[The following is an interview I conducted over a number of weeks with Neil Elliott. Neil is one of the New Testament scholars who most influenced my own trajectory (both within and then away from the Academy) and so it was a real delight for me to be able to have this exchange with him. It was refreshing to find a Pauline scholar who does not idolize or obsess about Paul and who hasn’t simply built a life around saying new or clever things about this or that passage or book or verb or theme. Neil’s concern, I believe, is not to study Paul for the sake of Paul or for the sake of study itself, but to engage Paul as one (amongst many) of the ways in which we can try to disarm the Death-dealers and contribute to that which is Life-giving and Life-affirming. I have a great deal of respect for this approach. Indeed, one could argue that this is one possible way of responding well to Malcolm X’s injunction (which is echoed by Taiaiake Alfred) that well-meaning white folks leave black (and Indigenous) communities alone — there is more than enough wisdom, strength and power within black and indigenous communities for them to care for themselves — and go and deal with the violence and of white people and white supremacy.
Many thanks, Neil, for your willingness to do this and for engaging in such a open manner. I hope what follows will be a source of encouragement to some of those who are haunted by Paul and Malcolm and Toussaint and Martin and Oscar and Dessalines, and who strive to, in turn, inhabit the nightmares of Nero and Obama and Harper and Boeing and Shell and Transcanada.]
(1) The 1994 publication of Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle seemed to be a definitive moment for (what I will refer to as) counter-imperial readings of Paul.
From this point on, it would be impossible to completely disregard the matter of “Paul and politics” or “Paul and Empire.” There were precursors – Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s equally definitive In Memory of Her was published six years earlier as was Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, others like Peter Richardson and Allen Callahan had gestured in this direction with their material regarding Paul and “freedom,” folks like E. A. Judge, Gerd Theissen, Martin Hengel, and Wayne Meeks were picking up on the trajectory of Ernst Troeltsch and paying closer attention to socioeconomic matters, Walter Wink was into his Powers trilogy, Richard Horsley had begun his rise to fame, Klaus Wengst, Luise Schottroff, and Dieter Georgi were picking up on similar themes but were, perhaps, closer to the trajectory established by Adolf Deissmann and Karl Kautsky than that established by Troeltsch, and, of course, there was the literature that had poured out from oppressed peoples and liberation theologians in Latin America over the previous twenty years. However, Liberating Paul brought together many of these voices (and a host of others) and became a landmark text.
That was twenty-one years ago. Looking back now, can you reflect upon your experience writing that text, the hopes you had for it, how you feel about it now, and what you think of the impact it did or did not have?
I’m glad you identify so many of the people on whose work I depended. It was important for me not to be idiosyncratic in Liberating Paul: I wanted to rely on the best insights in Paul scholarship, whether or not they were universally accepted. —And even if they hadn’t been developed: some previous scholars had written in a sort of “what-if?” mode, and I really meant to press their questions further. If I could take all those what-ifs that made sense of the evidence, and put them together, what picture would we get?
I realized I wasn’t writing the way academics are “supposed” to write. I was hearing Paul quoted everywhere, all the time, to mobilize a nation to warfare, to “end welfare as we know it,” to justify all sorts of hatred, etc. I saw that all of that could happen because there’s a hard right-wing understanding of Paul’s social teaching, and then a sort of soft, studious, noncommittal scholarship in the middle, always hedging its bets and avoiding the hot topics. I wanted to push as far as the evidence would allow for an alternative picture of Paul, partly just to open up the discussion.
My previous writing had been in a graduate program where that was my primary work. But I had to write Liberating Paul in spare moments, over years—notes scribbled between classes, staying up late in the unfinished basement where I had my desk. I had a Byzantine icon of St. Paul over my computer just to have a sort of focus point, and that made for a very strange experience. I didn’t want to be just “exegeting” texts, spraying out more words on the computer screen about justification, Christology, all the usual topics, giving very well-trod answers a little personal polish. There’s so much repetition in the secondary literature, and so much squabbling over fine exegetical points, that turns off readers who actually care about the world around them. I didn’t want to be offering a lot of my own wishful thinking, either; this had to make sense in light of the evidence, or I couldn’t write it. But I knew some of my conclusions were different from just about anything else out there. So I often found myself wondering, could this really have been true of Paul, and could I be the first person, at least in a long time, to see it? But those moments didn’t last long. I gave up early on the idea that I was going to disclose the “real Paul.” I’d been to too many SBL sessions where everyone in the argument knows that their Paul is the Paul. I settled for setting out some hypotheses, as vividly as I could, to stimulate discussion and, frankly, to lift up people who’d been hurt or stymied by a conservative effigy of Paul.
As to the book’s effects: The chair of my department dismissed it in a contract review as “not real scholarship” and offered his own opinion that I was really just psychologically working through my Fundamentalist upbringing. I was astonished. I mean, my background wasn’t really Fundamentalist; I’d left it behind long ago; and although I’d taken a personal tone in the book to engage the reader, I wasn’t terribly autobiographical. If anyone personified the conservativism I was writing against, it was someone like this senior colleague; here was someone who told me not to discuss just-war theory in the introduction to theology class (this was the fall of 1990) because “the case against Saddam [Hussein] is so clear.” Really? Don’t even bring it up? It was an eye-opening experience. I’d thought hey, now that I’ve completed my Ph.D. and have a teaching assignment, surely we’re all going to act like mature academics now, but again and again the battle lines fell along political alignments.
The first peer reviewers of the book were intrigued, but finally concluded that I’d missed the real point of Paul, which was all about salvation. I felt they rather missed the point. I wasn’t trying to sum up all of Paul’s thought. I was trying to engage readers in the American political context, where, frankly, worries about salvation are not high on the list—we poll as the nation most confident that we’re all going to heaven, everything our military does is sacred, and so on—so another book on Paul’s Greek vocabulary for “salvation” seems to me remarkably tone-deaf.
(2) Since the publication of Liberating Paul, counter-imperial readings of Paul (and the New Testament more generally) have certainly flourished – Ted Jennings, Brigitte Kahl, Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, Davina Lopez, Robert Jewett, Wes Howard-Brook, and Ward Blanton, are just a few of those who have published some of the more thoughtful and explicit counter-imperial material, but the influence has been broadly felt and shows up positively in many other places (Michael Gorman and Calvin Roetzel come to mind), somewhat ambiguously in still other places (in my reading, N. T. Wright initially appears much more counter-imperial than he is, and James D. G. Dunn has somewhat softened and become more open to counter-imperial theses over the years) and shows up only in order to ensure that the reader ignores it or discards it in yet other places (Seyoon Kim seems like a definitive example of this).
All told, the counter-imperial reading of Paul has carved out an established niche within the Academy. Any disagreement is good for the publication of books or journal articles and the presentation of conference papers, all of which are great for working one’s way to a Chair at an academic institution, along with tenure, and a retirement package to kill for! It seems to me that much of the explosive potential of this trajectory has been defused or co-opted by the Academy. Much like liberation theology is taught to theology students as an interesting but flawed and now passé historical moment, counter-imperial readings of Paul seem to exist as a curiosity – go for it, if that’s your thing, you can probably make a career out of it, but if it’s not your thing don’t worry about it too much. “Yes, yes,” the Pauline scholar might say, “political matters are important. No doubt about it. It’s always good to have a fuller picture of the context and of the background for Paul’s writings. But what is really important is Paul and the Law/apocalypticism/Judaism(s)/orthodoxy/Old and New Perspectives and Beyond/etc.” (Which is part of the reason why I really appreciate Warren Carter’s emphasis that empire is the foreground of the texts!) However, even the scholars who do focus upon counter-imperial readings are all too often rooted in positions of (relatively high) wealth, privilege, and status and seem far removed from the people whom Paul loved and journeyed alongside of day-to-day. This has come to be despite your argument in Liberating Paul that “the ultimate horizon of any effort to liberate Paul from his metaphorical chains must be the liberation of men and women who suffer very real oppression and violence in our own day” , and despite your argument that it is those who are oppressed today who are best situated to understand Paul ).
Here, one wonders if your comments elsewhere about the rise of postcolonial theory, wherein (some argue), “analytical tools and perspectives developed in genuinely revolutionary movements have been ‘parked’ at a safe distance from political conflict” also apply to counter-imperial scholarship regarding Paul [quote is from “The Philosophers’ Paul and the Churches,” 231].
It’s been really interesting to watch the field of “empire-critical” work develop (and even get its own “brand”). And to find myself branded with it. That’s an interesting phenomenon: New Testament studies seems to me a very delicate field, which can only be made to appear somewhat stable by making sure any dramatic questions from “outside” are quickly labeled and marginalized. “That’s so twentieth-century.” “That’s a liberal ‘political’ agenda.”
You’re quite right that it appears easier for some critics to look at the earlier empire-critical work, find some faults, and declare the question settled, without taking account of some more significant, more sophisticated recent work by a lot of people. But advocates don’t always help. I’ve seen enthusiasts use “empire” to mean just anything—one very prominent biblical scholar usually pairs it with “consumerism,” which I don’t think is particularly helpful. It gets linked with “postcolonialism” (and I confess, I’ve done some of the linking). but if everyone knows that postcolonialism means Homi Bhabha and “hybridity,” then everything just gets washed in this gray ambiguous soup of hybridity (which doesn’t really do justice either to Bhabha or to Paul). For people like Edward Said, taking empire seriously meant taking ideology seriously, with regard to the interpreter as well as the object of study. The most incisive critiques of postcolonial enthusiasm—by people like Aijaz Ahmad or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—are quite nuanced, far more nuanced than the enthusiasts. That remains a growing edge for the NT field.
Among my many necessary recantations (which seem to accumulate as one grows older) should perhaps be the point you quote above, that those most oppressed are best equipped to understand Paul. That can be the case only when there’s clear consciousness-raising and analysis. Paul is so contested a figure now, so overlaid with competing thought- and ideological systems, that his voice is only heard through a lot of static; there is no “innocent,” unmediated reading. I might be wrong. But much of the celebration of “the oppressed” now tends to be a little simplistic, and so it retraces the major themes of late capitalism. Religion is a private affair, a matter of opinion, so getting a group of poor people into a circle to have them react to a Bible verse is as good as any other approach (or better). The first theologians of liberation didn’t do that. They required careful analysis of the social situation, and they understood that the work required some intellectual heavy lifting. Of course that happens among the oppressed, but romanticizing the poor as ideal interpreters—especially when systems of domination have often used religious code to transmit their values—is a mistake. In the U.S. in particular, we’re all encouraged by a long history to imagine that Bible interpretation is an immediate, spontaneous effect that doesn’t require much thoughtfulness at all.
Most important, though, I want to move (and I include myself here) beyond the assumption that academic work directly produces socially valuable results. Trying to get academics to agree on fine points of exegesis isn’t just an impossible task; it distracts us from the work we should be doing. It deflects energy away from social change. Studying the apostle Paul for his own sake is of limited interest. (That’s something I’ve learned from some very insightful Paul scholars.) I want to “use Paul to think with” about our world—primarily because other people are using Paul to think about our world in ways that I consider really dangerous. I want to deprive them of this particular weapon (among others). So, yes, the academic work can quickly become domesticating. Just to ask, “did Paul really mean that?” returns us to a studious preoccupation with Greek participles. That’s valuable, for its own effects, but what we really need is analysis of the ideological construction of the field.
Terry Eagleton talks about the limited place of the humanities in contemporary capitalist society (in Literary Theory). Everything said there can be applied to religious studies and theology in particular. Everything is fine and good if exegesis remains largely irrelevant, an inoffensive hobby for “the religious.” If you get out of those lines, you’re not really respecting the “religious” nature of the subject any more, you’re letting your politics control what you’re doing. That’s supposedly illegitimate. Notice that some of the people making hard cases against empire—Ched Myers, Wes Howard-Brook, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Mark van Steenwyk—aren’t in tenured academic positions; they’re based in intentional communities of activism and resistance. That’s important.
Indeed, even the establishment of “definitive texts” can be a part of this defusing process. To select and memorialize a certain text can be to assign it to the past. Speaking of definitive counter-imperial texts within a course can function in the same way as building memorials to folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. – when war-mongers build and commemorate monuments like that they publicly say, “what a great person, we will never see another one like that again.” Then, in a hidden transcript of their own, they whisper amongst themselves, “in part, we will never see another person like that again because we would kill or imprison him a lot sooner, and, in part, because we will control how people remember him, with memorials like this, so that they will never really know who he was and what he actually did or tried to do.” Similar things happen in biblical studies or theology classes when texts like Liberating Paul or Binding the Strong Man or A Theology of Liberation are memorialized, as though there is not a wealth of work that has continued after that. (Plus, it is easier to focus on older “definitive” texts because they are less informed than more recent scholarship and so seem easier to refute – compare, for example, your breadth of knowledge regarding the Roman Imperial cult in Liberating Paul and in your more recent book, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire).
You’re right: fixing Text A as “the definitive counter-imperial text” means it becomes the target of scrutiny, and if there’s any ambiguity in the text, then some interpreters will declare the whole anti-imperial effort bankrupt. “See, there was nothing to it. Now back to your work stations.”
I’m jumping in here because you raise an important point about the way memorialization marginalizes, domesticates, or erases. I’m preoccupied right now with Marxist historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work on power and the “silencing of the past.” (Similar themes emerge in Gerald Horne’s Counterrevolution of 1776, to which one of your earlier interviews pointed me: thanks!) History isn’t just “made by the winners”: it’s unmade, buried, obliterated by power dynamics, lost to us. That goes for Christian origins, too, as I’m trying to show in my current writing, Bodies of Christ: A Materialist Approach to the Theology of the NT. (This would be blatant self-promotion if I actually had completed the book; I’m working on it!) Consider, for example, that two of the most spectacular murders of our lifetimes—of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—are ceremonially memorialized even as the official records are sealed, redacted, largely unavailable. Talk about silencing the past. A majority of Americans don’t believe the official stories, but getting at the truth requires a lot of intrepid work and doubt of the official stories (James Douglass on JFK; William Pepper on MLK).
As to the difference between Liberating Paul and Arrogance of Nations (if I understand your last point): I think you’re saying the latter is somewhat more sophisticated than the former, and if that’s what you’re saying, thanks for the compliment. But the two books also have very different focuses. In Liberating Paul I was trying to free Paul from erroneous and injurious interpretations; despite my qualifications—and my efforts not to say anything that wasn’t plausible in historical terms—I think Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has me dead to rights in saying that this came across as “rehabilitation” and risked simply reinscribing the authority of Paul. In the later book, I’ve moved away from a sort of leftist hagiography of Paul. (I still think Paul was a remarkably revolutionary figure, but history left him as one of Slavoj Žižek’s lost revolutionary potentials.)
When I wrote Arrogance of Nations (at a desk in another unfinished basement), I’d seen years of debate over the validity of the “empire-critical” reading, which usually deteriorated to fairly simplistic arguments pro and con, and I wanted to put the discussion on a firmer and more sophisticated basis. I’m still committed to rhetorical criticism, which requires us to take seriously the potential political valence of vocabulary and rhetorical tropes. So should any adequate program of “Toposforschung” (William Wuellner) or “intertextuality” (Richard B. Hays). Understanding “discourse under power” involves a thoughtful transposition of James C. Scott’s methodology (“hidden and public transcripts”) to situations where we can actually triangulate different transcripts; fortunately, we have those for first-century Rome. (We can’t rely on hidden microphones in the ancient world the way we can understand hidden transcripts when they’re leaked today—think of Mitt Romney’s “47%.”) And I think Frederic Jameson’s discussion of ideological constraint makes a good deal of sense of the limitations of Paul’s “kyriarchal” thought; we simply can’t wrap ourselves in his vocabulary and imagine we’re done (especially if we aspire to live in a democratic society).
What do you make of these developments (I know you touch upon this in your “Paul and the Politics of Empire: Problems and Prospects” essay in Paul and Politics, edited by Richard Horsley, pp 17-39, but that essay dates back to 2000)? Are things as bleak as I present them to be, or perhaps all of this academic work is necessary in order to engage in some kind of life-giving reform within contemporary Christian and academic cultures (as you say in the Preface to Liberating Paul: “our struggle to liberate human beings from the power of Death requires ‘liberating Paul’ from his enthrallment to that power”[x])? Is this the kind of reformist project you think we still need to pursue?
Further, given that all of this is so academic and takes place in a language that is not spoken or understood by a good many people experiencing oppression, are you still comfortable with the vanguardism this presupposes (riffing on Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism, isn’t one of the lessons of the transition from Marxism to post-Marxism an “incredulity towards vanguards”)?
I’d like to think the academic work achieves some counter-ideological effect, but then I think of Lily Tomlin’s line: “I get more and more cynical about our government—but I can’t keep up.”
Here I’m going to rely on Eagleton again (see above). The ideological apparatuses (Althusser) are so finely tuned, so ubiquitous today, that the only possible “vanguardism” is that of people expounding lines useful to corporate rule. Think David Brooks or Thomas Friedman as the guiding intellectual lights of our time—and the vitriol sprayed at someone like Noam Chomsky whenever he dares to comment on the emperor’s attire.
Biblical scholars face a genuine and agonizing quandary precisely because we are instruments in a particular set of ideological apparatuses. We care about, we are skilled in teaching about, a field where most people already know what they know and don’t care about “scholars.” If we try to share our knowledge, we’re seen as elitist; if we try to “just talk like ordinary folks,” it’s hard to make any careful, sophisticated, or analytical points effectively. And we’re talking about religion, which we’re taught from childhood is a very simple, personal interior dialogue, immediately self-confirming. (Here I’ve found T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back wonderfully insightful.) So anything that isn’t immediately self-evident—anything complicated, anything suggesting that religion deals with uncertainties, counter-intuitive (and counter-ideological!) thinking—just can’t be right.
All that to say: I don’t think it really matters how we try to get particular information across; we should, like Lieutenant Uhuru, “open all hailing frequencies.” At the same time, the medium is, in a way, the message. If I adopt a soothing, calm tone, in a classroom or from a pulpit, as if there’s really nothing surprising here, then everyone knows immediately it’s “just religion.” The most important thing I can offer in some classroom moments is the example of someone who cares about wrestling with intractable conflicts from an unresolved past. Truth is complicated. Even if the people in the room just don’t care, they see that there are other people, and I insist there are a lot of people outside the room, who do.
Otherwise, I think in a capitalist society, people who pay attention professionally to religion will rarely have to worry about “vanguardism.”
Lastly, I’m also curious as to what you think Paul might think of all of this. Care to engage in a little creative thinking and take a shot at that? If Paul were to write a (very short) epistle to contemporary Pauline scholars (counter-imperial and otherwise), what do you imagine him saying?
I’m going to pass, but not because I’m shy, or don’t know what to say, or think it’s a bad question. Rather, I come back to the military metaphor, for better or worse. Paul fought his fight; our work isn’t to try to stand in his place in his battles, but to recognize what’s going on in our society and act responsibly. So many writers in this field come off as if they’re really trying to channel the apostle. A fellow graduate student at Princeton Seminary used to do that—she wouldn’t consult commentaries or monographs, she’d just pour a cup of tea and sit on her bed and pray until (and I’m not making this up) “Paul would appear and explain things.” I can’t do that, and it’s not because I don’t like tea.
—But I did write somewhere that we might all take a cue from Paul’s anguish in Romans 9. He wished he were cut off from Christ for the sake of his fellow Israelites. Can you imagine an academic guild—or a church, for that matter—ready to give up its salvation, precisely its Christian privilege, for the sake of others in need? That would make for a different sort of biblical scholarship.
(3) It seems to me that you have not been as heavily involved in Academia as others. Although you published various articles and chapters after Liberating Paul, you didn’t publish your next full book, The Arrogance of Nations, until 2008 (fourteen years later). Has this been due to your involvement in other activities? I understand that you have been fairly involved in Haiti over the years. Can you speak to that and how your involvement there relates to your understanding of Paul and his request that we imitate him?
How very politely you put that—“other activities”! Yes, both those books, and my current project, have taken much longer than I would have liked. Arrogance of Nations was in my mind as soon as I finished Liberating Paul, but it appeared fourteen years later. I wrote some other essays in that period and did a lot of reading and conversation without which Arrogance of Nations couldn’t have happened. But mostly, I was working.
There are scholars—I work at Fortress Press and interact with them on a daily basis—who have lined up their writing projects in a very clear timetable: this year for that book, two articles, and a lecture tour. I know they’re hard working people; I am, too, but not at work that makes my own writing easy to schedule.
This isn’t about me. The larger point to be made is about the production of theological knowledge. All sorts of statistics from the AAR, SBL, Auburn Center for research into theological education, the Chronicle of Higher Education, etc. show that there are Ph.D.s all over the place who are unemployed or underemployed, and even tenured profs are looking over their shoulders. The “precariat,” they’re called. It’s not just a “tight job market” as if that’s some naturally recurring cyclical thing. Henry Giroux isn’t alone in describing the “neoliberal assault on higher education.” (For a real scare, read the Pearson celebration of MOOCs—a celebration of the “creative destruction” of higher education. It’s here. The big publishers are not our friends.) And with groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy fueling attack campaigns on professors and faculties who even lean left, the pressure won’t let up soon.
Haiti deserves discussion, I think. Its history—the history of the people of Haiti—has certainly been a constant presence in my thinking, although I was pathetically unaware of the country until 1989. In that year, Vice President Dick Cheney was busy assuring Congress that all was well in Central America; all that unpleasantness that had killed more than a million innocents in so-called “counter-insurgency” wars was all behind us. And then I read a little news item in Sojourners about death squads targeting liberation-leaning priests and a 1988 massacre at the church at St. Jean-Bosco in Haiti. There was not yet a lively “Haiti solidarity” movement in the country—just an established network of activists, organizers, nonprofits, “interest groups”—but once Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared his candidacy for the 1990 election and the U.S. pulled out all the stops to thwart him, things got lively. The 1991 coup d’état was a classic example of terror, massacre, subterfuge, all with the U.S. pulling the strings and covering it up, so that most Americans just believed the lies from the Bush and Clinton administrations. I helped organize a local solidarity committee; we did some valuable work. It opened an opportunity for me to take part in a human-rights investigation in Haiti, and that led to work for the Lambi Fund, one of the best-conceived grassroots organizations I’ve ever seen.
—The point is that I find it really useful to think theologically in light of Haiti. That is, the ideological situation where I work is one in which Haiti’s breathtaking history—and current misery—are steadfastly misrepresented by almost every news source around. That’s where we live.
Haiti actually played an important part in my becoming a priest; but perhaps that’s a story for another time.
(4) One more question as we transition from a focus on the Academy to other things: Who are the people writing today you find most exciting and what books would you say have been very influential in your own development (this doesn’t have to be limited to Pauline scholarship, although I am interested in who excites you in that field right now as well)? Apart from books and scholars, what life events have most formed you and shaped you as you have developed in the way that you have [NB: I realize this is a rather personal question so feel free to ignore it or be as vague as you want to be in responding]?
If I try to name the exciting colleagues whose work I admire, I’m afraid of leaving someone out. Larry Welborn; Laura Nasrallah; Ward Blanton; Davina Lopez; Todd Penner . . . Just a few of the New Testament scholars who are lively intellectuals in touch with currents of philosophy and political theory as well. Some of the most important guiding lights for my work aren’t New Testament scholars; they’re people like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, John Nichols (and a slew of others at The Nation), Naomi Klein. Theologians like Mark Lewis Taylor and Ivan Petrella.
One of the most galvanizing events in my formation as a scholar was March 24, 1980. The next morning I walked into the seminary cafeteria for breakfast and was taken aback by the electric silence around the room: everyone was leaning over copies of The New York Times, which reported on the assassination, the previous day, of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. It became vividly clear to me (others, of course, already knew it) that liberation theology wasn’t just an interesting set of ideas outside the mainstream; it was a global project for justice that was utterly incompatible with the world order being imposed by the United States. The cynical, blatant mendacity of the Reagan administration just stunned me. I learned the term status confessionis that year.
At the other end of my graduate education, the Salvadoran Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered just after I’d finished my dissertation. It was a powerful reality: as Noam Chomsky observed, they were murdered because U.S. policy had declared the minds of liberation theologians to be “weapons” opposed to the welfare of the United States. Ignácio Ellacuría was a theologian. Jon Sobrino, the one survivor of the house, is a theologian. The work theologians do can matter greatly.
And I’m impressed by the people doing hard, day to day organizing work: locally, participants in the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Isaiah, the Black Lives Matter campaign.
(5) In Liberating Paul, when you talk about the violence of the cross, you get into Wink’s discussion of “the Powers” and restate his argument that “the Powers are good; the Powers are fallen; the Powers must be redeemed” . You then argue that Wink’s work from Colossians and Ephesians actually distorts Paul’s position on the Powers in 1 Corinthians which speaks of the destruction (not redemption) of the Powers and roots these Powers not in heaven but in human instruments . We have already discussed one of those Powers and Principalities (the Academy) but now I want to ask you how this relates to another contemporary death-dealing and -affirming Power: Christianity. Is Christianity something that was good, has fallen, and must be redeemed, or has the defeat of Christianity itself been revealed in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus? (In his much-discussed book, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Gil Anidjar thinks that there has never been a not-just-religion-but-also-economic-and-sociopolitical-system so awash in blood as Christianity.) In 1994, you explicitly wrote from a confessional context and mentioned your status as a member of a lay Order of Franciscans, and in “The Philosopher’s Paul and the Churches,” published in 2013, you mention that you are a priest in the Episcopal church (U.S.A.) – but there you also conclude by following Žižek and suggesting that perhaps Christianity must sacrifice itself in order to save what is good about it. So, given these things and your own love of Paul, where do you now stand in relation to “Christianity”?
Well, I’m no longer part of the Franciscan community (though I admire their ideals) but remain an Episcopal priest with no thought of abandoning those vows. But the question is phrased wrong, I think. Clifford Geertz showed us that religions are most like cultures, symbol systems like a language. Is the English language good or bad? Holy or wicked? It’s a language, and those who are fluent in it can show tremendous compassion or utter cruelty to others. So “Christianity” is not all one thing, not one “principality.” It’s a symbolic field that is (because of the power of those symbols) a site of ideological contestation, with the gravest of consequences at stake. I’m less concerned to “defend” Christianity, or to condemn it (as if “it” were one thing), than to promote understanding of Christian symbols and to see those symbols lived out in life-giving ways. (Or not; I’m quite content to make my home among the “worldly left.”) Given that the dominant expression of Christianity in our media is often a sort of mindless, mean-spirited ideology of self-righteousness and contempt for others, I think a healthy ability to analyze and criticize expressions of Christianity should be a civic duty.
(5B) I hope you don’t mind if I push back against this a little bit. Even things like languages are not neutral and can be good or bad depending on one’s context. For example you mention the English language. For decades, Indigenous children in these occupied territories (“Canada”) were taken away from their families, their communities, their cultures, their belief systems, their diets, and their languages. They were forced to speak English – first in Residential Schools and then in Foster Care – and were punished for speaking their own language. This was a part of a concerted effort to engage in what the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently referred to as “cultural genocide.” In this situation, wasn’t the English language itself “bad” (to select amongst the options mentioned above)? While I acknowledge that there is no such singular thing as “Christianity” (there have ever only been contested, competing, overlapping, and contradicting “Christianities”), and while I’m a fan of the kind of life-giving and life-affirming Christianity of which you speak, I still feel like this lets too much of the dominant practices and history of Christianities too much leeway or, perhaps alternately stated, it seems as though you sound a lot more like Wink here than yourself in Liberating Paul!
Well, I’m still not sure English is the problem in your example (and I notice that you raise the question––evoking my sympathy and my indignation––in English, not in a native language, which rather makes my point). English was used badly: if we could write, honestly, “the indigenous peoples were invited to learn English in a spirit of genuine mutuality,” it would be clearer that the language itself is not the problem.
[Insert from Dan: I disagree. I would assert that me speaking English and being situated where I am situated is problematical. And, although many Indigenous scholars and land defenders now write in English I don’t think there was any kind of invitation to “learn English in a a spirit of genuine mutuality” (wouldn’t that require us to spend just as much time learning the languages spoken on the land where we live — indeed, languages that have, as some Elders have told us, themselves risen up from these lands?). Hence, a part of the Indigenous resurgence has been the relearning of Indigenous languages, the creation of territorial maps where all places are marked with the names they were given in the language of that territory, and so forth.]
But to apply the analogy more directly: I could deploy the symbols of the Christian tradition to tell you that you are a hellbound wretch, lower than a worm, and that your God-given duty was to submit to my superiority. Or I could deploy Christian symbols to tell you that you are a beloved child of God and that we are together called to live out that blessing by renewing the creation around us. You’re absolutely right: much of Christian history has been deplorable, and in the U.S., the dominant form is a militant, hateful ignorantism (English lets me do that) with which I feel no commonality. That’s why I’m usually reluctant to identify myself as a Christian in public––I have no idea what others will think I mean. It’s usually easier to find common cause with people by naming the common cause––let’s say, sustaining life on the planet––rather than the religion.
(6) To the reader, it probably seems amiss to discuss Paul in this way without mentioning the passage much loved by death-dealers everywhere: Ro 13.1-7. Over the years, it seems as though you have been feeling your way towards an answer and haven’t always been certain that you are reading it well. I’m going to provide a brief overview here for the sake of others.
In Liberating Paul you establish the pattern of giving yourself and the reader a bit of an out by mentioning at the outset that some people think that this passage is an interpolation – meaning that, if they don’t find your argument convincing, the reader still has room to just reject the passage altogether [25, 27] – before addressing the passage in more detail at the end of the book [217-226]. There, you begin by mentioning how Ro 13 has been used to support everything from Nazism, to Apartheid, to U.S. Imperialism. However, you argue that this is a misreading of the text and all the material you wrote previously in the book helps to demonstrate that the “obvious” or “plain” reading of Ro 13 must be mistaken (in my own Paul book, I leave discussion of Ro 13 to the very end and I am indebted to you for this strategy!). You also argue that those who look for a particular historical circumstance to make the “obvious” reading palatable within a very limited context are unconvincing because they have not yet developed that argument fully enough. Their historical arguments suggest Paul is either urging people not to get caught up in a tax revolt and to avoid association with revolutionary movements breaking out in Judea. However, you argue that those who make this argument “have not connected these historical circumstances with an adequate view of what Paul is trying to do in the rest of the letter” . In trying to make this connection, you highlight just how vulnerable a local Judean population could be to violence in the context of a tax riot and so, in solidarity with the Judean members, Paul urges people to pay taxes in order to try and prevent the possibility of Judeans being targeted both in tax riots and in the official response to those riots. Hence, Paul is continuing his ethic of mutual solidarity within the assemblies of Jesus followers and of non-retaliation against enemies without (the rulers in this case, who are praised with what are “mere rhetorical commonplaces”). All of this seems to be a wise course of action given that God is expected to imminently disrupt the current power dynamics, overthrow the rulers, and vindicate the oppressed. Hence, this is not a timeless ethic regarding the ways in which all members of these assemblies should relate to State authorities but is a very specific injunction based upon what is happening at a specific time and place, to very specific people.
Ah, Romans 13, the passage that just . . . won’t . . . die. Long ago Ernst Bammel made the point that the passage really isn’t as important for a “politics of Paul” as everybody makes it. That is an outrage to common sense. It has—it is given—tremendous power far beyond its merits. That’s first.
What I offered in Liberating Paul was pretty much what Ernst Käsemann and the trio Friedrich-Pohlmann-Stuhlmacher had already given us in the 1970s: a clear understanding that Paul was reaching for stereotypical language (he wasn’t sketching a grand Christian Theology of the State), and for very situation-specific reasons. To use it to require submission to any nation’s assorted atrocities and crimes against humanity is just obscene.
I should add here that every time I throw myself into what I see as a breach in interpretation of this passage, one friend or another has said, in so many words, Gee, I usually like your work, but—is that all you can do with Romans 13? It shows me just how much unwarranted power those verses enjoy. It shouldn’t matter how clever an exegete is: we ought to know, just know, that torture, napalming villages, arming warlords to the teeth and then bombing them—the sorts of things usually sacralized by appeal to those seven verses—that those things are just wrong.
The Kairos documents gave particular attention to Romans 13. It seems that British and American interpreters are the last people on the planet to get the memo, perhaps because they live in societies that imagine they run the world and must therefore be benign, even righteous, facts to the contrary be damned.
Perhaps dissatisfied with what you may have felt was an overly hasty, or unconvincing dismissal of the praise of the rulers with “mere rhetorical commonplaces,” you return to this matter in your essay, “Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda” [published in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, edited by Richard Horsley, pp184-204]. Read in the context of Romans 12–13, you note what seems to be a “stark moral double standard: The pagan world is characterized as hostile and shameful except for the governing authorities” . So, regardless of the specific historical circumstances that prompt Paul to write this passage (and here you affirm and fill out the picture you provided earlier by arguing that the non-Judean Jesus followers at Rome were particularly susceptible to supersessionism in relation to the Judeans and you highlight how the Judeans were particularly vulnerable having only recently returned to Rome after being expelled by Claudius), why is the praise of the authorities so glowing? I’m not convinced you ever really answer this question but, instead, turn to another one: why are authorities who are said to be so good also posited as a source of fear? You argue that the answer to this is found in the Roman imperial propaganda which regularly paired fear with consent and persuasion with coercion (the good consented voluntarily to the “good” order of Roman rule, whereas the not-so-good required some fear to persuade them to act good). Paul picks up on this: “Given the realities of Roman rule, one may “do good” and hope for the best… but under the circumstances, open resistance cannot be contemplated so long as the authorities wield the sword” . Yet Paul’s focus on the sword itself is out of line with the imperial propaganda that accompanied the ascension of Nero. Augustus was said to have brought peace with the sword – Nero, according to Seneca and those who orchestrated his ascension, was said to bring in a true Golden Age because he came with his sword sheathed and peace was brought without war. Hence, Paul undercuts this imperial claim by speaking as he does in Ro 13. So submission is encouraged “for now” to safeguard the most vulnerable members in the group .
Again, I don’t think I’m being particular clever in noticing the tensions: those are evident to anyone reading the letter. They’re actually contradictions, which show people like Käsemann that Paul is not thinking in some cool, systematic way. (I’d go further now, as I did in Arrogance of Nations: he can’t get out of the ideologically constrained mindset that shapes his faith in the messiah.) So to the question “why is the praise of the authorities so glowing,” I’d answer (1) it actually pales next to Philo’s praise of Augustus, for example; (2) it’s reflexive, “canned,” as Käsemann already saw; and (3) that praise is undermined by references to “fear,” etc. So yes, I wanted to go further than my earlier writing, but it’s still fundamentally the same take on the passage.
I am personally rather proud of the connection with Nero’s “idle sword.” I haven’t seen that discussed anywhere else; I think it’s an important connection. I reaffirm it in Arrogance of Nations.
In 2004, you turn again to the topic of Ro 13.1-7, this time in light of James C. Scott’s work regarding “hidden transcripts” and the ways in which people who are oppressed find artful ways to resist those who dominate them [the essay is called “Strategies of Resistance and Hidden Transcripts in Pauline Communities,” and is published in Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul, edited by Richard Horsley, pp97-122]. Here, you emphasize that those who are oppressed often find ways to enact or express resistance that are invisible to overseers. While oppressed people may vocally express enthusiasm for the “public transcript” (what everyone is supposed to think or say about the current power dynamics), they may also express themselves differently in more hidden transcripts (as you mention, elite members may also do the same – a good contemporary example of this is the leaked 2012 video of Mitt Romney poor-bashing with a bunch of millionaires). Consequently, we must be careful about drawing conclusions about a person or a group’s allegiance based upon affirmations within public transcripts as much more may be going on below the surface. This leads you to revisit Paul’s rhetoric and his praise of the rulers in Ro 13.1-7, which you have not yet fully resolved. Modifying your earlier remarks, you note that Paul’s praise of the governing authorities is more muted than those of other Judeans under Roman rule. You also emphasize how Paul appears to contradict himself – he appears to expect the authorities to reward good and punish bad, while also telling those who are supposed to be good to fear the authorities for its use of the sword – and remind the reader that this contradicts the ideology the was spread regarding Nero and his sheathed sword. Consequently, you argue that “Paul’s phrases encouraging submission are remarkably ambivalent”  and constitute a “grumbling” which “stops short of subordination—to which it is a prudent alternative” .
Right. The discussion of “hidden transcripts” comes from James C. Scott, who (importantly!) was doing intense ethnographic fieldwork, not reading an obscure text from thousands of years ago. The only way to transfer that method to an ancient text is to try to build as much of a “thick description” as we can from contemporary sources and find out what the “public transcript” looked like; Philo, Josephus, and a variety of Roman voices show us that. Philo occasionally lets a (partially) hidden transcript slip through; Josephus always blocks them.
That methodology is important. Scott’s work isn’t permission to read any text against its obvious meaning and say, “hey, there must be a hidden transcript in here that means the opposite!” At the same time, Scott was taking the measure of “voice under domination,” which is a real thing; for conservatives to caricature and lampoon the method by pointing out that Paul didn’t have to worry about secret police in his meetings misses the nuance of Scott’s argument and, really, the point.
While we’re on the subject, I think it’s remarkable to compare the available options in 1970 or 1989—when I wrote my dissertation on Romans—with what people are taking for granted now. Science, every now and then, marches on.
You then develop this more fully in The Arrogance of Nations, published four years later. Once again, discussion of Ro 13.1-7 takes place at the very end of the book [pp152-56]. Here, you highlight three possible readings of the passage that make sense of it in light of what Paul has written in the rest of the epistle. First, you repeat the argument that Paul was concerned to protect the Judean members of the Roman assemblies and so encouraged the non-Judeans to not engage in civil disturbances. Second, you mention Jewett’s argument that Paul is engaging in a “subtle, but nonetheless recognizable critique of Roman rule” . According to Jewett, this takes place when Paul reminds all people to be subject to authorities. This would then require all folks to see themselves as subjected to these authorities, rather than willingly complying with them. However, as you suggest, perhaps this critique is too subtle. Third, you mention T. L. Carter’s proposal that Paul speaks in language that is deliberately “slavishly deferential” in order to have his remarks recognized as “ironic” . However, the presence of the criticisms of the Neronian ideology you have already mentioned, problematize Carter’s effort to read the whole passage as ironic. This then leads you to reaffirm the position you developed in light of Scott’s work: “It is impossible to read a single coherent posture in Rom 13:1-7. The text is an instance neither of straightforward endorsement of Roman power nor of an ironic subversion of imperial claims. Rather… we are in touch here with the constraining force of ideology, with ‘voice under domination’” .
This takes us up to 2008 – seven years ago, already! I am wondering if your thinking on this passage has developed any further or if you are happy where you left things. Has there been anything published on the topic since then that you find particularly exciting or compelling? Do you think more work is to be done there or do you hope to never hear that passage mentioned again?
I’m borrowing the idea of Paul’s immersion in a kyriarchal ideology from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, obviously, but showing how it limits his view: he can’t see alternatives, he can’t resolve the tension that’s grabbed him. I think that may be one of the book’s most important arguments: that it just doesn’t work to read Paul as some absolutely sovereign mind, floating free of the constraints of his time, even though that’s the way he’s almost always read. We have the feminists to thank for exploding that practice, though it continues at strength today.
No, I’m not completely satisfied with where I left the question, but as I read other people giving even less satisfactory answers, I’m happy to declare myself a “militant agnostic” on texts like Romans 13: “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”
(7) In “The Apostle’s Self-Presentation as Anti-Imperial Performance” [published in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, edited by Richard Horsley, pp67-88], you argue that “Paul understands his parousia to actualize an invasive power that is at odds—indeed, at war!—with the imperial power of “the rulers of this age”” . Later, in The Arrogance of Nations, you follow the lead of Jacob Taubes in seeing the epistle to the Romans as a “political declaration of war on the Caesar” . Taking your words seriously, and keeping in mind that Jesus did not return nearly so imminently as you suggest Paul expected, and keeping in mind that the early Jesus followers were a tiny group of oppressed people gathering together illegally and hoping to avoid being slaughtered or scattered, I would like to turn to more contemporary political issues. You praise the power of nonviolence throughout Liberating Paul but I wonder how much history affirms this trenchant commitment to nonviolence (although, given your own rootedness within Christianity in the USofA, I think I understand your desire to reject violence tout court).
Looking at history problematizes things a fair bit. Didn’t Dessalines accomplish as much in a day as L’Ouverture was able to accomplish in his life time (when Dessalines massacred a number of whites thereby preventing the return of slavery and ensuring Haitian independence)? Haiti would never have been free without violence. Similarly, didn’t Yurovsky do more in a few minutes than hundreds of Russian revolutionaries and liberal reformists were able to accomplish when he oversaw the execution of the family of the Tsar and ensured Tsarism would never return to Russia? Likewise, the Polish and Hungarian Jews who revolted at Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7, 1944, and destroyed crematorium #4, thereby permanently slowing down the ability of the camp to produce death – didn’t they accomplish with violence what nonviolence would never have been able to accomplish? Even Martin Luther King, Jr. depended upon violence, or the threat thereof, in order to go about his business (cf. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed by Charles Cobb Jr.). The civil rights movement would not have survived if it were not for a long and ongoing history of black armed resistance (cf. We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja). Furthermore, a good many liberation theologians also joined the violent revolutionary groups in Latin America (Camilo Torres presente
Indeed, hasn’t nonviolence itself become both impotent and co-opted as a tool supporting the status quo (cf. Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill, and two important books by Peter Gelderloos: How Nonviolence Protects the State and The Failure of Nonviolence)? Doesn’t following Jesus and imitating Paul today – within our context, knowing what we know, having witnessed what we have witnessed – require us to deploy different tactics than those deployed by a group struggling desperately to survive in an overwhelmingly hostile environment? If we are truly seeking to contribute to that which is life-giving, if we are truly desiring to tear down or affirm the destruction of the death-dealing Powers – an affirmation contained in the good news about the resurrection of a person (Jesus) who was executed by the State as a terrorist – shouldn’t we be running in the streets of Baltimore, playing with stones in Ferguson or playing with fire in Oakland (or Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver, if one were to pick cities in the occupied territories where I reside)?
Is not the slave who rises and strikes back against the slave owner doing justice? Is not the woman who strikes the man who would sexually assault her doing justice? Is not the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the Israeli Wall, and the walls of Citibank, and the windows of McDonald’s or of Starbucks, doing justice? How can we even imagine that nonviolence is an option available to us as contributing members of some of the most brutal regimes in history? Isn’t the option we face rather that between participating in the status quo of violence against people who are oppressed or in participating in the uprising of those left for dead who by whatever means take life back from the hands of those who would steal it from them (Žižek presents the starkness of this choice well in his book Violence)? Isn’t this the solidarity required of us? Isn’t this what it means to carry a cross that is, as you continually remind us, also inseparably connected with the anastasis (the rising up, the resurrection, the uprising) of Jesus?
Let me cut to the chase. I’m not a pacifist. I think an absolute insistence on nonviolence in the context of a racially and imperially brutalizing nation like the United States is inexcusably immoral. The right to self-defense gains in importance with the subject’s vulnerability and weakness.
That said, and here I’m being a good Episcopalian again, I respect the witness of nonviolent resistance and I’m a committed advocate of the Christian teaching on violence, the so-called just-war tradition as laid out effectively by John Howard Yoder (Being Honest in Just-War Thinking). I won’t try to develop that here—Yoder has done a fine job already—but it’s markedly different from what almost anyone else says; as Yoder puts it, for Christians to actually live out their “just-war” tradition would, in most cases, rule out participation in violence and rank them alongside Christian pacifists. The constraints on violence are meaningful and important, and the nature of violence is that it militates against any such constraints.
The Haitian revolution threw off colonial powers, but not the logic of colonial brutality; Robert Fatton describes its legacy in his title Haiti’s Predatory Republic. It’s a basic pedagogical and psychological axiom that violent discipline doesn’t “teach” the desired “lesson,” it only teaches pain, hatred, anger, and the illusory power of violence. Mahmoud Mamdani makes the impressive argument that Islamic radicalism isn’t “Islamic” radicalism, it’s Western radicalism: it was the Western colonial powers that taught the world that there were no problems that couldn’t be solved without a sufficient application of gunpowder and dynamite (Good Muslim, Bad Muslim). We attribute to Mao the notion that power comes from the barrel of a gun, but it’s an American obsession.
The dichotomy “violence or nonviolence?” is so simplistic as to be clearly false—as the Christian tradition itself teaches. There are scholars who believe Jesus was a pacifist; I’m not convinced, in part because of Richard Horsley’s able discussion in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. (He relies on Dom Helder Camara’s discussion of “the spiral of violence” which shows that there is no single thing called “violence” but different countervailing actions that are interpreted by the dominant ideology as “good (or necessary) violence” and “bad violence.”
You’re right, I espoused nonviolence in my interpretation of Paul in 1994. I continue to think Paul couldn’t imagine violent resistance to Rome: I can imagine that’s because he’d seen its futility, and the early decades of the first century provided plenty of exhibits in that argument. That doesn’t make him an early Gandhi, it just means he “sublimated” the aggression by assigning it to the messiah who would “destroy every enemy” at his return. But the idea that there’s a single Pauline truth that we all need to obey today is, I think, dangerously false. The question of violence falls along racial and gender lines: conservatives insist on the right of “Americans” to bear arms in public, but they apparently mean white (male) Americans. A black woman who reaches for a gun to defend herself from a violent husband is sentenced for attempted murder; black males who wave toy guns around in public are shot dead by police, and mainstream pundits defend the police. We need a social revolution that will end those realities and transform present power relationships. It’s hard for me to imagine just what form of violence would effectively bring about that transformation without causing more egregious “collateral damage” at the societal level.
(7B) What tactics, efforts, or approaches can you imagine that could bring about transformation without some kind of “egregious ‘collateral damage’”? Or really, regardless of damage caused, is there anything that you can imagine that might bring about transformation in our context?
For example, on one hand, more than once throughout this interview, I’ve noticed you speak highly of folks involved in local, grassroots, community organizing. Grassroots movements often exhibit revolutionary tendencies – they regularly desire to uproot the system or destroy the system which is taken to be wholly giving over to Death. On the other hand, I believe that you have also participated in some more traditional Human Rights work in Haiti (which produced a report for the US Senate at one point?). That speaks to trying to bring about change through more established political or charitable channels.
I’m curious about this, in part, because of Paul. It seems to me that Paul and his co-workers were quite involved in grassroots community mobilization – an uprising of those left for dead which, amongst other things, is embodied in a sibling-based economic mutuality – whereas things like our practices of charity were incorporated into the kinds of patronage and benefaction encouraged by folks like the Super Apostles whom Paul and his co-workers so heavily criticized in Corinth. Here, in my opinion, although you seem to be hesitant to identity any one socioeconomic or political category as a privileged site for exegesis, it seems to be that certain sites are privileged when it comes to the production of Life-giving or Life-affirming transformation.
This is a conclusion I have come to based upon my own study and experiences and I think Paul and his co-workers also came to this conclusion – grassroots solidarity and mobilization? Absolutely! Charity? No, thanks! [NB: I speak with blood on my hands as I work within the non-profit industrial complex (cf. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence). So, it’s not as though I am raising this matter from a self-righteous position… thought I should try to be clear about that.] What do you think?
These are all good points and point out how much I left unclear!
Jesus’ words, “be wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” took on new meaning for me last evening; I joined a group of close to a hundred local pastors, activists, “sympas,” not all of them Christian, and the Christians from all over the map (I sat between a Pentecostal pastor and a non-theistic UCC activist). We rehearsed and discussed the various forms of activism in which we had experience: mobilizing nonviolent “peace forces,” sustaining a solidarity education center, organizing congregations into a coalition that lobbied the legislature. My impression at the end of the night was, frankly, disheartening: the tenor of the event was that we were at “the beginning” of something important. I was immediately aware of the long, dramatic, and often traumatic history of resistance on this continent. The first speaker invoked the first nations and declared, “we’re still here.” The Civil Rights and Suffrage movements were mentioned. The general operating assumption was that faith community-based organizing was the best option available. My heart sank, remembering the focused warfare visited upon what used to be a powerful worldwide labor movement and a worldwide socialist movement, both powerful in this nation well into the twentieth century, both devastated by massacres, beatings, imprisonment, assassinations, surveillance, intimidation, terrorism, and an often indifferent if not hostile court system. My point is that “we” (to claim a spiritual ancestry) used to know that this was warfare and that a united front was everything, even as “our” movements fractured internally around strategy and policy. Today, “we” seem to have forgotten that history: we speak, without embarrassment or sense of profound loss, as if we are “building” something new.
The Powers are tremendously well funded, well organized, and have nothing to do with their time besides designing new strategies. Slavery is unfashionable? Lynching is frowned upon? Let’s design a nationwide prison industry, privatized and largely invisible, and warehouse a fourth of the nation’s black males. In the face of that kind of massive corporate-governmental effort, it’s hard to keep up. We don’t have the luxury, I think, of imagining that a new campaign of congregational organizing will make everything better.
Only a united popular movement that is clear about its goals and clear in its rejection of the status quo has the potential of revolution. But the Powers spend far more time thinking about revolutionary strategy and theory in order to thwart it than “we” do––especially if “we” have day jobs and are preoccupied with our congregations’ pastoral needs this week. The Powers control the media (no more Selma marches will make the evening news; we’ll show “thugs” throwing bricks through Mom & Pop businesses), control higher education (we’re defunding civics and lit. departments and are pouring money into the business school), have thoroughly conquered culture (let’s all stand and salute our sacred heroes, anyone who’s ever worn a military uniform, and not think twice about un-heroic things done by our military or about alternative ways to live out heroic virtues).
So much ground has been lost that it’s easy to think there are no alternatives but blind violence; and that’s understandable. Even “strategic” violence may be invisible in its intent to all but the conspirators (let’s bomb the bank because the bank represents The System, man). Did bin Laden bomb the World Trade Center because it represented a globalized capitalism? Because it housed CIA offices? Or because big towers were easier targets, or bigger visual symbols? The language of violence is increasingly controlled by corporate media, who decide which actions are “terrorism,” “vandalism,” the work of “thugs” (language that will never be applied on the 6 o’clock news to hedge fund managers).
I don’t have an answer here. I understand Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary”; I understand self-defense, and the (traditional Christian!) insistence that violence in defense of the vulnerable other is also legitimate; I understand that such legitimacy extends to the need to break a murderous system. But only the counter-revolution will be televised, so any precisely targeted act of revolutionary violence will easily be misrepresented.
And where is Paul in all this? Actually I’ve come to wonder why we ask the question. Why do we “need” Paul to think with? Because he’s been used so often by the Powers? I don’t think Paul had read Alinsky or Lenin or Machiavelli or Hoffman; I think it’s tempting for us to inflate Paul’s congregational work to make him a “community organizer,” an agitator, a mobilizer of alternative communities, etc. I’m not sure how far it works, because of several caveats: (1) he clearly distinguishes the apostolic life (arrests, beatings, etc.) from the life of assembly members; he may belong to a “vanguard” but he doesn’t lay out strategy for his congregations in his letters; (2) the economic mutuality is very important (and Larry Welborn’s work on this is decisive) but is not obviously “revolutionary”; it’s survival. Meanwhile (3) the collection for Jerusalem is the one “activist” cause I think we can accurately attribute to Paul, and he thinks it has profoundly global, messianic significance. He miscalculated; it was misunderstood (or correctly understood and marginalized); it failed. I take some heart in realizing that Paul was experimenting with strategy as much as anyone today; he didn’t have a magical blueprint for social transformation, he had a wild, Hail-Mary pass in mind. It failed. They say his head bounced three times. And for what: We don’t even show him as a martyr in our icons. The sort of post-martyrdom triumph of the Acts of Paul, where he comes back to haunt Nero to hell, isn’t part of mainstream memorialization.
This all may sound dour; I don’t want it to sound defeatist, or defeated. But the work required is Herculean, or Sisyphusean, or at least really, really big. I think it helps to remember the many people who have gone before us, struggled, and died without seeing the realization of their struggles; let them “haunt” us more closely!