By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This year in discipleship group we’re reading the book “Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice,” and reading the book of Romans. It’s my first experience with the writings of Paul in quite awhile and it has been illuminating in a number of ways. The authors of Romans Disarmed make the case that Paul’s revolutionary message has been co-opted by the forces of imperial Christianity. In the book they challenge followers of Jesus to re-examine Paul’s writings and reclaim them as an invitation to resist empire and demand justice.
Last week during discipleship group we discussed how we orient ourselves to reading Romans. Because, one might argue, since the book doesn’t address empire explicitly, any interpretation with that lens is unnecessarily politicizing the text. So we clarified that it’s true that Romans is not talking about empire. It’s talking through empire. Empire is the context not the content. With empire as the backdrop, Paul is talking about faith in Christ as salvation for all humanity, and rooted in the Jewish tradition.
The same is true for all of Paul’s writings. He must be understood as writing a counter-imperial message, which his readers would have been well aware of. However, Christians interpreters through the ages have disregarded the imperial context and instead twisted the text to ungird their own Christian empires. So it’s really hard to understand Paul because of the weight of that history. I feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface and that’s some of what I offer today.
One thing that is at the heart of Paul’s writings, and comes up clearly in our text for today, is his articulation of radical reversals. Paul is consistently subverting the hierarchies of the Roman imperial order. So if we don’t understand the hierarchies at play, we don’t really understand what he’s undoing. Here’s one simple example from our context: When you see the bumper sticker “God bless the whole world no exceptions,” what is that slogan subverting? [invite responses] “God bless America.”
When Paul says the following as his preamble to the book of Romans he’s subverting the imperial order left and right:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ [not of some wealthy patron or of Caesar], called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God [not the gospel of Rome, which was about military victories and expanding empire], 2 which God promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning God’s Son [who is not the son of Caesar or a Greek god], who was descended from David [he’s Judean, member of an occupied people, definitely not Greek] according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord [he is the Son of God because he defeated death, not because of imperial pronouncement or lineage].
So what is Paul doing in this passage in Corinthians? What are the radical reversals he’s articulating to the Jesus followers in Corinth? He’s talking a lot about wisdom so let’s start there. He says he’s not coming with eloquence or wisdom, he talks about human wisdom and the wisdom of the age, and the wisdom of the spiritually mature and God’s wisdom revealed through the Spirit that is mysterious and hidden and seems as foolishness to those who are not connected to the Spirit of God.
Turns out in Corinth people were very concerned about wisdom and about appearing wise. There was a group at that time known as the Sophists who proved their intelligence through debate and argumentation. There was a lot of jockeying to ascend through the ranks of the wise. (Liberal forerunners, if you will.)
A sophist was supposed to give a sample of their eloquence, for acceptance or rejection when they entered a city. Paul undercuts this with the first verse in this chapter, “I did not come proclaiming God’s testimony with any particular eloquence or wisdom…”
In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians he’s even more clear about God’s subversive reordering:
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Biblical scholar, Alexandra Brown, notes that Paul sets up a number of transforming moments in his discourse, that are not only about these reversals but also about reorientation. She notes, “the Spirit now functions to re-orient the destabilized hearer. It is as if the Spirit, like a wind, rushes in to fill the void left by the destruction of the old world.”
What would have been the wisdom of the age that Paul was seeking to destabilize? Brown articulates it as such, “The wise person, following the cosmic order, leads a good life by choosing good over evil, life over death, law over sin. Both evil and right action have predictable rewards. This is a sage’s view of reality. It functions best where life is coherent and manageable, where those who define reality for the culture are in consensus about what really matters.”
“But,” she continues, “not every ancient person accepted this definition of reality. At times of crisis in Israel’s history the conventions of wisdom broke down. At these times, there rose up in Israel two other figures, namely, the prophet and the apocalyptic visionary, who saw things very differently. For them, the center claimed by the traditioners of wisdom did not hold. God was free to invade and disrupt the status quo on behalf of the outsider, the dispossessed, all those whose inexplicable tragedies find no place in the cosmic order. Paul shows himself to be the inheritor of such prophetic and apocalyptic (i.e., counter-culture) traditions throughout his discourse on the cross.”
The wisdom of the age propped up the status quo. Specifically it propped up the interests of the ruling class. The hierarchies of slave and free, male and female, Greek and Jew, had to be maintained for society to keep perpetuating itself. But Paul was like, “aw hell naw.” He came proclaiming the gospel of Christ, and even more foolishly Christ crucified. The ultimate inversion of power in an imperial system.
So he was clear, you’re not going to get this message other than through the power of the Spirit, through the power of God, because it cannot be rationally argued.
God’s wisdom is mysterious, hidden wisdom he says. None of the rulers of the age knew the mystery, and therefore they executed God.
And this program has been continued by the rulers of the ages.
Recently Eric and I went to see “A Hidden Life,” a movie about Franz Jägerstätter who was an Austrian Catholic CO during WWII. The movie is powerful and evocative, and I think especially important for people who have the privilege of being protected by the status quo if they consent to it. During WWII Jewish people, LGBTQ people and gypsies (among others) did not have that privilege, but heteronormative Christian citizens did.
Jägerstätter exemplified someone who dissented from the wisdom of the age. In that context the wisdom of the age articulated by church and civic leaders was, “just go along with loyalty to Hitler even if you don’t believe it, because it’s what we need to do for our society to be protected. Just go along with loyalty to Hitler otherwise you’ll be an irresponsible husband and father because who will provide for your family. Just got along with loyalty to Hitler and hopefully this will all be over soon. Just go along with loyalty to Hitler because your dissent will accomplish nothing.”
But he wouldn’t. The Spirit had directed him otherwise.
“People without the Spirit do not accept what the Spirit of God teaches. Such teachings seems like foolishness to them because they can’t understand them; such things must be spiritually discerned.”
Over and over again Jägerstätter was questioned by his accusers in two ways. First they would say, “why won’t you just swear loyalty to Hitler?” And he wouldn’t marshal arguments against them. He wouldn’t defend himself because he knew they wouldn’t understand. So then they would ask, “do you judge me?” And he would basically respond, “that’s up to God.” The movie depicts at times how perplexed he was that others didn’t see what was so clear to him as a Christian.
He was regarded as a fool. He was mistreated, maligned and abused, and ultimately executed, but the whole time he was free. He knew the mysterious, hidden wisdom of God.
“None of the rulers of this age knew the mystery; if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Sovereign of Glory.”
Now I want to bring this passage a bit closer to home. Because, in a way, I know I can fairly easily identify myself with Jägerstätter and distance myself from those swearing loyalty to Hitler, or the neo-Nazis and white nationalists today.
The wisdom of our age is much more insidious. It goes something like this…
Make the right choices and you’ll succeed. Make the wrong choices and you’ll fail. If you fail you have only yourself to blame.
You have earned everything you have. Let the market decide. Do not betray your class interests. Your net worth determines your worth.
San Francisco is a boom and bust city. It always has been and always will be, so ultimately there’s nothing we can do about the housing crisis.
And from Steve Jobs, “Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of worrying about what happened yesterday.”
This is just some of the wisdom of our age. It props up the status quo and the interests of the ruling class. It is not the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God is not profitable. The wisdom of God is foolishness. It is subversive and it resists empire in all its forms.
“Your faith rests not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”
The power of God to free slaves from an Egyptian empire (and an American empire). The power of God to create a covenant community not dependent on the protection of a king. The power of God to raise up prophets and visionaries to challenge Israel’s kingdoms. The power of God to be incarnated in human form as a poor person, leading other poor people and together creating a movement called the kingdom of God. The power of God to manifest as Black mothers and children in Oakland moving into an empty house during a housing crisis.
“Out of the dystopian haze, Maximillian Alvarez writes in The New Republic, “that keeps so many poor and working people in this country resigned to a system that has no place for them, Moms 4 Housing and their supporters marshaled a fierce moral vocabulary around how to define and measure justice, value, need, and even what it means to be a ‘good mother.’”
“For those who tell us to move elsewhere—somewhere we can afford—my answer to you is this: No one should have to make hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be able to stay in their hometown, near family and everything they know.” writes Azucena Rasilla, a lifelong Oaklander.
“Unlike earlier periods of widespread homelessness and displacement such as during the recession of 2008, what we’re witnessing today is an emergency born less of poverty than prosperity—occurring not despite but precisely because of the economic boom.” In the wake of the recession, while many struggled to keep up with costs of living, Wedgewood Properties (that owns Moms House) and other shadowy entities have been buying up more of the country’s housing stock than ever before, reselling at exorbitant rates, and making a killing.”
The wisdom of the age says: Let the market decide. The Bay is a boom and bust place. It always has been and always will be, so ultimately there’s nothing we can do about the housing crisis. Make the right choices and you’ll succeed. Make the wrong choices and you’ll fail. If you fail you have only yourself to blame.
“Still, there is a certain wisdom which we express among the spiritually mature. It is not a wisdom of this age, however, nor of the rulers of this age, who are headed for destruction.”
The New Republic article continues, “The Moms are not simply showing the system its wrongs; they’re advancing a positive vision for the future: Against the reformist chorus directing them to just “wait, wait … wait,” they took immediate action to address an immediate crisis. And against the brutal directives of a capitalist status quo that would have them suffer in isolation, the Moms have claimed an expansive and communal vision.”
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are…”
The Spirit of God is at work and we are invited to join this subversive project. It will only cost us everything.
God, grant us wisdom for the living of these days. Amen.