it to issues today (which too many commentaries fail to do).

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