in which radical readings of Romans are a *leeetle* bit scary

(but possibly really good)

I’ve been on a bit of a run with Romans lately, between theology 101 and a fairly terrifying 2-day conference digging into it from an awful lot of angles, and at times it’s been fairly frustrating a struggle.  I’m wrapping it up for, having just finished reading Theodore Jennings’ Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul, which is something of a departure from the norm, and a different kind of mind-bender.

It is a deconstructive reading of Paul’s letter, which refers far more to postmodern thinkers like Derrida, Badiou, Lacan and Žižek than to theologians (like Wright, Moo, or Campbell, to name some of the most famous proponents of the various ways of reading Romans). That is not to say Jennings isn’t reading Romans as a theologian (he is a Methodist minister, and professor of theology at United Church of Christ’s Chicago Theological Seminary), but that he is offering a very particular, political reading of the theology of Romans. One that pushed even me, that great fan of deconstruction, to my limits, because really, one does not ever turn to Lacan for clarification on a point, and authors who suggest that you might deserve to have their books laughed off your desk for half an hour minimum. 

It is a very radical perspective – and Jennings himself acknowledges that it is not the only possible reading (indeed, one of the arguments of the book precludes him from arguing that it is an exclusive reading), but also, potentially, an incredibly liberating reading, as he explores what it means to be free from the law and to live in Christ.

In Jennings’ reading of Romans law is equated with death: it may point to towards justice, righteousness and God, but it creates temptation, division and fear – while being unable to make any one just. Instead, with the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus, the rule of law is ended and replaced by a new justice – one which is present and manifest, not merely indicated, and which comes to us as we respond, faithfully, to the faithfulness of the Messiah. This is the good news: the freedom from the fear of death and a resurrection into a state of justice, marked out by our ability to be just, faithfully sacrificing ourselves for the lives of others, as Christ did for us.

IMG_5179So far, so New Perspective, in many ways – but where Jennings’ reading really sets down a marker is in describing what the new ‘messianic’ age (or Kingdom) means for how we live. To begin with, he is clear that while we can be certain that God will keep his promise to save, to have mercy and compassion, we cannot predict with any certainty how he will do this, and so we cannot create models and systems that capture where God is acting in history, how, and what the bigger picture is. Nor can we capture ways and rules for living faithfully, which he argues that Paul frames as weakness, a desire to remain within the restrictions of the law. Instead we must continually be open to others, inviting them in in love and not with coercion, and responding to each individual situation, as God does in history. This means being willing to hold the habits and guidelines that we find helpful in our attempt to live faithfully lightly, and lay them down where they impede others, not expecting that faithfulness will look the same for everyone.

This is a ‘boundary-less’ understanding of the Christian faith, one in which the only requirement is to participate in the death and resurrection in the Messiah, opening ourselves to his willingness to be broken off from God for the sake of those who have not yet been freed from the law – just as Paul expresses his sorrow for Israel in Romans 9:1-2. Everyone must work out what their faithful, grateful, response is, with scripture as a guide – but it must always be a response that leaves the self behind, acknowledging that to claim that we know what a faithful life looks like and how to live teeters perilously close to a return to the little deaths of law, and to a religion and society that excludes those who do not fit.

It is interesting that although it is a very political reading of Romans, he reads Romans 13 as relatively disinterested in what we would think of as political action, Jennings arguing that, “the messianic politics of Paul does not entail a taking over of the state and its functions,” (194) because, for Paul, the state is essentially irrelevant to messianic politics, to an order that is no longer pertinent. The honour the authorities demand should be given to everyone, not just to the authorities, stripping it of the value it has to them, subverting their claim to authority.

Our attitude to political institutions, state or empire should be to engage with them as if not – connecting Paul’s argument here with the hos me language of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (“Those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep… For the world in its present form is passing away.”)– acknowledging that they, upheld as they are by law enforced by death, have no power over those who have died and been raised with Christ.

“This does mean offering it its due in taxes and so on, doing good in order to win over evil, rather than engaging in the counterforce of revolt that the state knows only too well how to deal with. Here as elsewhere, the aim is to take the world by surprise, the messianic surprise of love.” (194)

Jennings aims to remind us that God’s gift of justice is entirely impartial – and that
Christians don’t get a ‘get out of jail free’ for being Christian. He follows Barth in reading Romans 2:25-29 (on circumcision) by ‘translating’ it to apply to the privileges of Christian religious affiliation, such as baptism or church membership, giving the following formulation: “It doesn’t matter whether you are baptised, all that matters is whether you love your neighbour. The non-Christian will judge the baptised person who is unjust.” Moreover, Jennings suggests, this means that Paul argues that there is, “No need to become in anyway Christian in order to be faithful to the messiah,” – a radical position for both Paul and Jennings.

However, if one regards faithfulness to Christ as the mark of the Christian and the key to justice (which is Jennings’ central argument about Paul’s theology in Romans), then one must logically argue that to be faithful is to become Christian. One might agree with Jennings that baptism (for example) is not necessary for one to “become” a Christian or to ‘be justified’ – literal changes of status can be problematic, exclusive, and possibly unnecessary – but still see it as an important marker of faithfulness and declaration of intent to be a part of God’s new society (and Jennings does seem to see a ‘consciously faithful’ response as a marker of moving from law into life).

I really like the way Jennings makes the translation from the Greek expression into  ‘faithfulness’ (and loyalty) rather than ‘faith’ – because it moves us away from a static belief in a ‘thing’, which has to be hung on to or risk being lost, to a way of living, over time, our choices about our lives made in the context of a relationship with God. Working out our faithfulness was never meant to be easy – Christ is our model and lived in tension between the religious authorities and the world – and Jennings’ way is even harder because it requires us to abandon rules qua rules, in favour of relationship. When relationship is your guiding principle, everything becomes a negotiation – and it is tiring: an eternal tuning of your violin in a constantly playing orchestra.

I absolutely struggle with a tension between the liberation of Jennings’ approach that can constantly meet people where they are in the world with a desire for an empirical sense of absolute right and wrong that I need to know so that I don’t get it wrong / screw up / fail on an existential and eschatological scale. Sometimes it is just easier to know that there are rules. But there is a tension in Jennings’ approach as well: he is clear that there is faithfulness – which means that there is unfaithfulness, a tendency to slide back into the ‘simpler’ life of the law – but how can we challenge each other and hold each other accountable to a life of faithfulness, without judging or excluding? Jennings has a beautiful line about the way that the justice of Christ is seemingly impossible – but that God can ground a promise in the “apparent groundlessness of impossibility’ – as first signalled in the promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah (77). But at the same time, it does leave the more practical of us beating our fists on the ground, crying, ‘But howww?!’ It seems to require an impossible depth of relationship with God, and an almost inhuman willingness to stumble around and get hurt in human relationships over and over again.

The tension between love and inclusion in God’s utterly impartial gift of justice, and our call to be a messianic community together, which includes a responsibility to that community, is is particularly important for the church to think about – or a Christian organisation. If part of our faithfulness is to abandon the idea of ‘one right way of being faithful’ then how can we build systems or processes – or denominations – that encourage and challenge each other to stay faithful? Systems build specific ways of being that automatically exclude that which cannot fit into them – but, Jennings’ argument is, nothing is excludable from the messianic community. Churches often faithfully proclaim that all are welcome – but of course we all see that in reality people feel that they do not fit, that they will for any number of (very good) reasons not be included in the heart of the community. How do we break down that barrier?

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