Monday, July 2, 2007

New Rome

The New York Times has an article today that discusses the similarities, both flattering and not so flattering, between the U.S. Republic/Empire and the Roman Republic/Empire. These are comparisons that have been kicked around for years (centuries, actually). The original founders often compared the burgeoning government with the Roman Republic and Empire, focusing on the positive aspects and warning of the negative aspects (note, though, that some of what they viewed as positive, we would view in a more negative light, and so on and so forth). For the nineteenth-century interest, just look at the architecture in D.C.!!!

Today this comparison abounds in politics, popular media, scholarship, and on the street. For example, if you ever stop and listen in the halls of Union Theological Seminary, it seems that this is almost all you hear with the important and clearly overblown and exaggerated caveat that Jesus and Paul were obviously ANTI-empire (the NT evidence is a bit more complex with some passages that are anti and some that are pro, but mostly concerned with other issues). The seminarians use Jesus and Paul (and, let's not forget John of Patmos, who in my view, is a much more likelier candidate than Paul) as exemplars of resistance, giving a biblical basis for resistance to today's empire. Revelation is clearly anti-Roman Empire, but I do not think it is anti the idea of an empire, just who is ruling it. Let me throw in, due to personal interest, the Epistle to the Hebrews, which, like Revelation posits an alternative, but relies upon the model of the Roman Empire, especially the Roman patronage system, in addition to Hellenistic kingdoms to imagine this alternative with God and Jesus (God's number two) at the top (perhaps like a Vespasian and Titus?). Paul's attitude is ambivalent at best. Was Jesus anti-empire? He was executed by the Roman state, which might indicate some resistance to the state in some way or, at least, some disturbance often related in scholarship to his actions in the temple. Yet, Paul, whose writings are ambivalent on this subject, was also executed in Rome, according to tradition, during the reign of Nero (along with Peter). Perhaps it boils down to what Jesus meant by the "kingdom of God/heaven" (pie in the sky, political revolution, future eschatology, or that hybrid category of "realized eschatology") and "render unto Caesar." Overall, in my view, we do a disservice when we wash over those parts of the Bible that do not fit our theological, social, and political views (NT scholarship seems to be worse about this than Hebrew Bible scholarship) by either ignoring them, twisting them, reading them out of context, or, in this case of Pauline scholarship, harmonizing them to remove the appearance of contradiction, rather than acknowledging the problematic aspects and proclaiming them as theologically problematic, the latter of which is something that feminist biblical scholarship has been very good at doing. A few years ago, UTS had a "New Testament and Empire" conference, which, I have just learned, will be reprised this coming academic year (more precise info has not yet been released to me). I will be curious to see what progress in this area has been made.


James said...

"Overall, in my view, we do a disservice when we wash over those parts of the Bible that do not fit our theological, social, and political views"

As historians, yes, but aren't there other ways to engage with tradition? I think it's a legitimate exercise to look for material in tradition that supports resistance in the present day. Yes, seminarians should be aware of the contradictions and subtleties, at least to an extent, but their purpose in studying this material is different than the historian's purpose.

Plus, are you saying that at UTS they're not aware of the "theologically problematic" aspects of Paul? I would find that suprising.

Jared said...

Thanks, James, for some good incisive critical questions. Part of the reason I started this blog was to have people keep me on my toes.

Second point first: Be prepared to be surprised! I really only know what happens in OT/NT classes at Union, so I will speak to that. In the past, students at UTS would be finding the problematic aspects of Paul, especially in the days of Phyllis Trible, who wrote, "Texts of Terror." Today, not so much (unless they are getting it in their systematic theology or ethics classes). I see the importance of "rehabilitating" Paul for a seminarian, especially since Paul dominates the NT as a whole. It depends, however, upon which professor is teaching the required Intro NT 101 course. One professor presents a good deal of variety within early Christianity with a good deal of nuance, and, even while pointing out places where we should not emulate our predecessors, still is able to point to those parts to emulate. The other professor tends to be more monolithic in approach, reading the entire NT through Paul, reading Paul solely through Galatians, and reading Galatians primarily through one verse ("neither slave nor free" etc)--a bottleneck approach. The OT program does a much better job, in my view, to demonstrate internal variety, contradictions, and so forth, but that might just represents the ambivalent place of the OT in the Christian tradition as a whole--they have a free hand to be more critical.

Second point: I agree that there are multiple ways to engage with tradition and seminarians clearly have a different objective in view than I do. And, one thing that the people studying the NT and Empire have done is to point out those places in the NT that can be used for resistance (these scholars include both seminary and university professors). But, when I wrote the "disservice" quote, I was actually thinking of seminarians, and, more importantly, their professors, who also are engaged in the scholarly community, writing books and articles, and so forth (so they are fair game). For those who use the Bible to live out their daily lives, especially clergy and future clergy, I think they need to recognize the tensions in the text, between texts, and so forth alongside pointing out the occasional flashes of inspiration for "resistance to empire." You can always put a positive spin on this, speaking of the complexity and richness of the tradition, and so forth. Interestingly, many students come to me (the crazy, and sometimes offensive, historian) for an alternate, or, more exactly, a fuller view of NT because they find the one they get in class to be ultimately one-sided and unsatisfying. It lacks that richness. So, I am not saying that one should not use the NT for political, social, and theological views, including for resistance, but that, in the end, if that is ALL you do, your approach is incomplete.