Today I am placing this material online although it interrupts my reading of John’s Gospel, which will resume tomorrow. One of my brothers, a senior civil servant, has challenged me to express what if anything is the political and social message of Paul’s Letter to Romans. Yes, he gives me the easy ones. Here is my first response, based on my own translation of Romans which readers can find on this site, at bible blog 2021.
Someone calling himself Paul is writing to people he doesn’t know, in a city he’s never visited, probably around the year 50 CE. He claims that their shared allegiance to one Jesus Messiah will make his words of interest to them.
He is a Jewish man, named Shaul in his own language, and formerly eminent in the religious hierarchy of his people. We know from his other letters that initially he was a fierce opponent of this Messiah Jesus and violently persecuted his early followers. He can dictate fluently to his scribe in the common Greek of the Roman Empire, the language of trade, commerce, politics, popular religion, civil administration. Probably he has been bilingual in Greek and Aramaic from childhood. Doubtless a Greek could tell from his letters that he is not an educated man, but would nevertheless be impressed by his ability to carry through an argument, to use forms of Greek rhetoric when he wished, to find vivid words for his most important ideas – and all this from a Jew, the Greek might have said, holding the popular view that the Jewish homeland must be a cultural desert seeing so many of its citizens had found their way to the great cities of the Empire. As Paul reminds his Roman readers, he has traversed a large section of the Mediterranean Sea with his “joyful news of Jesus” at least as far west as Greece, bringing into existence and nurturing what he calls “Assemblies”, ekklesiai in Greek, meaning people summoned together, usually for a civic purpose. Now he is writing to the Assembly in Rome, the capital city of the Empire.
By this time he must have been picked up on the CCTV of the Imperial administration. Somebody, somewhere, in an official position or paid as a spy, had noticed a man who was establishing a group of people who met in each other’s houses. He might have noted with concern that the group included slaves as well as working people and even some leading citizens. Officials would have dealt with breaches of the peace due to the enmity between this man and some of the Jewish residents of their cities. In Ephesos certainly he had been imprisoned, possibly for some considerable time. At a local level, the great empire was aware of Paul.
There had been empires before but none like this one. Perhaps the Greek Empire under Alexander had at one time been greater in extent, but it had swiftly disintegrated. Rome extended its reach gradually, backing up its conquests with roads and systems of communication, establishing efficient administrations backed by its amazingly disciplined and well-equipped legions, yet leaving plenty spaces to be filled by indigenous people attracted by the opportunities of education, travel, trade and secure income. Its great boast was that it allowed the arts of peace to flourish. There were territories that Rome had gained by military conquest, others by political interference, others again by the decision of their own elites, who saw the benefits of Roman rule. Roman citizenship was eagerly sought, and the cult of the Goddess Roma and the Imperial Family was enthusiastically taken up by many city administrations.
The spread of new Roman technologies in agriculture, manufacture, land and sea travel, commerce, and administration throughout the empire, brought about huge changes in local economies, work, knowledge and culture. Its effect on traditional societies was revolutionary, sweeping away established customs and politics, and replacing them with the Roman way. As far as religions were concerned, Rome was pious, affirming traditional practices especially where they were open to the Imperial cult as well, but also permitting some that were hostile to other Gods, such as Judaism. An approved religion was designated as “permitted” maintaining Roman oversight while permitting the priestly castes of conquered nations to keep their privileges.
Many people experienced the Empire as liberating. Good communications meant easier and safer travel; the Roman Law was foreign but more rational than many local systems; the currencies of the Empire were reasonably stable, which encourage consumption and trade. The Empire’s need of local goods and services allowed local suppliers to flourish. The Roman rebuilding of ancient cities meant aqueducts and sewerage systems became more common. Many people, especially artisans, small traders, the educated classes and aristocrats of all nationalities adapted to this more prosperous way of life. Others, the poor, the nationalists, the religiously fervent, were often disadvantaged by the Empire and were opposed, sometimes violently, to its rule.
Slavery was an issue; not that it was a new institution, as slaves had been part of mediterranean societies for thousands of years, but rather that due to increased competition, and the power of large enterprises and estates, numbers of formerly free people found themselves enslaved as a result of debt. From their perspective, the Empire itself was an enslaving power, exploiting the wealth of many nations through its taxation and control of trade, and reinforcing this hegemony with exemplary brutality when there was any open opposition.
The Zealot rebellions in Judaea in 70 and 135 CE led by nationalistic Jihadists are good illustrations of what could happen, in this case the utter defeat of the rebel forces, the punishment of the Jewish nation, the dispersal of its population and the destruction of its symbolic centre.
Rome saw itself as a humanistic force in the world, but it was careful in its definitions of humanity. Roman citizens were truly human and had human rights. Non- citizens might be treated as if they were human, but had no rights; while slaves, as in all cultures, were non-persons, useful commodities who might be cherished or abused..
The man called Paul is writing to a group of people in the capital city of this Empire, some of whom may be citizens but most of whom are probably non-citizens and slaves. What is he saying to them? Let’s eavesdrop as one of their leaders reads his letter to the group.
From Paul, a slave of Jesus Messiah, called as an Emissary and set apart as a preacher of the Joyful News that God had announced earlier through his prophets in the holy writings: about his Son. A flesh and blood descendant of King David, he was installed in power as Son of God by God’s spirit through his resurrection from the dead. He is Jesus Messiah, our Lord.
From him I have received kindness and the status of Emissary for his honour, to encourage trustful obedience amongst all peoples, amongst whom you are also called to belong to Jesus Messiah.
To all God’s loved ones in Rome, who are called to be holy, kindness to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Messiah!
The writer defines himself as a SLAVE, albeit of the MESSIAH who gives him the dignity of being an EMISSARY like the appointed ambassadors of the Empire. JESUS in whom they already trust is described as SON OF GOD and RESURRECTED which clearly places him above any Emperor, from which position he demands TRUSTFUL OBEDIENCE from all peoples.
In these opening words the writer sets out the authority of an alternative Empire of which the readers are already subjects. Then on behalf of GOD and his MESSIAH, the writer assures his readers of divine KINDNESS AND PEACE and tells them they are loved. As such they are summoned by God to Be HOLY, that is, to demonstrate by their goodness that they BELONG TO GOD. This greeting suggests that they are part of something greater than the Empire, because its PEACE, unlike that of the Empire, is matched by its KINDNESS.
Paulos then indicates the scope of his task a an EMISSARY; it has taken him to many parts of the Empire, to share the JOYFUL NEWS OF JESUS MESSIAH, which he defines as the RESCUING POWER of God. This is the language of KING JESUS and his KINGDOM encouraging his readers to recognise the new authority in their lives, in which they share a growing imperium with other assemblies around the Mediterranean. Doubtless there are in the Assembly some people of Jewish origin for whom the notion of a rescuing God goes back to the Exodus from Egypt.
This kingdom recognises the rule of God through his Messiah Jesus, but puts all human beings on the same level, although they have different gifts and functions. That’s why Paulos catches himself, when he has given the impression that the Roman Assembly must learn from him, and adds that he will also learn from them.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Messiah for you all, because news of your trust has gone out to all the world; for God is my witness, to whom I give my spiritual service in the Joyful News of his Son, that at all times I remember you in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, to give you some spiritual benefit that will strengthen you- I mean, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, yours and mine. I want you to know, my brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you -but have been prevented until now- so that I could work fruitfully amongst you, as I have done amongst other peoples. To Greeks and barbarians, wise and unwise, I am under equal obligation, so for my part I am eager to announce the Joyful News to you in Rome as well.
I am shameless about the Joyful News, since it is the rescuing power of God for everyone who trusts in him, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For the saving justice of God is unveiled in it, from his trust to ours, as the scripture says, “The just person will live by trust.”
Although the Assemblies of Jesus may be scattered over the extent of the OIKUMENY, the inhabited world, they are united by the JOYFUL NEWS and by PRAYER. God and his Messiah also have their SECRET SERVICE, a means of communication which shares the concerns of all parts of the KINGDOM. This is all for the sake of the gift which the kingdom offers to all people: SAVING JUSTICE which neither ignores nor merely punishes wrongdoers, but lifts them up and makes them into just people.
Even in these opening remarks, Paulos clearly asks his readers to imagine themselves as citizens of a kingdom which is different from the Great Empire. They are not prisoners of the global power of Rome, but open to a transcendent justice which has been made available through Messiah Jesus, in whom they trust.
What I would call the “religious assumption” about Paulos, namely, that his concern is to access a God and hold on to his favour in this life and the next, has led to misinterpretation of what he means by the saving justice of God. His “joyful news” is that God has made himself available to all and his offered his favour unconditionally, so that there is no longer any need for religion. That’s what lies behind his attack on the Jewish Torah. If we cash out what Paulos means by God’s rescuing power and saving justice, we find it consists in living as a just person in a community that accepts an advance of trust and promotes a familial justice amongst its members. Yes, this advance of trust is said to come from God, indeed it almost defines God in Paulos’ thinking; yes, the offer is made through Messiah Jesus, killed on a Roman stake; yes, the other name for this shared justice is the Holy Spirit; we shall investigate these matters in due time. Here I want to emphasise Paulos’ announcement of a transcending justice in a political, ethical and cultural space that denies any other dimension than Imperial power. He has briefly indicated the nature of this justice by words such as peace, kindness, and above all, trust. Members of the Assemblies of Jesus trust in each other’s capacity for goodness and are mutually enabled to be good to each other and their neighbours. Their trust in a transcendent God is not first of all to do with realities beyond the material world and its history, but in a here and now justice that goes beyond what Rome provides, and which becomes real as they trust it and each other.
If I look today in Scotland for an all-encompassing power to equal that of the Roman Empire, one which has established networks of communication, technology, ideology, culture, trade, finance and effective political control throughout the world, I’d be wilfully blind if I did not see it in capitalism itself. As in the case of Rome, its global control has brought all manner of material benefits to some, while reducing others to the condition if not the status of slaves. It has been, as Marx noted, revolutionary in sweeping away traditional economies and ways of life, transforming the planet into a single market and its inhabitants into consumers. In Scotland, it provided the huge boost to the economy of the oil industry, while creating a political culture that makes it impossible for a popular government to tax its citizens enough to provide a decent health service. It openly interferes through its bankers and business people in the public affairs of the nation while entering, by means of pervasive advertising into the most private dreams and fantasies of even the poorest citizen. Its monuments and shrines rise high here as in every city in the world. A Great Empire indeed.
In Scotland, as in other nations, there was for many generations a countervailing power which drew on a critical analysis of capitalism, and worked consciously to control it politically and industrially. I grew up in the 1940’s and ‘50’s with socialism, expressed through its political parties and trades unions. In many places socialism reached further into the ordinary lives of individuals through cooperative societies, friendly societies, educational movements and so on. It stood for a transcendent justice that went beyond capitalism.
Today in Scotland that power still exists, although much attenuated, in the Labour Party and other smaller, more radical socialist parties; in Trades Unions; in a plethora of charities that tackle poverty and related ills; and in a Green Party which recognises capitalism as a conspiracy against nature as well as justice.
The Scottish Churches, while critical of many of the effects of capitalism, are not opposed to it as such. The governing party the SNP which relies on the votes of supporters as well as opponents of capitalism, rejects what it sees as ideological issues and opts for a mildly reformist pragmatism. There is also a majority of wealthy and powerful citizens, along with many of middling income, and even of those classified as poor, for whom capitalism is as natural as the polluted air we breathe, does what they think they want, and who simply do not want any alternative.
These are my observations and are presented without proof, because they are only intended to support my opinion that present day Scotland does not look like promising territory for a reform or effective control of capitalism and its practices.
In this situation I feel challenged by reading The Letter to Romans. Without doubt Paulos could have looked at the Empire as hugely unpromising territory for a message of transcendent justice, but clearly he saw opportunity where I might have seen No Chance Saloon. I put this down to the content of his convictions, rather than any difference of temperament. These are:
1. Human beings need rescued from “enslavement” by experiencing kindness and peace.(non-violence, safety, welfare)
2. Those experiences are aspects of a “rescuing justice” that is mediated by a community of men and women.
3. Those who are treated in this way become just people who are capable of mediating this rescuing justice to others.
4. Such communities exist everywhere in the world, and the primary allegiance of their members is to each other, rather than to their nation or race.
Of course there is much more to Paulos’ conviction than these. We shall see more of them as we read more of the letter, but these are evident in his introduction. Yes, I have removed his references to the ultimate source of rescuing justice, because while recognising the importance of the story of God told by Paulos, he himself insists that it is not only a story of rescue, but also a rescuing practice, exemplified historically by Jesus Messiah and contemporaneously by his Assemblies. The story of the Source is fundamental, and we shall return to it, but the points noted above can be a useful starting place.
Like socialists, Paulos insists that human beings are capable of justice. Like them also he knows that people must be liberated from their chains before they can liberate others. Unlike them however, he designates kindness and peace as the means of liberation. These qualities of course are a shorthand for the life of the Assembly which is structured by the life of Jesus, but they they indicate clearly what is transmitted by the assemblies and their tradition.
This is a different starting place from that of most contemporary political movements, who tend to bypass such concern as merely ethical, “because we’re not here to be a fucking church are we?” but announce that they must get down and dirty to deal with matters of oppression and exploitation, if they are left wing, or matters of economic opportunity and growth, if they are right wing. The innocence of most political people is stunning in that they assume their own liberation, and rarely ask if they are capable of bringing justice to themselves or others. This insistence that liberation is a practice and not an ideology is not a demand for an impossible purity in political activism, but a shrewd critique of those who want to change others without changing themselves.
Paulos’ assumption that Assemblies of Jesus will hold a primary allegiance to each other, across racial and national boundaries indicates a rejection of all racial, national and sectarian concerns; and his own role as an organiser and go-between across huge geographical and cultural distance is a useful model for political leaders in Scotland today. If we start with a concern only for the good of Scotland we shall remain captives of the ideology of the nation state which has not been a boon to humanity. Allegiance to other assemblies should also make us aware that the unit of justice is not necessarily Scotland, but rather communities of justice in Scotland.
Would a Muslim assembly with clear views on social justice be the sort of community I would recognise? Yes, of course, if it met the four criteria noted above, including that its primary allegiance was “ecumenical”, that is, to similar communities of justice across religious barriers, rather than simply sectarian.
In these matters we only begin to explore the relevance of this text for Scottish politics today.