This is a review I did of Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019 that was recenly published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics.
My description and critical assessment are contained in the review so I won’t repeat here what is said below – save to say that while I was unpersuaded by the authors’ relentless politicisation of Paul, many important and controversial questions about the meaning and contemporary relevance of the apostle’s magnificent letter to the Romans are addressed within its pages.
This ambitious book stands in continuity with Keesmaat and Walsh’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004). I use the word ‘ambitious’ in that since probably no other New Testament book has had as much written about it than Romans, it is a daunting task for anyone to write seriously on the letter, let alone do what the authors are attempting to do in this volume. Namely, to use that historical, theological and exegetical work as a basis for articulating a comprehensive anti-imperial interpretation of Romans (ch. 1 ‘Reading Romans and Disarming Empire’) from which to explore how the apostle’s words continue to challenge various expressions of what the authors identify as ‘modern imperialism’ such as: colonialism and the conquest of the Indigenous peoples of Canada (ch. 3 ‘Empire and Broken Worldviews’); home and homelessness (ch. 4. ‘Homeless in Rome’); ecological destruction (ch. 5 ‘Creation and Defilement in Rome’); the economic destructiveness of modern capitalism (ch 6. ‘Economic Justice and the Fabric of Life’); systematic injustice against the poor and marginalised (ch. 7 ‘Welcoming the Powerless’); a culture extolling nationalism, racism, identity politics, power and violence (ch. 8 ‘The Pax Romana and the Gospel of Peace’); and injurious and exploitative sexual behaviour (ch. 9 ’Imperial Sexuality and Covenant Faithfulness’).
But Romans Disarmed is ambitious in other ways as well. The authors note that the ‘disarmed’ in the title is a deliberate double entendre on the way Paul’s epistle ‘disarms’ both the violence of the first-century and modern empires and the way in which Romans itself needs to be disarmed, ‘after centuries of being used theologically as an instrument of oppression and exclusion’ (p. xiii). What they mean by this surfaces regularly throughout the book. The following gives a flavour of the emotive strength of this critique. ‘For this is a text that has been used to justify the tearing of the church asunder … Romans has been wielded as weapon, often in service of theological violence’ (pp. 105-06). Romans has been domesticated by ‘a pietistic interpretation preoccupied with individual salvation or personal righteousness’ (p. 278). As ‘the church has wielded this epistle as a sword within its own theological wars, the letter itself has been strangely (and paradoxically) rendered powerless’ (p. 252). The text has been ‘betrayed’; the church’s preoccupation with the ‘justification’ of the ‘sinner’ has led it to lose sight of Paul’s ‘radical message of how in Jesus Christ those who are unjust are made to be anew, equipped and empowered for lives of justice’ (p. 252). ‘If we are going to disarm Romans, then we will need to disarm the language of salvation and of its exclusionary judgmentalism’ (p. 368).
Chapter 1 is key to the authors’ project in that it unpacks and defends their reading of Paul intentionally seeking to confront and undermine the story of the Roman empire. They do this through a fictional dialogue with a sceptical observer who asks a series of questions. The questions are obviously ones that the authors are anticipating from scholars, readers and reviewers (such as this one). How convincing one finds their answers will largely dictate how persuasive one finds the rest of the book and so I will pay particular attention to this chapter.
Debates about ‘empire criticism’ have been swirling around New Testament studies since the 1990s, particularly associated with Richard Horsley and the ‘Paul and Politics’ group at the Society of Biblical Literature and later with N. T. Wright. Via their interlocutor, the authors engage with John Barclay’s critique of Wright’s account of Paul and Empire (pp. 13-14). They reject Barclay’s argument (Pauline Churches and the Diaspora Jews. Mohr Sieback, 2001, ch. 19) that, for Paul, the Roman empire was effectively insignificant in that it was merely an unnamed bit-part player in a much bigger cosmic conflict between God and the powers (death, sin and the defeat of evil through the victory of God in Christ). They side with Wright in seeing this cosmic battle being embodied in the specific form of Roman idolatry and injustice (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, book 2. Fortress, 2013. pp. 1307-19). And so Romans is interpreted as a deliberate counter narrative to that of Empire; ‘the symbols, vocabulary and structure of the empire underlie the world’ that Paul describes in Romans (p. 14). Despite Paul never mentioning Caesar and his empire, the original recipients living under the cruel injustices of Pax Romana would have ‘got’ the message loud and clear. It is modern readers who need the epistle’s clear anti-empire implications spelt out – which is what the authors then proceed to do in great detail in the rest of the book. They do so in a highly political manner, going beyond Wright’s softer view of implicit subversion to seeing Paul engaging in a systematic programme of cultural, social and political negation against Rome. The result is that Rome is everywhere in Romans. To give one example, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16) is a kiss ‘breaking down the racial, political, gender, and economic boundaries of the empire … the loving and respectful kiss that characteriszes the family of Jesus, in contrast to the imperial family of father Caesar’ (p. 137).
The force of this political hermeneutic is earthed in imaginary stories of Iris (a slave) and Nereus (a Jewish believer named in Romans 16:15). It is also expanded in a number of lengthy ‘Targums’ imagining how Paul would write Romans today in our context of empire, racism, nationalism and economic injustice. It shapes a reading of Romans through the lens of home, homelessness and homecoming where traditional themes such as justification and the status of Israel are set in the context of how a diverse community make home together amid empire. It reads creation groaning as Paul referring to destructive Roman environmental practices. It interprets economic themes as crucial to Paul’s letter that then speaks directly into the injustices of contemporary global capitalism and Pax Americana and related issues such as MAGA. It sees Paul’s ‘creational vision and prioritizing of economic justice in the face of imperial economics’ as underpinning a contemporary ‘economy of care’ that will require ‘full-scale paradigm shift in economic life’ (p. 263). It rearticulates salvation as ‘nothing to do with an eternal home in heaven or the release of a guilty conscience’ but as a matter of justice, especially for the poor (p. 368). It interprets the ‘dominion of death’ of Romans 5:14-17, not as a cosmic power, but as ‘an end to the imperial rule of death’ (p. 369 emphasis original).
On a related, but different tack, the authors contrast the degradations of imperial sexuality against a calling by Paul to sexual relationships of faithfulness, justice and covenant love and conclude that committed, faithful Christian homosexual relationships should be seen, not as a threat to marriage but as a witness to its restoration.
Keesmaat and Walsh write with a passion to see Paul’s ancient words speak with relevance and power into our 21st century world. Whether you agree with their arguments or not, a strength of this book is to ‘defamiliarize’ Paul and make readers think afresh about their prior reading of Romans. Few would disagree that the call of all in Rome loved by God to be saints (Rom 1:7) involves participation in a profoundly subversive way of life within diverse communities bonded together by love. Many readers may find themselves in broad agreement with large swathes of their politics. However, if you sense an impending ‘but’ you would be right. In fact, there are several.
Despite the authors’ anticipation of objections of confirmation bias, it is difficult not to conclude that their methodology is open to such criticism. If you are looking for Rome ‘behind every bush’ then you are going to find it. Repeatedly through the book there are arguments from inference. For example, Paul’s words about creation in Romans 8 ‘could only’ have been understood as a critique of the ‘land-destroying’ practices of empire because he visited Judea and Roman cities and must have been aware of the environmental impact of Roman economic exploitation (pp. 172-3). This is a threadbare basis for such firm conclusions. In this vein, the Targums are in significant danger of literally re-writing Romans along the lines of what the authors judge Paul should be saying. I suspect there is not a lot of daylight between the authors’ politics and those of Paul reimagined for our day.
As noted above, there are highly polemical statements made about how others have ‘armed’ Romans. However, apart from general assertions there is no critical engagement with specific representations of such voices. This weakness extends to a lack of detailed engagement with exegetical scholarship, a symptom of where the scale of the book’s ambition becomes problematic. If such a radical re-reading of Romans is to stand up it needs critical dialogue with alternative voices. It also, dare I say, could do with a more gracious tone.
It is not clear what place is left for eschatology in Romans Disarmed. When death in Romans 5 means imperial rule, creation groaning is primarily about Roman environmental malpractice and salvation equals justice, this question becomes a very real one. There is little discussion of the ‘first fruits’ of the Spirit, life in the Spirit versus life in the flesh in the overlap of the ages, divine conflict with hostile powers, nor of the eschatological implications of resurrection, baptism, the Adam / Christ contrast, Israel in the plan of God, and God’s wrath and future judgment – all significant themes in Romans. At one point angels, demons and the powers are specifically excluded from Paul’s list of things unable to separate believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (pp. 378-79). The book closes with an invitation to imagine the future world in the present, but such is the weight put on economic justice that one cannot but feel that Paul’s pervasive eschatological emphasis has been flattened out into a this-worldly horizon.
Paradoxically, given the authors’ critique of Christendom and the captivation of the church to the imagination of empire, the broad political ambitions of this book raises questions about how consistent it is with Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission. Such is the strength of the apostle’s focus on the inner integrity of the community, it is a moot point how much room there is, if any, for transforming the Roman world. Based largely on Romans some scholars like T. Engberg-Pedersen (‘Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12–13: The Role of 13:1–10 in the Argument’, JSNT 29 (2006): 163–72) and R. Thorsteinsson (‘Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics’, JSNT 29 (2006): 139–61 and Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality.Oxford University Press, 2010) argue that, in contrast to the universal scope of Stoic ethics there is no ‘love for others’ ethic in Paul, the furthest he goes is exhortation to treat outsiders well. Others, like D. Horrell (Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) see some common universal ethical norms such as a shared recognition of the good. But generally, the vocation to be an alternative peaceable community in a world ruled by empire is much closer to Barclay’s judgment than Keesmaat’s and Walsh’s expansive political programme. Paul’s silence about Rome may be the most counter-imperial stance of all.
This is the Original Submission of the review. The final published edition was first published online April 20, 2021. Issue published 01 May, 2021. Studies in Christian Ethics 34(2), pp 267-270.