Paul and Anti-Imperialism (Introduction)

This summer I reviewed a collection of essays edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2013). (Click here for part one of that review, click here for part two.) The book is an introduction “anti-imperial” or “Empire Criticism” approaches to the New Testament from a decidedly Evangelical perspective. These sorts of approaches have been around for a number of years, Evangelicals have been slow to interact with them.  This volume of essays is a first step toward bringing some of the value of studying Empire to a more conservative audience.

GWB as AntiChristAs McKnight and Modica comment in their introduction, one of the problems with some of the work done on anti-imperial rhetoric ends up sounding “too much like one’s personal, progressive, left-wing, Neo-Marxist, or whatever, politics” (p. 19).  This sounds something like the standard criticism of the nineteenth century “lives of Jesus” movement; all of those studies turned Jesus into a nineteenth century Protestant German liberal. McKnight admits that Empire studies grew in popularity during the Bush administration and many were not-so-veiled attempts to criticize growing fears of an “American Empire.”

But I could see how an ultra-conservative reader of this book in 2013 could easily import their own fears of “big government” demanding complete loyalty. With the recent health care debate and current government shut-down, it would be easy for either side of the political debate to latch on to these sorts of anti-imperial observations in the Pauline letters and hear them as applying to the current administration or congress (depending on your political leanings). Anti-Imperialism is not just for Marxists anymore.

Over the next few posts I want to interact with two Pauline texts using the interpretive lens of anti-Imperialism.  First, I want to look at the charges made against Paul in Thessalonica (Acts 17). Why is Paul charged with “defying Caesar’s decrees” as he preaches the gospel? Does 1 Thessalonians offer any support to understanding Paul as Anti-Rome?

Second, I will look briefly at the letter to the Philippians, the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave, and the only letter in which Paul describes himself as a slave. Is the citizenship language of Philippians intentionally “anti-Imperial”? Lynn Cohick contributed on Philippians in the McKnight and Modica collection, her comments are instructive. But there are a number of recent (evangelical) studies that might be used to read Philippians as a politically radical letter in the Roman world.

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