Thanks to Richard Fellows for mentioning Thom Stark’s impressive analysis of Rom 13:1-7. The essay can be read in small blog installments here or in pdf format here. Readers may recall own blogpost about Jesus and taxes, in which I followed William Herzog’s approach to hidden transcripts, based on the foundational work of James Scott. “Render to Caesar” was a veiled way of saying that taxes were unlawful but should be paid with contempt since God would be destroying Rome in due time.
Herzog has applied this approach to Paul as well in “Dissembling, A Weapon of the Weak: The Case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7,” Journal of the NABPR 21: 339-360, arguing that while the apostle advises loyalty, it’s to an empire that doesn’t exist, and so in effect has conceded nothing to Rome. Stark summarizes Herzog:
“Herzog argues that Paul is merely counseling the vulnerable Christian community to display the routine ‘public deference that the oppressed show their masters’. Herzog refers us back to Scott, who observed that ‘the linguistic deference and gestures of subordination’ are not merely ‘abstracted by power’ but ‘serve also as a barrier and a veil that the dominant find difficult or impossible to penetrate’. In many cases subordinated groups rehearse their acts of conformity offstage, and the skills requisite for theatrical duplicity are instilled in the young by instruction and example. This is why ‘conformity is too lame a word for the active manipulation of rituals of subordination,’ manipulation which transforms the rituals of subordination into security measures that sequester an emancipated space for the dominated to inhabit. Thus, it is not mere conformity, but ‘an art form in which one can take some pride at having successfully misrepresented oneself’.
“Certainly one of the things the Jews of the diaspora shared was a long tradition of living under domination. As such, they had grown especially adept in the conforming arts, and Paul, Herzog contends, was no exception. Handing down his expertise, ‘Paul advises the Romans to practice the arts of resistance but in ways that will not threaten the community lodged near the heart of the Roman system of domination. He has managed to sound obedient and loyal,’ but the loyalty Paul offers is to ‘an empire that does not exist.’ Thus Paul has conceded nothing to ‘the actual empire, and his apparent advice about loyalty is coded language for how to survive in an authoritarian environment’.”
Neil Elliott too believes that Paul’s was a survival strategy. Comparing the apostle’s advice about “subjection” to Philo’s calculated remarks in On Dreams, he notes the ambivalency of Rom 13:1-7, and that it’s Paul’s fear of the Roman Empire which comes across most loudly, especially considering how “out of step Paul’s warning would have sounded to ears accustomed to the exultant themes of Roman eschatology”. And T. L. Carter has noted how Rom 13:1-7 is laced with irony and “counterfeit praise”.
Finally, Monya Stubbs reminds us that we can’t consider Rom 13 apart from the unambiguously counter-cultural message of what precedes in Rom 12. Believers shouldn’t conform to the world (Rom 12:2) but instead follow Christ’s other-worldly code of behavior: suffering patiently, blessing persecutors, associating with the lowly, feeding enemies for vengeance’s sake, etc. Stubbs goes further than Herzog, Elliott, and Carter, however, claiming that Paul advises public resistance in Rom 13 as much as in Rom 12. “Herein lies Paul’s resistance language, where the hidden transcript [Rom 13:1-7] imposes itself upon the public transcript [Rom 13:8-10]”. Paul counsels the Roman Christians to “owe no one any debt, except the debt to love.”
Stark follows the lead of all four — Herzog, Elliott, Carter, and Stubbs — but like Stubbs concludes too strongly: Paul was “calling for strategic, grassroots political activism”. I think this is wrong. The hidden transcript of Rom 13:1-7 (like Mk 12:13-17) has to do with leaving Caesar to God’s wrath on the day of the apocalypse, which was “nearer than ever before” (Rom 13:11-12). Paul, like Jesus, thought Caesar’s rule was illegitimate, but also knew that opposing him politically was impossible. With God all things were possible — and God was on the way. So while believers shouldn’t conform to the world for the most part (Rom 12:2), they also shouldn’t jeopardize themselves with political resistance. Temporary resignation to the beast is the message of Rom 13:1-7.