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.

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