As I continue to work on the complete rewrite, revision, and expansion of my very old and incomplete book The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, I have immersed myself in empire theology.
On that score, Christoph Heilig has come out with a new book entitled The Apostle and the Empire: Paul’s Implicit and Explicit Criticism of Rome.
I caught up with Christoph recently to discuss his new book.
What provoked you to write this book?
I have been interested in what Paul had to say about the Roman Empire for a long time. I did my undergraduate degree at an evangelical seminary and I was dissatisfied with how many lecturers talked about the Gospel there. I then read books by N. T. Wright and I found his perspective on this issue so refreshing. According to him, the Gospel does not consist in people having to believe in justification by faith alone in order to be rescued. Rather, it is about the proclamation of Jesus as Lord – with justification happening when people put their trust in the Messiah. This was theologically very attractive to me. It meant that the Gospel that Paul proclaimed confronted the social realities of his day. And to me it appeared that this had really helpful implications for the Church today. This was the original stimulus for me to explore the subject in more detail.
Soon, I noticed that proponents and opponents of the view that Paul’s Gospel challenged Roman ideology were talking past each other. There was no detailed methodological discussion. But it seemed necessary to me. After all, people like N. T. Wright were claiming that we could find a kind of “coded” criticism of the Roman Empire in Paul. They argued that because open criticism would have been too dangerous, the apostle chose to criticize the Roman Empire in a very subtle way in order to avoid persecution. Such a “reading between the lines” called for a sophisticated methodology. But as far as I could see, nobody had proposed such a methodological basis yet.
Therefore, I wrote a technical book on this question. It is called “Hidden Criticism?” and I made it available in open access. It is also available as a cheaper paperback version from Fortress . I am very happy to see that it has stimulated further debate about whether or not we can find coded criticism of Rome in Paul’s letters.
In my new book “The Apostle and the Empire,” which was just published by Eerdmans, I take into account these newer developments and try to summarize the scholarly debate. It is written for other scholars who want to learn more about the current state of research but also for students and pastors who are interested in the general debates surrounding the relationship between religion and politics and in how the earliest Christians navigated within the framework of the Roman Empire.
What is your own answer to the question – “is there a coded criticism of Roman political power in Paul’s letters?” Please give one or two justifications for your answer.
The idea that there is coded criticism of Roman ideology in Paul’s letters has provoked a lot of criticism over the years. In particular, John M. G. Barclay, who is professor at the University of Durham, published an essay in 2011 that many viewed to constitute the definitive takedown of Wright’s paradigm. It is called “Why the Roman Empire was Insignificant to Paul” and it is a brilliant piece of scholarship. It identifies several key assumptions of Wright’s thesis and adduces historical evidence to argue that they are unfounded.
For example, Barclay argues that Paul’s letters were private. Hence, we should expect these letters to reflect Paul’s actual thoughts, like a diary. Barclay argues that the Roman Empire was not a police state that would have been interested in the apostle’s letters. Hence, Barclay thinks that the lack of open criticism simply means that Paul did not address the issue of Roman imperial rule. In his view, that is the truly subversive element of Paul’s theology – the fact that he ignored Rome and did not treat it as the real enemy.
I am ultimately not convinced by most of Barclay’s criticisms. For example, I think Paul had to reckon with the possibility that his letters would be heard/read by outsiders. That is clear from passages such as 1 Cor 14:23, where Paul remarks that people who are not part of the church but visit a gathering would think the members are crazy if they all speak in tongues at the same time. So I do think that Paul had to expect that his letters might fall into the hands of people who might have been skeptical toward the Christian faith. And that was a problem indeed.
We know from a correspondence between a Roman governor, Pliny, and a Roman emperor, Trajan, that five decades after Paul’s death Christians were executed in Asia Minor. The reason probably was that the Christians had caused economic distress because they did not participate in pagan cults. Therefore, fellow citizens had brought them to the attention of the governor. The governor did not find them guilty of any specific crimes. Still, he simply executed them in a kind of shoot-first policy because they seemed to be somehow troublesome. This is a fate that would always also have loomed over the Pauline communities. Therefore, the idea of using code seems quite plausible to me against that backdrop.
However, Barclay also points to Paul’s personality as a counter-argument. And indeed, Paul does not shy away from criticizing idol worship in 1 Corinthians. And that too was not a harmless matter. After all, not participating in the cults of the city was regarded as asocial behavior. People thought it might risk peace and prosperity because it might infuriate the gods. Still, Paul is very open about his views. So he seems to be willing to risk persecution for the truth of the Gospel. Still, I think that it is plausible that Paul would be cautious not to create unnecessary risks for his communities. Thus, it makes sense for me to expect him to have used subtle formulations to express disdain for the Roman Empire at least in some cases.
You interact with Laura Robinson’s work. Where do you believe she gets it right and where she misses it?
Laura Robinson is a doctoral student at Duke University. She published an article in an important journal, called “New Testament Studies,” in 2021. In this article, she blames Wright and others for using anachronistic parallels in order to justify the idea of coded criticism in Paul’s letters. I think she makes a few really good points in that regard, even though she seems to miss that Wright indeed adduces also some apparent parallels from antiquity, for example from the writings of Philo of Alexandria.
More fundamentally, I think Robinson makes some important points with respect to the options that we have in scholarship. For example, she emphasizes that the fact that Paul could have said certain things about the Empire does not mean that he actually did communicate them somehow. I think this is a helpful reminder. Paul would have shared many negative views about Roman imperialism with other Jews of that time. However, if there was no specific need to, for example, warn his congregations about participation in imperial cults, why would he include criticism – coded or not – in his letters?
Robinson also makes an important point that is connected to this. If Paul really wanted to convey such a critical idea, he would have had to make sure that the recipients would understand him. So he could not be too subtle. But then we should assume that we would also be able to discern this criticism quite easily, right? And so would Roman officials.
At the same time, scholars like Wright often emphasize how “obvious” the anti-imperial overtones are in Paul’s letters. And indeed, Robinson agrees that Paul’s message on a certain level was indeed subversive from a Roman perspective. But then, so she argues, why would we expect Paul to use sophisticated coding mechanisms if what he was saying openly already sufficed to get him in trouble? I think this is an excellent question.
However, I think Robinson throws out the baby with the bathwater. First, the fact that Paul’s message was inherently suspicious to Roman officials does not imply that the apostle must have acted in an outright reckless manner. To the contrary, if we take a look at all the trouble he would have faced anyway, it makes sense to me that he would have used cautious formulations at times to avoid unnecessary additional distress for his communities.
Second, perhaps Robinson is right and we should indeed not look primarily for these instances of coded criticism. But that does not mean that there cannot be formulations that give us insight into Paul’s unease with the Roman Empire. After all, there are many reasons for why Paul might have criticized Roman ideology “in passing,” in a side-remark. The reason does not have to be Paul’s wish to avoid persecution. Perhaps he wanted to challenge his readers who might actually have been sympathetic to some aspects of Roman identity. We should expect this in Roman colonies like Corinth and Philippi at least to some extent. In such cases, simply telling the Christians that “Rome is bad” would not only have been unnecessarily dangerous but most certainly also very ineffective. Subtle rhetorical strategies might actually be much more effective in convincing people.
And there are other potential reasons for why we might at times get some insights into Paul’s “unease” with aspects of Roman ideology. What you were allowed to say in public without sanctions differed geographically and diachronically. For example, when Paul wrote to Rome, he most certainly had to be more careful than in other cases. Conversely, after the death of the Emperor Claudius in 54 CE, there might have been an opening in the public discourse for criticism of this former emperor.
After all, the new emperor, Nero, was not a fan of his. In fact, he probably was responsible for Claudius’s death. And from what we know he enjoyed satirical remarks about the deceased predecessor quite a bit. Finally, I think we need to be open toward the idea that at some points Paul might have given us insights into his thoughts without a conscious decision. We ourselves often miscalculate what is appropriate in certain contexts. Paul might have made similar mistakes. And sometimes, in the heat of passion, we just do not care about consequences.
To offer one example, it seems to me that something like that last phenomenon might explain what is going on in 1 Cor 2:6. There Paul speaks about “the rulers of this age.” It is clear that the Roman officials are also in view because he blames these rulers for the crucifixion of Jesus in v. 8. Everybody at that time would have known that this was a Roman method of execution. Paul’s point is that the fact that these people executed the Messiah shows that they did not understand God’s wisdom. Fair enough. But in v. 6 he adds a description of the rulers of this age that does not contribute anything to the argument. He adds the side-remark: “… who are in the process of perishing.”
Well, that was quite unnecessary, wasn’t it? Paul goes out on a limb here and we see what he really thinks about the Romans. Was it wise? Probably not. A Roman official would not have liked this statement. Perhaps Paul simply could not hold back that remark. We know that Paul used secretaries to write his letters. I think there is some evidence that Paul then did not heavily edit these transcripts. This might explain why such a trace of Paul’s disgust made it into the final letter.
Summarize the views of John Barclay and N.T. Wright on the subject of Paul and empire?
I think some basic contours might already have become apparent from what I have said so far. Wright really was one of the first scholars to draw attention to the supposed counter-imperial aspect of Paul’s Gospel in the 1990ies. Among scholars in this movement, his specific emphasis can be summarized as “confrontation not deviation.”
Wright thinks that Paul got his ideas and often also the terminology from the Septuagint and other Jewish sources. Still, the notion of the “good news” that the apostle supposedly derived from Isaiah stands at odds with another “good news” about imperial peace that is proclaimed throughout the Empire at that time.
Wright’s emphasis on the Jewish roots of Paul’s counter-imperialism also allows him to integrate Rom 13, without too many interpretive gymnastics. According to Wright, Paul holds the Jewish view that the current pagan rulers are oppressing God’s people.
Still, God is also a God of order and he thus uses these rulers to avoid anarchy. Other proponents of an anti-imperial reading of Paul would be quite uncomfortable with such a view. For them, Paul is against imperialism in general and deeply opposed to anything Roman.
Barclay, as I have said above, does not think that there is good reason to assume that Paul in his surviving writings ever addressed the issue of the Roman Empire, with the exception of Rom 13. If he did, says Barclay, we would see Paul speak quite openly about it. Still, Paul is not simply apolitical in Barclay’s view.
Rather, Barclay thinks that Paul intentionally ignored the Roman Empire. That in itself is subversive as it does not allow Rome to even take the role of an archenemy. For Paul, Sin and Death are the ultimate enemies, not the emperors.
Which of the two views do you believe is correct (Barclay or Wright)?
I think Barclay is correct with respect to the contours of the larger apocalyptic battle that Paul imagines. Rome is just one manifestation of evil among others. However, unlike Barclay I think Paul was an astute observer of concrete cases where Roman injustice manifested itself. And I do not think he intentionally ignored the issue(s). I think that at several points he might have spoken about the Roman Empire in a way that was indeed quite subtle because he did not see a point in making things more explicit and, thus, dangerous. So I am with Wright on that front.
However, I also think that the other reasons, mentioned above, for why Paul might have made side-remarks about the Roman Empire are much more important. And I thus agree with Barclay that we should expect a lot of Paul’s critical interaction with Roman ideology to appear “unveiled” in the letters of the apostle. Where I differ, again, from Barclay is that I think that we indeed have quite a few cases of such “open” display of Paul’s unease with the Roman Empire.
These instances might seem quite subtle to us, because we are not as well informed about the contemporary discourses as Paul’s congregations would have been. But if we really dig deep into the historical sources, I am convinced that time and again we can see how Paul’s statements are actually quite clear contributions toward larger debates about political events of his time.
You devote a lot of space interpreting 2 Corinthians 2:14. For our readers (who aren’t scholars), give us a good clear explanation of that passage using its historical backdrop.
Yes, this passage is an example of a verse where Paul, in my view, quite openly enters a contemporary political conversation. The meaning of the verse has been debated for many centuries. Paul gives thanks to God and then he adds a description of God. It is natural to assume that this description of God somehow explains why he is worthy of Paul’s praise. Therefore, many have translated the Greek verb that Paul uses (θριαμβεύω) as “to give victory to sb.” Paul would thus have said: “Thanks be to God, who always gives us victory through Christ.”
That seems to make a lot of sense in the context. However, if we look at the ancient texts that use this verb and related expressions, the actual meaning of the verb becomes very clear. It means “to present somebody as a prisoner of war in a Roman triumphal procession to the watching crowd.” This means that Paul uses a metaphor of the Roman realm, which clearly evokes the city of Rome as the context of the action.
Moreover, the triumphator at that time would have been the Roman emperor himself. This passage is usually not seen as a case of “coded” criticism of Rome. Still, it seems clear that Paul here evokes the Roman emperor in the imagination of the readers – only to have him then immediately pushed out again from his triumphal chariot! That is not an image that Roman officials would have liked and an unheard-of use of the imagery of the Roman triumphal procession in ancient literature.
To be sure, Paul did not want to criticize the emperor directly. The letter is written to the Christians in Corinth, not to the emperor in Rome. The metaphor serves the function of criticizing them. Right before this verse, he had told the Corinthians about giving up a great opportunity to evangelize in Troas because he wanted to learn how they had reacted to a message that Titus had brought them from him.
So he left that town and tried to meet Titus on his way. Paul probably anticipates that the Corinthians might have thought that this decision was quite erratic. They apparently did not like Paul’s chaotic travel movements as we can already see from 2 Cor 1:17, where he defends himself against the accusation of making his travel plans without thinking them through. With the imagery of the Roman triumphal procession, Paul captures this perception of his ministry. The Corinthians are in the role of the citizens in Rome who watch the spectacle.
They see Paul and his co-workers in the shameful role of the captives. However, Paul takes this perception and tries to transform it. He points to the fact that in the triumphal procession, the one who is in charge is the triumphator. Thus, if the Corinthians have a problem with him, they actually have a problem with God! Moreover, even though at first sight being a captive in a Roman triumphal procession is a horrible fate, Paul draws attention to the fact that these people ultimately of course contribute to the glory of the triumphator. And that is of course what his mission is all about, right?
We can thus conclude that the metaphor in 2 Cor 2:14 is directed against the Corinthians but that it also allows us an insight into Paul’s unease with some aspects of Roman imperialism. Moreover, I think it can be demonstrated that Paul does use this specific metaphor for a good reason – because there was a lot of talk about a very specific triumphal procession at that time, the triumphal procession of the Emperor Claudius.
How does Claudius’ triumphal procession relate to the text specifically?
In 44 CE, Claudius celebrated a triumphal procession for his victory over Britannia. It was the only triumphal procession by a Roman Emperor during Paul’s lifetime. Surprisingly, scholars have so far almost completely ignored this event as a potential backdrop for Paul’s use of this metaphor in 2 Cor 2:14. To me, this is a strong indication that if we take a closer look at the ancient sources we will find many more instances of Paul’s interaction with current political debates.
After all, this backdrop that I suggest for 2 Cor 2:14 is actually excellently supported by evidence. We know that at the time of Paul’s presence in Corinth there was a cult that was devoted to the personified “British Victory.” We know this from inscriptions that mention the priest who was in charge of this cult. On a yearly basis, the Corinthians would have been reminded of Claudius’s victory over Britannia.
Moreover, Paul might even have met eyewitnesses of this event! For Acts 18 tells us that he met Aquilla and Priscilla in Corinth. They were coming from Rome. The reason was none other than Claudius, who had just expelled the Jews from the city. If we add to this the possibility that Paul might have thought about going to Rome from Corinth, the assumption that the three tentmakers they would have talked about this very emperor over their work seems very likely.
Paul’s use of the triumph metaphor in 2 Cor 2:14 would certainly have evoked some resonances with the way Claudius’s triumphal procession was discussed in the public sphere. Claudius went at great length to make this event known throughout the Empire. It was obviously very important to him. In particular, he emphasized the geographical impact of his victory. The “ocean” had a huge mythological importance. And Claudian propaganda emphasized that what once was the border of the Roman Empire had now become its center. We know this both from a speech of Claudius that is attested in an inscription and from a song that was probably performed during the triumphal procession and that has survived in a medieval manuscript.
But we must be careful not to assume that people in antiquity were stupid! They recognized fake military accomplishments and victory celebrations that were not based on actual achievements. The Roman triumphal procession was a great opportunity for glory – but also for ridicule. Claudius had been to Britannia for only two weeks! It was obviously a military campaign designed solely to secure him the honor of the triumphal procession.
And people noticed. After Claudius’s death, the philosopher Seneca wrote a satirical piece with the title “The Pumpkinification of Claudius.” In the original, this builds on a wordplay with “deification.” The whole essay is full of biting scorn. Nero most certainly loved it. Everything about Claudius is ridiculed, including his disability. The idea that he somehow achieved a remarkable military victory over Britannia is mocked as well.
Paul wrote 2 Corinthians roughly at the same time, a year after Claudius’s death. It seems that he used the opportunity of an atmosphere that allowed for more open expressions of disdain of this particular emperor. There are several distinct parameters of the public discourse that Paul draws upon.
For example, Claudius’s triumphal procession seems to have lacked impressive captives. In any case, we know that when the British chieftain Caratacus was finally captured in 51 CE that was justification enough for another parade in Rome, which contemporaries viewed as a kind of completion of the (thus apparently incomplete) procession from 44 CE.
Moreover, Paul, like Claudius, also draws attention to geography by emphasizing in the same verse that he and his co-workers reveal the Gospel “in every place” (not just Rome!). And while Claudius enjoyed the honor of being a triumphator only for a very short time, God apparently celebrates his triumphal procession constantly. (Or perhaps the idea is that God celebrates many triumphal processions, which would be equally provocative.)
What are the “extreme interpretations” of Romans 13:1-7 that you take issue with and why?
The traditional interpretation assumes that the passage is about “the church and the state.” Paul emphasizes that the government is installed by God and is hence to be obeyed. Punishment by the state is reserved for those who do not obey its laws. Paying taxes is one such obligation of the citizens. If we assume such a meaning for Rom 13:1-7, then we do not need to look for evidence of Paul’s unease with aspects of Roman ideology elsewhere. It basically rules out the whole endeavor at the outset.
However, such a reading seems not in line at all with Jewish perceptions of Roman rule at that time. Moreover, it requires us to accept very unlikely interpretations of passages such as 1 Cor 2:6 and 2 Cor 2:14. For example, we must assume that 1 Cor 2:6-8 does not have earthly rulers in view but only demons. But that requires us, in turn, to assume that Paul was incredibly naïve.
Everybody would have known that it was a Roman official who had ordered the execution of the Messiah Jesus. And they would have known that they themselves lived under the constant danger of experiencing the same fate. Recent historical research has made it very clear that there was not an official law against the Christians toward the end of the first century, under Domitian, with Christianity being legal before that and illegal after that. Christianity was never illegal during that period. But it also was never harmless. When we talk to people who actually experience oppressive regimes on a daily basis, this can help us not to approach the text with anachronistic assumptions that come from our own comfortable positions.
Look at Rom 13:4. Is the point really that Roman officials “do not wear the sword in vein” in the sense that whoever does not obey the state has to blame themself for being executed? Paul’s readers would have immediately objected: “So the Romans also do not carry the cross in vein, right? Jesus only has to blame himself?!” Paul himself did not live up to this alleged requirement to be submissive to state authorities. Why did Paul flee Damascus in a basket and did not simply wait for the governor under King Aretas to capture him (2 Cor 11:32-33; cf. Acts 9:23–24)? Why did he not simply await the official Roman verdict in Thessaloniki but fled again (Acts 17)?
In light of these considerations, I have some sympathy for scholars who have argued that the entire section must be satirical. For example, when Paul in Rom 13:4 says that the government does not carry the sword “in vein,” the meaning is supposed to be that Rome indeed is very brutal, despite claims to the contrary.
The problem I have with this reading is that it is unclear what Paul would have wanted to accomplish with such an ironical treatment of the matter. The Roman Christians would have been quite confused. Should they grudgingly pay their taxes while being comforted by the knowledge that the whole Empire was ultimately just a scam? Or should they resist such requirements because, after all, the whole thing could not be taken seriously? I doubt that Paul would have risked such confusion and potential uproar.
How does Romans 13:1-7 fit into Paul’s disdain for the Roman empire?
My own solution to this dilemma is that Paul probably did not intend this section to be “about the Empire” at all. True, he invokes quite heavy theological arguments and the discussion is actually quite repetitive. It is not just a side-remark. Paul really thought this through. But precisely for this reason we must assume that the issue that was at stake cannot be “the church and the state.”
Rather, it must have been of such a nature that Paul could be sure that no one would object to his statements by pointing to Jesus’s fate or his own behavior. It is thus best to assume that Paul is focused here on a very specific issue that has to do with taxes and tolls (cf. v. 7).
We do unfortunately not know any details about this. But we can assume that the readers know very well what he has in mind and that for them it was entirely clear that he was making a very limited point here. Paul wants his congregations to survive. He wants them to be true to the Gospel and to accept suffering for Christ, sure. But he does not want them to be erased simply because they unnecessarily appear as troublemakers to their fellow citizens.
If this reconstruction is correct, one might be tempted to ask: Does Paul overplay his theological cards here? Perhaps. That is of course easy for us to say two thousand years later. But we should be careful not to overestimate ourselves. Take, for example, how the Catholic Late Night Show host Stephen Colbert reacted to Jeff Sessions justifying the harsh treatment of illegal immigrants with reference to Rom 13. Colbert obviously finds such a theological argument abhorrent and sees a need to resist such practices by the government.
More recently, however, he cited a judge who confronted an insurrectionist from the January 6th attack of the Capitol in Washington by pointing to this passage. Colbert and his audience apparently thought that this was a very funny move. Would Colbert admit that invoking such theological arguments as a means to fight against “resistance” is dangerous as it can easily be applied to other cases where resistance is ethically necessary? Perhaps.
But he might also emphasize that the issue in the later case was very specific and that it does not follow that resistance of all kinds is prohibited by the Bible. Similarly, I think Paul would be quite shocked to learn how this passage in Romans has been used throughout the centuries. Perhaps he would agree that he could have pointed out the scope of his discussion more clearly.
But he would probably also remind us that it had not been his intention to write to readers in the 21st century and that if we decide to still read his mail that we should take into account the context that he was living in. And that was a context in which the injustices of the Roman Empire were obvious and did not need to be repeated each and every time you made a statement about specific behavior as citizens.
For the average Christian who is a non scholar, give us two or three big take-aways from your book on how it can help them live for Christ in this day and age.
First of all, I would encourage everybody to be open to the idea of the Bible as a collection of historical documents. This does not mean that these writings have nothing to say about our own time. But it does mean that we need to be very careful when we apply statements from these texts to our own situation in a straightforward manner.
Most of us do not live under suppressive regimes. The problems that we face are often very different from the issue that Paul discusses or presupposes in his discussions. Take, for example, the saying “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” It is cited as a biblical command every time cutting social security is on the agenda. It goes back to what Paul (or one of his students) wrote in 2 Thess 3:10. But it is very misleading to adduce it in such a context.
First of all, Paul speaks about persons who do not want to work. (English versions often use “will” in the archaic sense of “want” here, which is not particularly helpful.) Second, the people who consciously decide not to work are not just idle lazybones (as, again, headings in Bible versions often suggest). Paul’s issue with them is, to the contrary, that they “don’t do business even though they are so busy,” as one could translate the wordplay in the Greek.
From the context, it seems most likely that these people had stopped earning money because they decided to evangelize all day! Paul does not like the fact that the rest of the community now needs to care for them. And he is concerned with how the community might appear to the rest of society. He does not accept the spiritual justification for leaving a bad impression – a bad impression that, again, can become dangerous and deadly very quickly.
A straightforward application of this situation to current debates about social security is not possible. If anything, I would argue that those who today cite the Bible in order to deprive others of benefits are most similar to those who Paul criticizes. After all, they are the ones who use spiritual arguments to justify their position and in doing so cause the Christian faith to appear in a bad light.
Second, I would encourage Christian readers of the Bible to regard this historical dimension of their Scriptures as something to cherish. It is not just as a warning sign not to fall prey to anachronisms. It also holds a lot of potential for fresh and exciting readings of these writings.
For example, if so far you have read 2 Cor 2:14 as a theological statement about Christians being victorious in their lives, in their journey of sanctification, it becomes one of many passages that are read along the same line. Reading the Bible can become dull if everything follows a clear theological framework that over centuries has been developed on the basis of the Bible itself. Everything becomes more abstract and less complex. I am not opposed to such a process of theological abstraction per se. But it inevitably leads to smoothing out the historical edges of the text. And sometimes precisely these more idiosyncratic elements of the text can make it more exciting. They allow Paul to emerge as a real historical person. It is easier to relate to a real human being than to an icon.
Third, there is also payoff for our political ethics. Paul did not simply and exclusively demand submission to the state. He was an attentive observer of the political dynamics of his time. Again, we need to be careful when applying anything that he said about the Roman Empire to our own times. However, re-reading him as someone who was critical of many aspects of Roman imperialism might help us to reconsider some of our own assumptions that go back to Paul.
I am thinking for example about Paul’s self-portrayal as a captive in the Roman triumphal procession in 2 Cor 2:14. Some years ago I visited the Lateran Baptistery in Rome. This is, where the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, was supposedly baptized. On the wall, you can see a 17th-century mural, painted by Andrea Sacchi. It also depicts a triumphal procession. But the difference between the two scenes is striking. In the painting, you see Constantine as he enters the city in triumphal procession. He carries around the head of his opponent Maxentius.
Political power and the “triumph” (in the original and the metaphorical sense) of Christianity come together in a fascinating and daunting way. Fast forward to our own time and you can see Donald Trump winning the 2016 election by promising his supporters: “We’re going to win so much, that you’re going to be sick and tired.” And white Christian nationalists are currently reviving an understanding of “Christian politics” that forces certain “Christian” ideas and policies on others in a triumphal procession through democratic institutions.
In fact, as Christians living in democratic societies, we have probably all, to some extent at least, internalized the idea that Christian politics is about enshrining our values into law, by means of a democratic process of course. I am not so sure though what Paul would have said about that. It seems to me that he was much more focused on adjusting himself to others so that he could win them over for the Gospel (1 Cor 9:22).
Perhaps the “Christian” in “Christian politics” should refer not so much to the contents of the political agenda and more to the manner in which these ideas are implemented? Such considerations require more than Bible quotes. But we can sensitize ourselves for the areas where self-critical reflection and debate is needed, if we can see where we are indebted to Paul and the (mis-)interpretation of his letters. Then the theological conversation can begin.