Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fantastic Resource on Romans: "Coded Resistance: A Proposed Rereading of Romans 13:1-7" by Sze-Kar Wan

As a grader at for a graduate exegetical class on the book of Romans, I am constantly looking for cutting edge critical resources. Two years ago, I heard a most compelling paper at a conference held at Southern Methodist University called Religion and Empire which hosted a robust panel of critical scholars from various disciplines within biblical and theological studies. Among the presenters were Sze-Kar Wan, Abraham Smith, Joerg Rieger, Namsoon Kang, Marc Ellis, and others. One lecture that stood out was presented by Sze-Kar Wan, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. Later I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Wan, who was not only an engaging scholar, but a genuinely kind man. I found out that his paper was subsequently published as "Coded Resistance: A Proposed Rereading of Romans 13:1-7" in The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times, eds. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, and Jonathan A. Draper (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 173-84.

Firstly, I would like to commend this entire volume to those interested in engaging the biblical texts through an imperial-critical optic. This text happens to be dedicated to the influence of Richard A. Horsley (something I was not aware of prior to owning the volume) and contains a host of provocative essays on a variety of biblico-theological issues from some world class thinkers: Warren Carter, Cynthia B. Kittredge, Steven J. Friesen, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and many others. The articles are arranged in a tripartite framework, namely, Biblical Insight into the Present Moment, Questioning ἐκκλήσια and the Academy, and Prospects for Politically Engaged Biblical Studies. Leaping from the Table of Contents are several topics such as C. Kittredge's "Echoes of Paul in the Speeches of George W. Bush," A. Callahan's "American Babylon: Days in the Life of an African-American Idea," S. Friesen's "The Blessings of Hegemony: Poverty, Paul's Assemblies, and the Class Interests of the Professoriate," A. Smith's "'Nobody Tasted Blood in It': Public Intellectuals Interrogating Myths of Innocence in Biblical Studies," and E. S. Fiorenza's "Reading Scripture in the Context of Empire" just to name a few.

Secondly, I would like to commend specifically Sze-Kar Wan's article for anyone critically engaging Romans 13:1-7, a text that has been frequently democratized into a biblical mandate for American patriotism. That is not to say that everyone has been compelled by such a prima facie reading of imperial complicity, but many have. What Wan proposes is a "rereading" with an eye to the conflictual nature of the text and its readers; indeed, he underscores the duality of the discourse as read by "insiders," those Roman Christians who would be familiar with the message of the early Jesus movement and Paul's thought over against the powerful, ruling elite who may read the text as reinforcing the dominant class's own view of themselves (174). Wan employs a "two-level reading" (a development inspired by Herzog, "Dissembling") akin to John C. Scott's public and hidden scripts (cf. Domination and the Arts of Resistance). This reading strategy offers the tools to decipher a functional duality within the text, a surface reading through one socio-politically situated community and a reading that individuals in a shared cognitive environment, privy to the religious convictions of the early Jesus movement, would have likely perceived. Moreover, this unmasks the "coded resistance" evidencing the "safe" reading for the elite, which enshrines the subversive, subtle script of resistance. Wan's lexical, exegetical, and biblical-theological moves are cohesive, cumulative, and should be reckoned with by those who tout the tacit Western imperial reading.

I have intentionally omitted a detailed analysis of his argument because I think it a very worthy read. However, I will say that his points regarding several subtleties in the text necessitate consideration, such as Paul's explicit fight elsewhere over the title διάκονος and its use in this passage (Wan, 179-81), the shift of number between ἐξουσίαις and ἐξουσία as well as οἰ ἄρχοντες and ἐξουσίαν (180-83), and others which are amply sustained with detailed observations illustrate the thought and effort Dr. Wan has exhibited in this work as well as the justification for his argument to be grappled with by those with opposing viewpoints.

Indeed, if one probes Wan's argument long, the question necessarily arises as to why the reigning reading of Romans 13:1-7 by the majority of so-called orthodox/conservative Christianity has been Paul acquiescing to Caesar and justifying the empire and her behavior; this, in turn, has translated into the legitimation of the Christian Right's theocratizing tendenz; and the commissioning of complicity with the whims of imperial leaders and their programs
among the populace, regardless of the degree to which those enterprises stand in contradistinction to the way of Jesus. The implicit answer, I think, is because the modern American necessarily, devoid of the lexico-syntactic Κοινή indicators that Wan identifies (i.e. unable to see the subtlty couched in an ancient language and text), coupled with a Weltanschauung constructed largely by imperial power and legitimation, read the text as the ruling elite, as the world superpower, as the empire by which all peoples should do obeisance. Might the standard reading that Paul, contrary to his other stances toward empire, be instructing Christians to obey the rulers because disobedience is tantamount to disobeying God be a self-condemning reading, thereby convicting the imperial reader?

Regardless, Dr. Wan's exegetical case is one that must at least be considered when interacting with this text. As a grader, nothing is more of an affront than a paper that does not illustrate a clear and concerted attempt to find alternative viewpoints and weigh them critically, irrespective of the conclusions reached, whether one finally arrive at a "conservative" or "liberal" judgment, academic integrity necessitates a fair consideration of opposing viewpoints.

I will likely comment on several other chapters at future dates, but time presently does not permit it. Whatever tradition one finds themselves in theological or ideologically speaking this volume is one that should be reviewed by all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Enthronement of a New Emperor: Reflections on the so-called Inauguration

With the recent accession of the new President, the world watched as the new emperor ascended the throne. The praise rang out in the streets, peoples all over the empire watched as their new leader came to power. Indeed, millions around the world tuned in to watch. The festivities included many banquets, a tour symbolically re-actualizing parts of American history as Obama made his way to Washington by train. Then the grand festival took place, the former rulers gathered, the new ruler was crowned, and he proclaimed the good news of his rule, in the name of justice and mercy. Millions crowded the streets, crying, singing, with great joy at the monumental greatness of their new emperor. Songs were sung, poems were read, priests invoked the gods, and the new emperor was enthroned. Then the emperor was lead through the streets as the cheering denizens waved so they could catch a glimmer of his greatness and beauty. In the evening multitudes of banquets were held to honor the new emperor, gifts were bestowed upon him, and he was extolled.

One woman spoke of the Benefactor as follows:

In an age in which millions of Americans are financially crippled and struggling to pay their bills, we spent more than 80 million dollars for the inaugural festivities, the most expensive inauguration in American history. How is this financially responsible? How is this doing the "hard thing"? How is this change? I am very hopeful that our standing in the world will improve and some of our injustices may well recede with this new emperor, but I fail to see that this new ruler will actually change the shape of our empire in a significant way. And moreover, I am perpetually concerned that our present practices, seemingly so "secular" and "political" or "patriotic," do not have a greater significance religiously, and do not resemble with both aspects of similarity and dissimilarity the Roman Empire during the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

An imperial critical perspective of the inauguration would be sensitive, despite one's own personal stake and hope in the change of political rulers, to the praxis of the empire in these festivities. There is a fine line between where religious affections border on what appears to be simply nationalism. Can politics be bifurcated from religious affection? It was not in the ancient world, and I question whether such a distinction itself isn't an imperial construct to perpetuate the imperial religion alongside alternative religious expressions in order to appear unrelated and thereby logically consistent to hold simultaneously. Just a thought.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Israel and Gaza: Removing the Imperial West's Goggles

Frankly, I have never been more disgusted in my entire life than I am with the way in which the media portrays the crisis in Gaza. Although I have been mulling over this for several weeks, I read a fantastic blog on this today over on James Crossley's Earliest Christian History blog. My sentiments couldn't have been articulated more clearly; thanks to Professor Crossley for beating me to it. As he points out, when will we start the narrative being woven? This is the point. The media, with wall to wall coverage, begins the narrative with Hamas lobbing puny rockets at Israel. But that is not where the Gaza crisis begins! It began in 1948 when the Palestinians had their land high-jacked and were relegated to the slums of Gaza. However, this isn't the narrative that gets told. No, we Americans have legitimated our own world domination through God and thus we have also legitimated Israel's occupation of others land and terrorism against the Palestinians theologically, with the Bible. Yes, that is right. Here in America, because of our faithful friends the dispensational looney tunes who believe Israel raping the land from the Palestinians is God's ordained end-time scheme, have used Jesus to justify war against those on the margins. I'm ashamed. Ashamed of so many Christians who can't see that Jesus never justifies war. Ashamed of so many so-called Bible believers who have a naive theological system they are protecting, yet most are unable to perceive that they have been given biblical goggles that are not biblical (maybe mine aren't either, but certainly closer to the historical Jesus is the way of peace regardless of empire)! Ashamed of the American media, who has no problem showing the utmost bias, almost as if they don't have a bias (much like fundamentalist) when it comes to American politics, but fail to offer cogent, moderately balanced reporting when it comes to presenting both sides of a conflict. And day by day, hour by hour, the media continues to cast the same narrative that it is all the wicked Palestinian terrorists fault. Never are Israel's practices called into question, I mean seriously, they were just totally minding their own business when these nutty Palestinians started persecuting them, right? I think not.