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Paul's Alternative to Empire

by Berry Friesen (February 28, 2017)

In my previous two posts, I highlighted frames of reference that may help us perceive our situation clearly amid the spectacles and distractions the US-led empire brings into our lives.

This post will highlight yet another frame of reference, this one from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Jesus-following assemblies of Galatia (present-day Turkey).  Those assemblies consisted of men and women from a variety of backgrounds (Jews, YHWH-fearing Gentiles, worshippers of the emperor, worshippers of local gods).  Some were citizens of the empire; most were slaves in a status resembling long-term indentured servitude.

Paul wrote this letter in 48-49 CE, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius and at a time when the authority of the Roman Empire was unchallenged.  Most people had a positive view of the Empire, regarding it as the source of peace, stability and prosperity.

Paul strongly disagreed with this view; in another of his letters, he called the Roman Empire “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13).  In still another, he said the empire was “doomed” (1 Cor. 2:6) and in a fourth letter he explained why:  it had “exchanged the truth about YHWH for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). *

This in part is the relevance of Paul’s letter to Galatia to our situation today.  He was an anti-imperialist, living in an era similar to ours, inviting his readers to envision an alternative to the empire.

Following are seven key quotes from Paul’s letter to the Galatian assemblies.  The full text can be found in the 2nd testament of the Christian Bible.

“Grace to you and peace from YHWH our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:3-4).

“We know that a person is reckoned righteous [by YHWH] not by the works of the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one [body] in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

“Formerly, when you did not know YHWH, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.  Now, however, that you have come to know YHWH (or rather to be known by YHWH), how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?  How can you want to be enslaved to them again” (Gal. 4:9)?

“Now we, my friends, are children of the promise [of YHWH] . . . Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:28, 5:1).

“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another . . . Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:13, 26).

“[No past distinction] is anything; but a new creation is everything” (Gal. 6:15).

Paul’s words may strike us as having little-to-nothing to do with politics, much less the empire.  I held such a view at an earlier point in my life, but not anymore.  Now I see in Paul’s letter an attempt to help his readers understand their inclusive and non-imperial communities as “a new creation” and a sharp turn away from “the present evil age” (the Roman Empire).

As John K. Stoner and I say in If Not Empire, What?, “Questions of empire do not appear explicitly in this letter, but it is saturated with political concerns.  Old divisions that served to divide-and-conquer were being rebuilt within Galatian assemblies, divisions that would prevent the new communities of Jesus-followers from becoming a potent alternative to the empire. Paul would not stand for it” (pages 272-3).

If we see the empire as offering us a dead-end, we naturally and intentionally look for an alternative—a tangible, communal reality that is life-giving and sustainable.  Such a reality will be inherently political because it will challenge the empire’s hegemony.

Do we recognize how the US-led empire is a dead-end?  With the help of Paul’s frame of reference, can we imagine an alternative to our current predicament, here within the belly of the beast?  Can we say “a new creation is everything?”
*  For a full discussion of the Apostle Paul’s response to life in the Roman Empire, see Colossians Remixed—Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat (InterVarsity Press, 2004). See also The Arrogance of Nations—Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire by Neil Elliott (Fortress Press, 2010).