I first read this book about a year ago and can say that it has been one of the best rock my world emergingish books that I have read. This is a Biblical commentary (on Colossians if you haven't gathered that yet) that is light years away from traditional commentaries that I am used to. It is, well, remixed. It explores history and cultural themes, it imagines conversations, it explores philosophical assumptions of morality and truth before applying them to the text, it respects the readers' doubts and questions, it rewrites passages for modern readers, and it engages in "dialog" with opposing viewpoints.
As the subtitle proclaims, this book is about subverting the empire. And the words of Paul address life under this empire. The Roman Empire held sway in Paul's world. The empire let you live in "peace" as long as you gave them sufficient respect - paid your taxes, said the right things about Caeser, places images of Caeser and Rome in prominant places in your home and town, didn't question the military or slave system... Walsh and Keesmaat argue that the message of Christianity (as portrayed in Colossians) subverts that empire. Not only does that message challenge the values of Rome, it challenges the empire we live under today - the western empire of globalization, militarism, and consumerism. We are part of these empires but are called to resist them and subvert their power.
For discussion I've selected just a few of the ideas presented in the book as jumping off points. I know I'm ignoring huge sections (like the discussion on truth) but this is really long already (there is just too much good stuff here). So please feel free to bring up any other questions, quotes, or themes that you want. Let's dive in (and please don't feel overwhelmed, comment on what you want!) -
1. The question of interpretation. What is your reaction to this quote? "Reading is always from somewhere. We always read from a particular historical, cultural and geographical place. The question that we must ask is, how do we "place" ourselves, how do we discern the times and spirits that invariably influence our reading of a text like Colossians? What are the questions, crises and opportunities that we necessarily (and legitimatly) bring to this text?" p19
2. Empires are defined here as (1) built on systemic centralizations of power, (2) secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control, (3) religiously legitimated by powerful myths and (4) sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captivate the imagination of the population. In comparing how both the Roman and current Western empires maintain the status quo of privledge and oppression the authors give the examples of "most major corporations use the equivalent of slave labor to produce clothing, toys, tools and some foods. Most of this labor is done by people in Asia, Latin America or Africa. While cash-crops farmers include both men and women, the majority of those who work in sweatshops, on coffee plantations and in the sex trade are women and children. ... although our culture does not openly subscribe to an ethos of patriarchy, racism, and classism, the effects of the global economic market create the same kind of societal dynamic that was present in first-century Rome." (p 59-60). I want to ask the same questions the authors then ask - "In the face of an empire that rules through military and economic control, what is the shape of a community that serves a ruler who brings reconciliation and peace by sacrificial death rather than military might? If the empire elevates economic greed and avarice into civic virtues, while Paul dismisses such a way of life as idolatrous, then how does a Christian community shaped by Paul's gospel live life in the empire?" (p61).
3. Poetry of subversion. The authors explore how the hymn presented in Colossians 1:15-20 is a hymn of subversion of Empire. It takes the language of Empire and proclaims the supremacy of Christ over Caesar - radical, subversive, dangerous. They then contribute a "targum" (an extended translation and expansion that reads our world through the eyes of the text) of this passage. You can read it on p.85 or here. (and a short article on the point they are making here). What is your reaction to the poem? Does this imagination of an alternative to empire make sense?
4. But wait a minute you cry! Aren't Christians supposed to subject ourselves to the governing authorities and all that? The authors respond - "Rather than read [Romans 13] as providing carte blanche legitimation for any regime, regardless of how idolatrous and oppressive it might be, we suggest that Paul is actually limiting the authority of the state. The state is a servant of God for our good. it has no legitimacy or authority in and of itself, apart from subjection to the rule of God. and when the state clearly abrogates its responsibility to do good, when it acts against the will of God, then the Christian community has a responsibility to call it back to its rightful duty and even to engage in civil disobedience (see Acts 12:6-23). The state has no authority to do evil". (p185)
5.In Colossians 3:5-17 Paul tells us to put to death the things of our earthly nature (sexual immorality, greed). The authors write, "Why end a list of sexual sins with an economic sin? Because sexual sin is fundamentally a matter of covetousness, an insatiable, self-gratifying greed that has the control and consumption of the other person as its ultimate desire" (p160) and "In our culture, the unrestrained economic greed of global market capitalism pimps sexual promiscuity along with its entertainment products, communications systems, automobiles and running shoes. You see, if the empire is all about economic growth driven by a lifestyle of consumption, then all of life becomes a matter of consumption - including our sexual life. ... There is no point in getting all morally absolute about sexual promiscuity if Christians are screwing around with the same consumeristic way of life as everyone else. This text gives us the language to identify what is going on here for what it is: idolatry." (p162). How do you see sexual immorality as being greed and idolatry? What is the value of the alternatives?
6.What is your reaction to this quote? "Does the child who sits in front of a television set for three to four hours a day, shops at the mall with her parents, goes to school and recites the Pledge of Allegiance, plays computer games, listens to her president encouraging everyone to go out shopping in order to defeat terrorism, wears clothes from the Gap, and plays with the toys created out of the imagination of Disney and Hollywood, ever actually choose the American way of life? ... Was there a moment of conversion in her life when the American dream became her dream? No. She imbibed the monocultural consumerist dream in the fast food she ate, the polluted air she breathed and the visual culture she inhabited. And so she was converted, made into a cult member, before she knew what was happening." (p171).
7. If Christians are not to be at home in an empire characterized by sexual sin, greed, and violence, the authors ask what should the Kingdom look like? They proposed a life lived where the peace of the victim of an empire cross is spread, where community is lived, gratitude is practiced, and worship proclaims that Christ not Caesar is Lord of our lives. Practical suggestions the authors give include - pledging our allegiance to Christ not to the empire; investing as much each year in the hurting's present needs as we do in our future retirement; paying attention to where our food comes from and what's in it; setting up food co-ops where you can get food produced as locally as possible, in environmentally responsible ways, and that seeks to do justice to the producer of the food; be ecologically responsible by reducing our use of cars and start walking, biking, or using (or lobbying for) public transit; be good stewards of the ecosystem and stop dumping diapers (for babies or women) into the landfills (and hence streams and rivers). How do you react to those suggestions? What else could you add?
8. "We can argue until we are blue in the face that Colossians is good news for an oppressed and marginalized community at the heart of the Roman empire, but unless this good news is for those truly at the margins - slaves, children, and women- it is nothing but a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal." (p201). But the household codes in Colossians 3:18 -4:1 have more often been interpreted as justification for oppression of those groups instead of good news. The authors address this issue through a fantastic expanded account of Onesimus (the slave) and Nympha (who had a house church) - this story is worth the price of the book imho. The authors propose that the household codes can be interpreted as (1) Just an affirmation of the imperial view of the household, the Aristotelian hierarchy of man over women and all that (not likely if this letter is about subverting empire and not being captive to the philosophies of men). (2) A loving patriarchy when the wives and slaves choose to submit and husbands (amazingly enough) love and not beat their wives (wow - that seems so full of hope) . or (3) Paul is challenging the status quo by promoting the freedom and full rights of women and slaves. He couldn't of course say so directly because to commit that to writing would lead to serious persecution from the empire for such revolutionary practices. But the language he uses connotes the themes of inheritance and jubilee. Remember that Colossians was delivered and read with Philemon (about treating a slave as an equal) and the subversion is evident. Are we willing to challenge systems that oppress others if it means questioning the philosophies and assumptions of empire (ending global slavery, grant equal rights to women, not treating children as commodities)?
Labels: Book Discussions