Romans Part 1 – Revisited

by Dave on July 23, 2010

in General, Theology

I was recently reading an interview of Bishop Tom Wright regarding the new perspectives on Paul and it brought to light an angle that I have not covered in my earlier post on the beginning of Romans.

One of the key elements to consider in the so called new perspective on Paul is that Paul was inherently anti-imperial.  That is, Paul was against the pursuits of the Roman Empire and actively tried to make it known that the imperial Roman Empire is against the ways of god.  As I have studied this topic I have concluded a couple things.  First, it sure looks like Paul and the teachings of Jesus are against the idea of the Imperial Empire.  Second, the Imperial Empire of Rome looks an awful lot like the Empire of the United States in the current world order.  But this post is really about the first point.

Let’s look back at the  beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  When you read this, it may pay to keep in mind that Paul is writing this letter to the Romans.  That is, he is writing this letter to the people who are day in and day out benefiting from and succumbing to the rhetoric and influence of the Roman Empire.  The text:

1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4and who through the Spirit[a] of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God[b] by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

 7To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
      Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. NIV

This looks like pretty common language that we would hear of us all declaring that Jesus is Lord, right?  The key I was reminded of in Tom Wright’s interview is that much of the language that is used here in the opening to the letter to the Roman’s is a rehash of the language that was used to refer to Caesar.  It was common place to say your allegiance to Caesar.  The roman world would also say that Caesar was a god, and he was a god here on earth and he was the most powerful god as evidenced by his great power and wealth.  If you were to follow Caesar and be obedient to him then you too will get to share in the wealth and security of the roman empire!  Caesar is Lord!

Paul, in his opening to his letter to the Romans turns that on its head and instead declares that this forgiving and wise carpenter turned teacher that was crucified by Caesar is Lord, not Caesar.  Paul does not add that last not Caesar to his language but that was understood by his audience who were immersed in the language of Caesar being lord and god and you need to be obedient to his will and through that obedience you will secure salvation for you and your family in this new world order, the Pax Romana.  Sounds a lot like what Paul is saying about Jesus, right?

That is part of the scandal that was the letter of Paul to the Romans.  We read the opening today and miss all the nuanced association that Paul is making between the Kingdom of God and Jesus being Lord and the Roman Empire, with Caesar as lord.  Remember, Caesar is a son of the gods and he himself a god living here on this earth.  He is bringing peace and salvation.

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the good old USA?  We are extending our borders out to distant land, we will bring peace to the world through our power.  We will give our people peace here in our homeland and security.  But who pays the price for this?  Who is not secure?

Are you called to be son’s of the American Empire, or the Empire of the Lord?  Which lord?  I invite you to take the time to re-read the beginning of the letter to the Romans and see why a servent of Caesar may look at what Paul is saying differently than you or I today.

One last quote, from the Bishop Wright:

After all, in a democracy ‘Caesar’ is ‘all of us’, and though we have Presidents and Prime Ministers the critique of ‘empire’ is more complicated now than it was in the first century.

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