Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Paul's Hidden Transcript in Rom 13:1-7

Thanks to Richard Fellows for mentioning Thom Stark's impressive analysis of Rom 13:1-7. The essay can be read in small blog installments here or in pdf format here. Readers may recall own blogpost about Jesus and taxes, in which I followed William Herzog's approach to hidden transcripts, based on the foundational work of James Scott. "Render to Caesar" was a veiled way of saying that taxes were unlawful but should be paid with contempt since God would be destroying Rome in due time.

Herzog has applied this approach to Paul as well in "Dissembling, A Weapon of the Weak: The Case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7," Journal of the NABPR 21: 339-360, arguing that while the apostle advises loyalty, it's to an empire that doesn't exist, and so in effect has conceded nothing to Rome. Stark summarizes Herzog:
"Herzog argues that Paul is merely counseling the vulnerable Christian community to display the routine 'public deference that the oppressed show their masters'. Herzog refers us back to Scott, who observed that 'the linguistic deference and gestures of subordination' are not merely 'abstracted by power' but 'serve also as a barrier and a veil that the dominant find difficult or impossible to penetrate'. In many cases subordinated groups rehearse their acts of conformity offstage, and the skills requisite for theatrical duplicity are instilled in the young by instruction and example. This is why 'conformity is too lame a word for the active manipulation of rituals of subordination,' manipulation which transforms the rituals of subordination into security measures that sequester an emancipated space for the dominated to inhabit. Thus, it is not mere conformity, but 'an art form in which one can take some pride at having successfully misrepresented oneself'.

"Certainly one of the things the Jews of the diaspora shared was a long tradition of living under domination. As such, they had grown especially adept in the conforming arts, and Paul, Herzog contends, was no exception. Handing down his expertise, 'Paul advises the Romans to practice the arts of resistance but in ways that will not threaten the community lodged near the heart of the Roman system of domination. He has managed to sound obedient and loyal,' but the loyalty Paul offers is to 'an empire that does not exist.' Thus Paul has conceded nothing to 'the actual empire, and his apparent advice about loyalty is coded language for how to survive in an authoritarian environment'."
Neil Elliott too believes that Paul's was a survival strategy. Comparing the apostle's advice about "subjection" to Philo's calculated remarks in On Dreams, he notes the ambivalency of Rom 13:1-7, and that it's Paul's fear of the Roman Empire which comes across most loudly, especially considering how "out of step Paul's warning would have sounded to ears accustomed to the exultant themes of Roman eschatology". And T. L. Carter has noted how Rom 13:1-7 is laced with irony and "counterfeit praise".

Finally, Monya Stubbs reminds us that we can't consider Rom 13 apart from the unambiguously counter-cultural message of what precedes in Rom 12. Believers shouldn't conform to the world (Rom 12:2) but instead follow Christ's other-worldly code of behavior: suffering patiently, blessing persecutors, associating with the lowly, feeding enemies for vengeance's sake, etc. Stubbs goes further than Herzog, Elliott, and Carter, however, claiming that Paul advises public resistance in Rom 13 as much as in Rom 12. "Herein lies Paul's resistance language, where the hidden transcript [Rom 13:1-7] imposes itself upon the public transcript [Rom 13:8-10]". Paul counsels the Roman Christians to "owe no one any debt, except the debt to love."

Stark follows the lead of all four -- Herzog, Elliott, Carter, and Stubbs -- but like Stubbs concludes too strongly: Paul was "calling for strategic, grassroots political activism". I think this is wrong. The hidden transcript of Rom 13:1-7 (like Mk 12:13-17) has to do with leaving Caesar to God's wrath on the day of the apocalypse, which was "nearer than ever before" (Rom 13:11-12). Paul, like Jesus, thought Caesar's rule was illegitimate, but also knew that opposing him politically was impossible. With God all things were possible -- and God was on the way. So while believers shouldn't conform to the world for the most part (Rom 12:2), they also shouldn't jeopardize themselves with political resistance. Temporary resignation to the beast is the message of Rom 13:1-7.

12 Comments:

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

@Stubbs: "Herein lies Paul's resistance language, where the hidden transcript [Rom 13:1-7] imposes itself upon the public transcript [Rom 13:8-10]".

Maybe I haven't had enough coffee this morning, but it's not making much sense to me how one could have a hidden transcript right next to a public transcript in the same document.

5/21/2008  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

Stephen, it's not the hidden transcript itself in the document. It's an allusion to the hidden transcript, with cues that would have been picked up by the dominated but not by the ruling classes.

Scott calls this point, the point where the public and hidden transcripts collide into one performance, the "politics of disguise and anonymity."

If you're really interested, read my short post outlining Scott's categories, here. It should explain it better for you.

Loren, thanks for the engagement with the blog!

5/21/2008  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

Loren, I think you've misunderstood both Stubbs and me, and that may well be my fault for my representation of her. When Stubbs talks about Paul encouraging "resistance," and I talk about "grassroots political activism," neither of us are talking about open defiance of imperial authority. For Stubbs, there is more than one kind of resistance, and the resistance Paul encourages is a resistance of agape. It is not a violent resistance; it's not even an "opposition." It's a resistance to ideology, which involves the transformation of rituals of subordination into rituals of emancipation by putting the initiative in the Christian community's hands, to love the other.

What I called "grassroots political activism" needs to be understood ecclesiologically. I mean to say that the ecclesiai are counter-imperial political bodies in their own right, implicitly challenging the Roman social stratifications through the charismatic maintenance of radical egalitarian polities.

I am arguing that Paul saw what he was doing to be counter-imperial, but took up the public transcript in his explicit talk of authorities in order to disguise that fact.

For the question of the imminent parousia, see my treatment, Apocalyptic Expectation, and especially see my treatment of Esler in the last three paragraphs, where with Esler I try to show that the apocalyptic logic of temporary subordination can be extended across time in hope. I quote here from the last paragraph of that section:

...the Roman Christians in Paul’s day are empowered to subordinate themselves voluntarily to an unjust domination system, combating it from within through love (13:8-10) rather than from without through violence (12:14-21), because of their belief that they would one day share with future generations the justice and shalom of a newly created cosmos. There is therefore no inherent disconnect, as J. Christiaan Beker rightly argues, between apocalyptic expectation and political activism (1980: 178-79). “One would expect that the church as the blueprint and beachhead of the kingdom of God would strain itself in all its activities to prepare the world for its coming destiny in the kingdom of God” (326). In this light, it may be helpful to think of vv. 8-10 as the centerpiece of chapter 13, making intelligible the prima facie incongruity between vv. 1-7 and vv. 11-14.

5/21/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for clarifying, Thom. I see what you're getting at, but I still disagree. I don't think "love of one's enemy" should be described as a "resistance to ideology". Almost any theology resists another ideology when you get down to it, and it's important not to trivialize the idea of resistance.

Nor do I think "the ecclesiai were counter-imperial political bodies in their own right, implicitly challenging the Roman social stratifications through the charismatic maintenance of radical egalitarian polities", as you suggest. The idea of putting into practice egalitarianism (much as I love the idea) would have been a farce, and while you and Esler are right that apocalypticism needn't be at odds with being political, I don't think Paul's churches were political in the way you're portraying.

I do acknowledge, apropos Scott, that the arts of conformity and theatrical duplicity (used by Paul in Rom 13:1-7) are resistance measures -- in the same way that foot dragging, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, and sabotage are resistance measures -- because they are manipulative tools which can yield concrete results. (See my analysis of The Dishonest Steward for an example.) Paul resisted dominion in that limited way (so I can meet you halfway here), well knowing that only God could come and make things right. In some cases "weapons of the weak" helped Christians get by in the meantime, but we shouldn't imagine they were carrying out a theological resistance program associated with what we normally think of by the term "grass roots political activism".

5/21/2008  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

Loren,

When I used the language of "radical egalitarianism" just now I did not intend any of the anachronisms John Elliott rightly exposes in the essay you cited. (Elliott does however oversimplify several issues and he glosses over key texts simply because they are not egalitarian in the contemporary sense.) I was using egalitarianism as shorthand for the reversal of social stratifications that in the ecclesiai represented a functional, if not formal, levelling of the playing fields. This really ought not to turn into a debate about the question of egalitarianism (I could cite several authors who argue less anachronistically for egalitarianism in ways that transcend John Elliott's critique without too much ado).

Regarding the Pauline churches as counter-imperial political formations, there are several explorations on this subject in the four Horsley volumes (cited in a footnote on Hidden Transcripts: Intro. See also Neil Elliott, 2007, in my bibliography, among others.

Regarding the term resistance, I think we're down to semantics on this one. There are several Greek words that are translated as "resist" in English, with various shades of meaning. Stubbs sees Romans 13:8-10 as the motivation for resistance to conformity to the Roman order mandated in Romans 12:1-2. I see no reason whatever why we must restrict our use of the term resistance to violent, or aggressive, resistance. The challenge of sustaining polities driven by agape in the midst of a timocratic empire would have required continual, very difficult resistance. I do not think it trivializes the "idea of resistance" to remember this; it simply reminds us that there is more than one "idea of resistance," and that some are better and/or more useful than others in different kinds of situations.

5/21/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thom wrote:

When I used the language of "radical egalitarianism" just now I did not intend any of the anachronisms John Elliott rightly exposes in the essay you cited...I was using egalitarianism as shorthand for the reversal of social stratifications that in the ecclesiai represented a functional, if not formal, levelling of the playing fields.

I know you don't care to get sidetracked in a discussion about egalitarianism, but I'm going to comment more anyway. It's best to drop the idea, because it's either misleading or wrong (depending on which scholars you listen to). For what you're getting at, I would substitute the word "apocalyptic", because that's what statements like I Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:28 are about. Those who have put on Christ are those who will share Christ's destiny in the kingdom of God. In the future these distinctions will have no meaning, and while the future can be anticipated to an extent in the present -- and this could certainly be misconstrued by outsiders -- Paul wasn't advocating political activism or a change in the social order.

In fact by the time of Romans (the letter under discussion) Paul was giving up on the idea of eliminating distinctions in Christ. This is the sort of thing that happens in movements where the kingdom keeps getting delayed. The apocalyptic formula of Gal 3:27-28 was too ridiculous to be sustained for long in the ancient Mediterranean. In Paul's world different ethnic groups, genders, and social classes could get along only by preserving their identities, and as Esler has seen, any perceived attempt to eliminate those distinctions encouraged groups to re-assert their identities in aggressive ways. That's why in Romans there is Jew and Greek in Christ, after all; that's why Rom 6:1-7:6 is a winning formula rather than Gal 3:27-28; that's why Paul now insists that his own people are (in many ways) superior to the Gentiles.

I see no reason whatever why we must restrict our use of the term resistance to violent, or aggressive, resistance.

Nor do I, as acknowledged in my last comment. As Scott has shown, there are everyday forms of peasant resistance (foot dragging, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, gossip, theatrical duplicity, pseudo-conformity, etc). But there's a difference between these everyday forms of resistance found across agrarian cultures (which we see figures like Jesus and Paul using on occasion) and the kind of programmatic theological resistance (based on agape) you and Stubbs are advocating.

Stubbs sees Romans 13:8-10 as the motivation for resistance to conformity to the Roman order mandated in Romans 12:1-2... I do not think it trivializes the "idea of resistance" to remember this; it simply reminds us that there is more than one "idea of resistance," and that some are better and/or more useful than others in different kinds of situations.

I draw the line at making the term so elastic -- to the extent that "love of one's enemy" can qualify as a resistance theology -- that it loses meaning. I don't agree with Stubbs that Rom 13:8-10 is a punchline to 13:1-7 (it doesn't bring the hidden transcript of vv 1-7 to the surface as she thinks), nor with her/your claim that Paul was undermining Caesar's claim to propietary rights (or "levelling the playing fields") with injunctions to love. He resisted Caesar only by paying him false lip-service in passing -- and only in the single passage of Rom 13:1-7. He didn't waste time expending theological energy against the emperor, whose divine pretensions were among many evils that God would take care of himself. John Barclay has criticized Tom Wright on this point, and I may blog more on this soon.

5/22/2008  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

'Believers shouldn't conform to the world (Rom 12:2) but instead follow Christ's other-worldly code of behavior: suffering patiently, blessing persecutors, associating with the lowly, feeding enemies for vengeance's sake, etc'

I see.

So the mere fact that Romans 12 does not mention Christ as doing any of that is pretty much irrelevant.

Why can't people read the text?

Can't they see the words on the page? Do they see other words where Paul writes about how Jesus did all of those things, in passages where the mere text says nothing of the sort?

5/25/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Stevie! I haven't seen you in ages. Where have you been hiding? I see that your inference skills are as abysmal as ever, but keep trying.

5/25/2008  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

So I can't see the words in Romans 12 where Paul says *Christ* had an 'other-worldly code of behavior: suffering patiently, blessing persecutors, associating with the lowly, feeding enemies for vengeance's sake, etc'

I paid good money for these new glasses!

And still I can't see those words in Romans 12 that others can clearly see.

Should I ask for my money back from the optician?

5/25/2008  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

'I see that your inference skills are as abysmal as ever, but keep trying.'

No arguments to refute me, so hit the insult button......

5/25/2008  
Anonymous Phil H. said...

More of this hidden garbage. Ugghh.

Well, at least we'll be able to say this or that writer said just about anything we want them to.

Phil H.

5/26/2008  
Blogger Colin Cody said...

It is probably fun to make up hidden messages in the writings of Paul; however, rather than get involved in such silliness, I will just state that I profoundly disagree with what Paul wrote in Rom. 13:1-7. He was clearly not always correct in his non-theological views. Check out his abominable hermeneutics for obvious proof.

Furthermore, it is impossible to imagine that the Obama administration is the will of God for America. God is not the author of the death of virtuous individuals nor the destruction of our great, God-given nation under the leadership of an illegal alien, a Marxist, Islamic, pathological narcissist man/child who supports the egregious murder of nearly fifty million innocent, unborn children and the viscous, vile homosexual agenda, not to mention leading the bankrupting of our nation far beyond eventual recovery. Agape does not compel me to honor or respect anyone who is evil, especially someone whose level of evil is so profound that it resembles that of some of the most wicked political leaders of history. Should the Germans have honored and respected Hitler? Should the Russians have honored and respected Stalin?

My duty as a real Christian and as an honorable man is to pray down the wrath of my just God on evildoers in and out of government, those who are subverting my nation and promoting its horrendous demise to be accompanied by the unimaginable suffering of its people. That is the way of genuine agape love, the tough love of God as opposed to the sloppy agape of man and his apostate, pseudo church.

If that does not happen, it will be because Christians have been led astray from their sacred, deadly serious duty to pray down the consuming fire of our holy God who hates all governmental and societal evil with a deep and abiding righteous hatred.

We should be constantly entreating God to deal with Washington D.C. as the Sodom of our time because that is precisely what it has become and that beyond repentance. They have sinned away their day of grace as had Sodom long ago.

If Thomas Jefferson could say in his day "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," how much more can we say the same today?

7/18/2010  

Post a Comment

<< Home