Symposium Introduction

This book offers a close reading of Romans that treats Paul as a radical political thinker by showing the relationship between Paul’s perspective and that of secular political theorists. Turning to both ancient political philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero) and contemporary post-Marxists (Agamben, Badiou, Derrida, and Žižek), Jennings presents Romans as a sustained argument for a new sort of political thinking concerned with the possibility and constitution of just socialities.

Reading Romans as an essay on messianic politics in conversation with ancient and postmodern political theory challenges the stereotype of Paul as a reactionary theologian who “invented” Christianity and demonstrates his importance for all, regardless of religious affiliation or academic guild, who dream and work for a society based on respect, rather than domination, division, and death. In the current context of unjust global empires constituted by avarice, arrogance, and violence, Jennings finds in Paul a stunning vision for creating just societies outside the law.



Justice, Improvisation, and Paul’s Messianic Politics

OUTLAW JUSTICE IS WHAT you get when Romans is interpreted through the lens of political philosophy by a theologian who also teaches New Testament. The result is a fresh and compelling reading of Romans that breaks out of the existing exegetical paradigm to provide a thoroughgoing political interpretation of Paul’s letter. In addition to the text of Romans, Jennings’ influences and conversation partners in Outlaw Justice are neither contemporary New Testament scholarship nor the effective history of interpretation, which continues to cast its shadow, but rather a cadre of continental philosophers that include, among others, Derrida, Baidou, Taubes, Žižek, and Agamben. What this diverse group of secular philosophers have in common is an attempt to re-imagine the political in a world where subjectivity has been colonized by globalized capitalism.

What is surprising, and not a little ironic, is that these philosophers, some of whom are self-avowed atheists, have turned to the Apostle Paul as a prototypical radical political visionary. Hence they approach the Pauline corpus with a sense of urgency and pertinence seldom witnessed in more traditional exegetical expositions of Romans. Let me rephrase that. Historically Romans has generated more interest and commentary than any other New Testament text, but attention has been focused almost exclusively on the theology of the letter. From the earliest interpreters to Augustine and Luther theological explications of Romans have prevailed and, as Jennings rightly avers, have done much to depoliticize the letter. Even in the academy where there is ostensibly a firm boundary between exegesis and theology, Romans is often touted by New Testament scholars as Paul’s most theocentric letter. Despite frequent disclaimers by exegetes that Romans is not a theological treatise but an occasional letter that should be read contextually, the theological center of gravity around which most readings revolve is justification by grace through faith.

I recall a panel review of Robert Jewett’s massive and magisterial 2006 commentary on Romans in the Hermeneia series at the annual SBL meeting when it was criticized for not being theological enough. Jennings’ volume raises anew the relationship between the theological and the political in a promising manner that intimates Paul’s significance for our own secular age. This connection between the political and the theological has a long and complex back story that is presupposed in Outlaw Justice and the philosophers Jennings interacts with. Although it cannot be rehearsed in detail here, the context and contours of it are important for understanding and appreciating the turn of secular philosophy to religious sources, especially the Apostle Paul. The heavyweights in this genealogy are the usual suspects. Nietzsche, Marx, and Heiddeger all loom large in the background of this discussion, but it is the work of and correspondence between Carl Schmidt and Walter Benjamin that has been most formative for this trajectory.

Schmidt was a political theorist whose work has been a major influence on subsequent political theory, legal theory, continental philosophy, and political theology. Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul was the first of the recent political readings of Paul. It was based on lectures Taubes gave just before he died and was published in German in 1993. In addition to interacting with Schmidt’s Political Theology, the two German philosophers were also involved in a lively personal exchange. This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Schmidt was a Catholic who became Hitler’s jurist and Taubes was Jewish. There are two tenets of Schmidt’s work that are foundational for Taubes and subsequent political interpretations of Paul, including Jennings’ book. Schmidt’s critique of secularization and the law of the state was predicated on a suspicion of positivistic reason and an ideology of progress. The other key claim that continues to reverberate is that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”1

Walter Benjamin was a contemporary of Schmidt’s and also a dialogue partner with him before the war. Benjamin shared Schmidt’s conviction that the myth of progress had been shattered in the twentieth century. He crystallized Schmidt’s notion of political nihilism and in his concise and somewhat opaque “Theses on the Philosophy of History” set forth his highly influential idea of weak messianic power upon which an alternative messianic politics is constructed. Taubes sees a strong connection between Benjamin’s messianic politics and Paul’s political theology, and Agamben goes so far as to posit that he derived his concept of the messianic from Paul.

This brief account of the idea of the messianic in the context of the development of political theology is integral to an engagement with Outlaw Justice for a number of reasons. While Jennings’ book, broadly speaking, belongs to the genre of commentary inasmuch as it is an interpretation of the entire letter of Romans rather than a detailed interaction with the aforementioned tradition, it does seem to be an attempt to exegetically work out the idea of the messianic that originated with Benjamin and has been developed by post-Marxist philosophers invested in a liberative politics. This raises at least two important questions worth exploring in this review essay. Is this reading of Romans as political theology a credible account of the rhetorical strategy of the letter in its first century context? Indeed, how does Outlaw Justice correlate with contemporary exegesis of Romans and what does it contribute? Secondly, what are the implications for theology and praxis in this ever-evolving secular landscape that faith must navigate?

As a New Testament scholar schooled in the art of exegesis, I want to endorse Outlaw Justice as one of the most important books on Paul in recent years. But in order to support that claim I need to explain how Jennings bridges the gap between exegesis and political philosophy to open up new possibilities for understanding Romans in its ancient context and modern contexts. There is a growing body of scholarship that features political philosophical readings of Paul, and we are also beginning to see some engagement by New Testament scholars. In a few recent edited collections of essays some first-rate Pauline scholars make an earnest attempt to interact constructively with the political interpretations by philosophers, but the sense of disconnection is palpable. Generally speaking, and there are certainly exceptions to this (e.g., Daniel Boyarin and Neil Elliott), it is evident that New Testament scholars regard this project as more or less anachronistic. In other words, it is a reading of Paul through a lens that construes the text in terms of philosophical and political constructs that fails to respect the socio-historical distance between the ancient and modern worlds.

I must confess that my initial foray into these political readings of Paul by philosophers elicited a similar response. It wasn’t until I taught a graduate seminar in the spring in which we read Taubes, Baidou, Agamben, and a number of related essays while also reading through the Greek text of Romans with Jennings as our guide that I began to see Romans and what Paul was doing in a different light. The political lens Jennings refines and appropriates exegetically confirms recent counter-imperial interpretations of Romans but also shifts the focus from the more abstract ideological perspective of Paul’s critique of imperial injustice to a more constructive and pragmatic account of an alternative justice engendered by the messianic event. It also provides a means for breaking out of the individualistic paradigm, which is also anachronistic but continues to hamstring Pauline studies. So let’s look at how Jennings reframes Romans in a way that is consistent with but moves beyond counter-imperial readings of the apostle, and then raise some questions that might be worth further exploration.

I have two basic criteria for evaluating interpretations of Romans, and Outlaw Justice meets both of them. The first is the assumption that Paul continued to be a practicing Jew and therefore Romans must make sense within a first-century Jewish context. This means that there shouldn’t be even a trace of Marcionism or anitinomianism . The second criterion is that a strong reading of Romans must be a sustained and coherent interpretation of the letter as a whole. As Jennings points out, most interpreters have concentrated on Romans 1–8 because that is where the heart of Paul’s theological argument is seen to reside. It wasn’t until Stendahl’s now famous work that Romans 9–11 was promoted from “excursus” to a centerpiece of the letter. Romans 12–15 is still often treated as paraenesis with minimal connection to what precedes. The great accomplishment of Jennings’ book is that he persuasively argues that the entire letter is about justice, and shows how Romans 9–15 is an appropriation of the revelation of divine justice set out in Romans 1–8.

Jennings sets up his discussion of Paul’s articulation of the gospel in Romans as a demonstration of “outlaw justice’ by modifying standard English translations of the Greek text. He proposes a strategy of defamiliarizing in order to allow a fresh encounter with the text and to liberate it from traditional reading by using Judean rather than Jewish, messiah rather than Christ, justice rather than righteousness, fidelity or loyalty rather than faith, and generosity or favor rather grace. Anyone who reads Greek knows that this not only a valid move but also a responsible one. In my teaching of Paul’s letters in recent years I have required students to make these very same linguistic substitutions, and over the course of a semester it fundamentally changes their perspective. As Pauline scholars have adopted a counter-imperial reading of Paul’s letters in the last 15–20 years or so there has been a growing tendency to translate the Greek term dikaiosunē as justice in some instances, especially in the early chapters of Romans. Yet despite the fact that “justice” is the primary definition in Liddell-Scott, the preeminent lexicon of classical Greek, “righteousness” is still the preferred translation. In part this is due to the persistence of the individualistic religious paradigm that Jennings is contesting.

The crux of Jennings’ argument is what he refers to as “a radical rethinking of political by insisting that justice should be thought in contrast to law.” His thesis is that “the political question of justice is to have a completely new basis: the act of God in the messiah” (3). Here already at the outset Jennings has positioned himself high on a slippery slope where the Jewish law serves as the foil for the gospel. Some of the political readings of Paul by philosophers are indeed characterized by Marcionite tendencies. This is particularly true of Baidou, but even Agamben, who works very hard to avoid this trap and does not completely escape. Jennings avoids this stumbling block, however, by incorporating insights from counter-imperial interpretations. He rightly observes, with reference to both traditional and philosophical readings of Paul, “the question of ‘law’ has most often been restricted to the ‘religious’ law of Moses, with little or no attention given to the critique of Rome.”

This is the fulcrum upon which the entire argument of Jennings book is leveraged. Jennings is not the first to see Romans 1:18–32 as a critique of the Roman imperial order. Stowers maintains that it is a stock decline of civilization narrative that would have been familiar to audiences. But as Paul’s argument turns to the Judean interlocutor and focuses on Jewish law, the tendency is to assume that Paul has moved on to the real focus of the letter, namely justification by faith rather than by Torah observance. What distinguishes Jennings interpretation is his insistence that Paul’s presupposition throughout is that what God requires is justice, and justice is a political concept that applies to societies and not simply to individuals. This seems to me to be fundamentally right and indeed a game changer if the rest of the letter can be shown to support this insight. Jennings avoids the pitfall of antinomianism by positing that Paul’s logic in these first chapters of Romans is that just as Roman law has failed to produce a just social order, it is likewise the case that despite possession of law of Moses, which is regarded as divine gift, Judean society is also characterized by injustice. As Jennings points out, Paul’s critique is not of Mosaic law per se but is in accordance with the prophetic tradition and its emphasis on doing the justice at which the law aims.

What Paul depicts in these first three chapters of Romans is an all-encompassing indictment of social totalities that are unjust, and even good people are complicit in such a social order. Although on one level this is consistent with the prophetic critique of injustice, the genesis of this revelation of divine justice apart from law is, as is evident from the key passage in Romans 3:21–26, the execution of Jesus. It was in accordance with both Roman and Judean law that Jesus was made an outlaw. As Jennings puts it, “If he was just, then the justice involved is somehow outside the law. And perhaps it is precisely his loyalty to justice, or to God as justice, that places him outside the law and so fundamentally ruptures the connection between law and justice.” Construing this pivotal passage in terms of justice not only throws into sharp relief the conflict between law and justice, but also shows how justice outside the law is manifested through the faithfulness of the messiah who provokes loyalty to God’s justice in others.

A political rendering of Romans 3:21–26 is particularly important because the individualistic reading of Romans continues to be reinscribed by interpreting the death of Jesus in terms of atonement theology. The NRSV perpetuates this view by erroneously translating 3:25 as “a sacrifice of atonement.” It’s difficult to know why Paul forgoes the more overtly political explication of the crucifixion of 1 Corinthians 1–2 and even Galatians 3, but the use of a few cultic metaphors in Romans does not trump Paul’s singular focus on the messiah’s faithfulness as a manifestation of divine justice outside the law. I have been teaching students for years that Paul is clear about the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus was a political act on the part of the Roman Empire. The Jerusalem aristocracy may have played a role, but ultimately it was the Roman authorities who executed him for sedition. By the same token, as Jennings maintains, the resurrection of the one who was put to death by the authorities is an also inescapably political event that has everything to do with justice, a messianic justice outside the law.

It is not uncommon for Pauline scholars to at least acknowledge the political implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but when it comes to explicating the alternative justice revealed in the messianic event commentators frequently revert to focusing on the faith of individual believers. This is particularly true with reference to Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s prototypical faithfulness in Romans 4 and his treatment of law and sin in Romans 5–7. There are several complicated translation and exegetical issues in this section of Romans that impede or at least distract from a political interpretation of the messianic event. Since at least Augustine, sin has been understood in terms of personal morality and the sexualization of the passions in Romans 6 rather than sociopolitically. This is reinforced by translating dikaiosunē as “righteousness” rather than “justice.” Jennings contends that the truth of the messianic message depends on its awakening the capacity to become just, but it is a challenge to represent the idea of a “just” individual from the collectivist culture of antiquity to a society predicated on the myth of an autonomous self. Jennings recognizes the challenge of translating dikaiosunē in Romans 7 and appeals to Derrida’s use of a verbal form of justice (“justicing”). However, this only highlights how difficult it is to translate the language and the ideas of Romans 5–7 into the English language and Western cultural constructs.

Given the difficulties of reading Romans 5–7 as an expression of messianic politics, many if not most interpretations are not able to move beyond the Reformation perspective that Romans is primarily concerned with how individuals are declared righteous in order to become righteous. Even scholars who feature a counter-imperial perspective on the letter have trouble producing a sustained political reading through to the end. A good example is Elliott’s excellent book The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. In the whole book there are only four brief references to any passages in Romans 5–8 and a sprinkling of references to Romans 14. One of the real strengths of Jennings’ book is the way in which he connects the dots between Romans 1–8 and 9–15. He does this by showing how Romans 9–11 relates the divine justice disclosed in the messianic event to Israel, and how Romans 12–15 is what he terms a corporate improvisation of justice.

It is impossible to do justice, no pun intended, to the nuances and numerous insights in Jennings’ discussion of the second half of Romans. Throughout the early chapters of Outlaw Justice I found myself wondering about his definition of this messianic justice. However, the character of this divine justice is the main focus of his discussion of the second half of the letter. In his exegesis of Romans 3 one of Jennings’ key claims is that the faithfulness of the messiah brings about the faithfulness of others, and that unconditional generosity lies at the basis of this justice beyond law. Romans 9–11 is the most conspicuous instance of political theology in the letter inasmuch as Paul’s concern is with the political status of Israel. The problem Paul addresses here is God’s faithfulness to God’s promise to Israel given that God is, through the apostle, extending messianic justice to the nations. But Jennings rightly affirms that Paul’s concern throughout the letter is the salvation of all. The reliability of the divine promise must be connected to the question of a just social order, and therefore must include the nations. However, Jennings is careful to point out that Paul’s apostleship to the gentiles is a detour to the true mission to Israel. So Paul is also concerned to nip in the bud any hint of supersessionism on the part of Gentile believes.

In Romans 9–11 a more precise picture of this alternative divine justice as mercy and compassion begin to emerge. Moreover, this is also where Jennings develops his portrait of God as one who improvises to the tune of justice and mercy. Romans 9–11 is a case study in the improvisational character of divine justice, and this is then given expression in terms of a communal vision and ethic in Romans 12–15. I agree with Jennings that the whole of Paul’s argument to this point is but preparation for his description of the messianic way of life in 12–15. These chapters provide a portrait of how divine justice, mercy, love, and generosity take concrete shape through the messianic body, and how the relational, improvisational, and non-conformist faithfulness that should characterize these vanguard communities mirrors the divine reality disclosed in the messianic event. It seems to me that this is where counter-imperial readings of Paul should focus more attention because, as Jennings observes, “this new improvisational and creative form of life is the only persuasive evidence of the messianic reality.” The crux of this reality and the basis of this communal way of life is a messiah who did not please himself. This serves as the pattern for dealing with one another.

This main aim of this laudatory review of Outlaw Justice has been to recount the main elements of Jennings’ reading of Romans with a view to putting it into conversation with contemporary exegetical discussions of the letter. Jennings book has done much to clarify the argument and vision of Romans in accordance with insights I have gleaned from teaching Romans over the years but have not been able to quite pull together. That does not mean that there aren’t interpretations of particular passages to quibble over and debate, there are. Next time I teach Romans I will have students read Outlaw Justice alongside some of the standard commentaries and monographs. But if Jennings is right in suggesting that Romans is ultimately about the failure of law in general to bring about justice, and about faithfulness to the messianic reality as the remedy for injustice, as I suspect he is, then this opens up new possibilities for understanding what Paul was up to in his own context as well as his significance in contemporary contexts.

The main question I want to raise for Jennings is, ironically enough, a theological question. It’s the same theological question elicited by my reading of Baidou, Taubes, Žižek, Agamben, and other philosophers looking to Paul as a source for a radical politics. As philosophers they seems to want to identify and retrieve the structure of the messianic event without giving credence to the divine reality upon which Paul assumes it is predicated. On the one hand, I find this focus on the structure and politics of the messianic event useful, not least because it raises afresh the question of what Paul meant and what we mean by the symbol “God.” Jennings sees improvisation and justice as two of the central attributes of God in Romans, and at one point wonders with Caputo whether justice is just another name for God. In Taubes’ discussion of the messianic idea in Benjamin, who initiated modern philosophical discussions of messianic politics, he says of Benjamin “there’s nothing there having to do with immanence. From that one gets nowhere. The drawbridge comes from the other side. . . . You have to be told from the other side that you are liberated. If God is God, then he can’t be coaxed out of your soul.”2 I am not sure how useful the immanence-transcendence paradigm is these days for working out Paul’s theology or our own, but this question of Deus abscondituspersists. Paul continues to be an important conversation partner in the exploration of that mystery, and I would also like to hear Jennings’ contribution to that discussion.

  1. Jacob Taubes. The Political Theology of Paul, translated by Dana Hollander (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004) 66.

  2. Ibid., 76.

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    Theodore Jennings


    A Response to Raymond Pickett

    I am very grateful to Ray Pickett not only for his praise of my book but especially for his engagement with and summarization of many of its principle themes. I am especially glad that he has picked up on the idea of improvisation as characterizing the divine action in history (and so what earlier theologians thought of as the freedom or sovereignty of God) and the character of a messianic loyalty to that action on the part of communities or socialities of faithfulness. He has underscored as well the deeply social character of Paul’s concerns, something that I had found most surprising when I began to engage Paul many years ago and had also found rather discomfiting. I had found it difficult not only because of the inheritance of a tradition of personalistic interpretation but also because of my own somewhat anarchistic suspicion of community and institutions. So Pauline texts have forced me to think very much otherwise than my own predilections would have dictated.

    I want to try to reply to the very important and difficult issue he raises at the end concerning the ways we may think of the divine in a world in which the “outside” of divine transcendence seems closed off to us, what is sometimes referred to as theology after the death of God. Many years ago I had tried to address this set of questions in my Beyond Theism: A Grammar of God-Language. But that was before I had engaged Paul in a systematic way.

    Pickett raises this issue in a wonderful way by referring to the words of Jacob Taubes concerning Walter Benjamin: “If God is God then he can’t be coaxed out of your soul.” These words are actually a pretty good paraphrase of the argument of Karl Barth in his own exemplary commentary on Romans, a commentary that has deeply shaped my own engagement with the text of Romans. That commentary is also contemporary with the work both of Benjamin and of Carl Schmitt. Of course this reference to Barth only renders more acute the question that Pickett raises.

    To be sure, Paul does use “god-language” in ways that certainly trump the relative immanentalism of the Hellenistic world, including that of the greatest political thinkers of that world: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. It is this that I think rightly leads Barth to so strongly emphasize the divine transcendence over against the liberal immanentalism of so many of his teachers, an immanentalism that also had dire political consequences in their capitulation to the logic of a cultural nationalism and the project of mindless war.

    But if, as I believe, we live in a time and world in which the plausibility of a certain way of thinking of divine transcendence or the divine as transcendent has collapsed, then how are we able to interpret, understand, appropriate Paul’s thinking today?

    I do not believe it is useful or even faithful to Paul to double down on talk of other-worldly transcendence as some of my friends in the apocalyptic theology group do, still less to posit a similar other worldly transcendence for things like sin and death. This only produces a sort of paranoid fantasy world reminiscent of Marvel comics and certain science fiction and sword and sorcery narratives: certainly entertaining but not capable of illuminating our world. Moreover, it seems to me to run completely contrary to Paul’s own emphasis that death has already been overcome (1 Corinthians 15), and that those faithful to the messianic project are already delivered from the power of sin (Romans 5–8). To be sure, we are all aware of the ways in which our lives and perceptions are governed by transpersonal and “abstract” powers, whether Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” racism and white supremacy, or the inheritances of what Pierre Bourdieu called the masculine domination of women. But these “principalities and powers” need not be mythologized in order to be grasped, grappled with, or overcome.

    But that then still leaves us with the question of the divine transcendence. Pickett rightly divines that it is along the lines of divine improvisation (the freedom of God) and the unconditionality of the claim and call of justice that I believe we may seek to reinterpret the divine transcendence.

    This is at least akin to what several of the thinkers I seek to engage in conversation with Paul have aimed at as well: a sort of inner-worldly transcendence. This does not originate with these philosophers. They seem generally unaware of the work in this direction of theologians like Bonhoeffer, Gogarten, Ebeling, and Jungel, to mention only a few. But what is remarkable is that thinkers who openly affirm that they are in certain ways unbelievers and atheists find it necessary to rethink transcendence rather than simply renounce it altogether.

    One who had offered an important indication of how this works is Emmanuel Levinas in his reflections on ethics as first philosophy in which it is the nudity of the face of the other that shatters our own immanence with a devastating (and liberating) transcendent claim. Derrida, whose work is a lifelong engagement with Levinas, had proposed a certain radicalization of this principle with his formula that every other is wholly other, producing a proliferation, or as he would say, dissemination of transcendence. (Not unlike the way the kenosis of God in Altizer produces a Joycean “Here comes everybody.”)

    This is complemented by his emphasis on the necessity of thinking the impossible as a condition of thinking itself, whether in his engagement with some of the great “mystics” or in his characteristic emphasis on the aporia or impossibility yet necessity of gift, hospitality, forgiveness, and so on. All of this means that it is necessary to think at the outside or boundary of what is called reason and especially of knowledge. Alain Badiou provides another way of thinking the exigency of going beyond or transgressing the boundaries of constituted knowledge in his thinking of the event as rupturing the given situation with its sets of knowledge predicated, as always, upon certain exclusions.

    Now by pointing to some of these indicators of an inner-worldly transcendence have I not overly secularized the thinking of Paul? Perhaps. Of course there are those like Marcel Gauchet (The Disenchantment of the World) and Jean Luc Nancy (The Deconstruction of Christianity) who maintain that this secularization is precisely the consequence of that gospel Paul (and others) proclaimed. And in supposing that secularization is the consequence rather than the enemy of that gospel they are (perhaps unknowingly) following on the insights of theologians like Bonhoeffer, Gogarten, and Soelle among others.

    But is this not also a following out of certain “secularizing” moves also made by Paul himself? I note in my commentary that Paul seems to routinely refer to the second table of the Mosaic commandments and never to the first. That is, it is ethics rather than religion that he emphasizes (something also true of the Gospels). Moreover, Paul’s use of cultic language seems to always profoundly secularize that language. Just think, for example, of how he uses cultic language in Philippians 2:17: “if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faithfulness.” That is, if Paul’s suffering imprisonment and possible death is that which is a kind of accelerant to the endurance of opposition and persecution that falls upon those who are faithful to the messianic sway. This is rather thoroughgoing “secularization” of cultic language. This is also manifest in “present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship” (12:1). Note well: rational not cultic.

    Now I am certainly not supposing that Paul was a modern thinker. Many centuries and transformations of cultural and intellectual worlds separate his writings from our own time and place. But I do not believe it is only a betrayal of the Pauline legacy if we follow out these indications in ways that make it possible for that legacy to have real purchase on our own world and ways of thinking.

    There is far more that needs to be said on this theme, on the messianic as the incoming (Barth) or the “to-come” (Derrida) and so on. But I hope I have at least provided some indication of how I would go about trying to deal with the extremely important issue that Pickett has raised in his response to my work on Romans.

    In Conclusion

    What I attempt in this book is to give Paul a fair hearing and one that I hope may invite what Schleiermacher called the cultured among the despisers of religion, to take another look at Paul, to what of significance may be gleaned in the struggle against an all-encircling and death-dealing global (dis)order. (Thus I am gratified that the books in which I deal with Paul have appeared in the Stanford series significantly named Cultural Memory in the Present, rather than in one of the standard publishers of NT commentaries. It is the first time an avowed practicing theologian has been published in that series.)

    At the same time I have hoped to suggest to some who claim the legacy of Paul that his concerns are far wider than the narrow ecclesial or academic interests that have so truncated his insights.

    I by no means suppose that my comments on Paul exhaust the interpretive possibilities. These reviewers have abundantly demonstrated that even within a political reading there are many roads not taken that offer promise of significant gains in insight. One idea that seems to unite them is the suggestion that Paul should also be read as an activist and not only as a thinker of the political. I agree. But I also know that these need not be mutually exclusive approaches, as the examples of Lenin and Luxemburg, of Gutierrez and Sobrino amply demonstrate.

    Moreover, it is not the case that I believe that whatever Paul says is adequate or even defensible. In some cases this may be due to inevitable gaps in our understanding of the first-century context, in others to the fragmentary character of this correspondence (presupposing or anticipating fuller elaboration and even correction in contexts of more ample conversation). In still others it may be the case that Paul was quite simply wrong. Certainly his messianic project did not turn out the way he apparently hoped. And his own passionate personality may have produced positions that even he came to regret (my way of understanding the differences in his approach to Abraham or to the law in Galatians as opposed to Romans, for example). There are, no doubt, many other places where as Paul says he “sees through a glass darkly.”

    Nor do I endorse everything written by my philosophical interlocutors. In many matters I have strong disagreements with them as they no doubt would have with me. But I do think and have tried to show that here and there they have things to say that illumine some of the concerns exhibited in Paul’s text.

    I want to conclude with again expressing my gratitude to each of these fine intellectuals who have taken the trouble to engage with me in conversation. In every case, though in different ways, they have opened up important avenues for further reflection, provocations for productive engagement with the text of Paul and with the world in which we labor. I apologize for my inability to give each the attention they merit. But I assure them that I am grateful to them and for them.



Outlaw Justice for Settlers

1. Reading Romans as Settlers

I WILL BEGIN BY recognizing that I am writing this text while occupying land that is gifted to the keeping of the Haudenosaunee and Ahnishinaabe. I lift my hands to these caretakers of the land and thank them for allowing Settlers like me to live, work, and play in their territory. As a Settler, I benefit from the ongoing project of Settler colonialism as it plays out across Turtle Island in the territories that are called “Canada.” Here, six hundred plus indigenous nations have been the target of genocidal practices and policies from before the founding of Canada up until the present day. In all of this, the government of Canada, the Christian churches, the charities, and all the citizens of the nation have been implicated. Indeed, it is necessary to acknowledge from the beginning that as a white male settler of Christian European descent, I am a beneficiary of the genocidal process of colonization that has secured for me legal rights, access to wealth, education and political and social status. What can be said of Settlers like me?1

There is none just. Not even one. . . . There is none practicing goodness. Not even one.

And this is true of us, precisely as those who are vindicated by the Law. To us, the Law is not initially experienced as the “Law of Sin and of Death” but is rather experienced as the Law of freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. We are made just by this Law. We are told we deserve what we have inherited. We are told that all the things we take for granted, all the opportunities available to us, are there for the taking because of our hard work and our upstanding moral character.

As for those who are not like Settlers colonizing others, the Haudenosaunee, Ahnishinaabe, Mi’kmaq, or Tsleil-Waututh, or others who have been colonized overseas by our military forces—from Haitians to Afghanis—or who have been colonized by our economic forces—from the Quechua in Bolivia to the Juruna and Arana in Brazil (all of whom are dispossessed and murdered to support Canadian mining projects)—to workers in free trade zones and export processing zones who operate as a modern form of slave labor producing the products we enjoy, to temporary foreign workers brought in to clean hotels in Whistler, or to work in the Tar Sands, or to work as nannies in the homes of wealthy Canadians, or to work as dancers in strip clubs in Toronto and Montreal, well, as for all these peoples, if we are feeling particular altruistic, the Law permits us to condescend to try and save them. Perhaps we will share the gospel with them (that is, the good news of their total depravity and how they may be saved from the wrath of God by accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior so that they may be transformed to accept the values of the dominant culture), perhaps we will save them through charity (that is, by teaching them the rewards of compliance so that they can become civic members paying taxes, accumulating debts, shopping, and contributing to the economy), or perhaps we will save them by medicating them (if we are psychiatrists), by taking them away from their parents, family, and culture (if we are social workers), by beating them (if we are police officers), or by imprisoning them (if we are judges). Whichever route we choose, the Rule of Law is reinforced, and so we are lauded as altruistic care-givers contributing to the health and wellness of all.


What then shall we say to these things? If the Law is for us, who can be against us? That which did not spare the indigenous peoples, but gave them up for us all—how will it not also, along with them, freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against those whom the Law has chosen? It is the Law who justifies.

Who, then, is the one who condemns? Is in not precisely the verdict of justice—of the outlaw justice that is expressed in the vindication of messiah Joshua and the enslaved, colonized, and dispossessed people who gather with him (that is to say, the left-for-dead who occupy the place-of-no-place, who are now experiencing an ἀνάστασις—a resurrection, a rising up, an insurrection, an uprising)—is it not precisely this verdict that says Settlers like me who are vindicated by the Law are actually condemned by the God of justice? It turns out we are neither saved nor saviors—it is we who are unjust and lacking any comprehensive wholeness (salvation).

Wretched people that we are, who will deliver us from this dying and death-dealing body in which we live and which lives in us?

Asking this question leads me to the epistle addressed to “all those beloved by God in Rome.” Of all the epistles recorded in the names of Paul and his co-authors, it is this epistle that might address Settlers like me. All the others are clearly written to people who have been vanquished, colonized, and enslaved by the regnant imperial powers. Corinthians, Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, in today’s terms these are letters written to the Haudenosaunee, Ahnishinaabe, Mi’kmaq, and Tsleil-Waututh. Furthermore, all these letters are written by folks like Paul who were from nations that had been colonized, but who now participated in a transnational movement that claimed a state-executed, indigenous terrorist as messiah. What does any of this have to do with Settlers like me? To presume we can somehow exegete texts like these or seek to live within the trajectory they establish—isn’t this simply another act of colonial appropriation and white privilege wherein we pick and choose elements of other cultures and traditions and make them fit comfortably within this dying and death-dealing body? When we read Galatians and claim it as a text that is somehow ours, as if we are Gauls and not Canadians, as if we are crucified with messiah and not crucifying indigenous peoples on Turtle Island and elsewhere, are we doing anything different than white folks who put on feathers when they go to cheer for the Washington Redskins? By talking so comfortably about Joshua or Paul or their co-conspirators, are we doing anything different than the death-dealers who gathered to praise Martin Luther King, Jr. when a monument dedicated to him was unveiled in Washington?

But perhaps this epistle is different? This is a letter written to gentiles residing at the very heart of the empire. Perhaps then, there is hope that even a Settler may find the seeds of salvation herein? How inclusive is this “all” who are beloved? Perhaps the gift that initiates the outlaw justice of God is so great, perhaps the mercy that leads to peace is so merciful, that even enemies like Settlers can be transformed into the friends of the colonized? Is the welcome found in this messianic social polity so expansive that it brings together those who were left for dead with those who left them for dead?2 Does this letter address Settlers like me?

2. Reading Settlers Writing about Romans

Theodore W. Jennings Jr. seems to think so. Although he is aware of the structural violence of his context, and despite the awkward precedence of his own government, he not only seems quite comfortable reading mail sent to others, but also appears to be quite comfortable telling us how we should read this mail. Not only that but words like “outlaw justice,” “the cross,” and “solidarity” are used a great deal and there does not seem to be any suggestion that it may be inappropriate or unsettling for Settlers or other people of privilege to claim this language as their own. I would like to question this.

Jennings’ project is rooted in a Settler colonial way of learning and communicating. For all his talk about inclusivity, he is operating within an exclusionary epistemological and pedagogical paradigm that carefully establishes and patrols boundaries around what can be constituted as knowledge and what voices are heard or not heard. Hence, one hears a great deal from the upper echelons of theory—from Derrida, Agamben, Badiou, and other white European men situated in places of privilege and power/knowledge—but one does not hear from others whose situation, now or at other moments in history, could be analogous to the situation of Paul and his co-workers.3 The point here is not to suggest these voices are not worth hearing; rather, the point is to question how much an exclusive focus upon voices like these has to do with the life and writings of Paul, Joshua, and those who were crucified with them. In fact, I think Paul, Joshua, and their comrades, may be rather surprised to find themselves in this exclusive company and not in the company of some others.

Given the discourse establishing and controlling dynamics of power/knowledge that are at work in the academy, and into which Jennings’ book fits so comfortably, I wonder if Jennings, despite all of his (commendable) antinomianism, has not capitulated to another form of Law—the academic Law, which governs the productions of legitimate discourses. Perhaps Jennings would argue that engaging these dynamics within the now-time of messianic politics is a form of engagement that, while playing by the rules of the game, both subverts them and fulfills them and engages this νόμος “as if not.” However, one must immediately observe who gets excluded from this game altogether. Not only are indigenous ways of knowing (and those invested therein) excluded from reference in the work itself but the kind of reader for whom this book is written is also rather exclusive.4 The vast majority of those whom I have encountered who have been left-for-dead but who now pursue outlaw justice in cells of creativity and resistance, empowered by the Spirit of life, would have little interest in a book like this. Again, this is not to suggest that this book is useless or no good (I personally enjoyed it a lot, as I have enjoyed everything else I have read by Jennings) but it is to suggest that something may be off if we wish to write books about Paul quoting people who have little or nothing in common with Paul and the messianic politics he and his co-workers attempted to embody, for an audience that also has little or nothing in common with Paul and that same embodiment. Observing this, I am inclined to wonder if the book, although about Paul, actually fits into the trajectory established by Joshua, Paul and their co-workers.5

Jennings might contest this. He may highlight the importance of announcing the gospel with words because “faithfulness is awakened or provoked through the hearing of the announcement of the gospel” (156). But I suspect Jennings himself would express some discomfort if this is used to affirm a standard academic logocentric approach that focuses upon the speaking/writing, hearing/reading of the word, in order to neglect observing how that word is or is not embodied—for, as Jennings also says, the whole point of this proclamation and its affirmation is to be set on “the road to a comprehensive wholeness (salvation) through orienting one’s life to this impossibility” (158). One thing I have learned over the years from spending time amongst academics, social workers, Christians, and activists is that talk about justice is cheap.6 It doesn’t cost you anything to talk about justice or solidarity or the cross. In fact, it can be quite beneficial—it can help you sell books or gain a tenure track position or boost your “radical” brand status. The critical point is not how a person talks about justice, but how those who talk about justice end up embodying that proclamation.

Yet it is precisely at this point of embodiment that Jennings’ book is the weakest. Despite saying that Romans 1–11 is simply the necessary introductory material that clears the path for what matters most (the subsequent description of how things actually play out in concrete actions and relationships), the language Jennings employs is frustratingly vague. When things begin to get more concrete—say by the repeated affirmation that this justice finds expression in a community that accepts and affirms differences within an overarching unity—I wonder how exactly this kind of justice is an outlaw justice or how it is any different than, for example, the “multiculturalism” affirmed by the genocidal government of Canada. Perhaps the justice Jennings is wishing to affirm undercuts the rule and force of Law, but nothing Jennings speaks of, when he speaks concretely at all, seems particularly threatening to the Law. Yet the justice affirmed by Joshua, Paul, and their co-laborers, was not simply out(side of the)law. It was also illegal. They were invested in breaking the Law—not only by breaking the stranglehold of Death that it wields over the subjects it creates, but also by breaking its rules. Those who have been assaulted by police officers armed with less-lethal weapons because they are engaging in less-legal tactics understand this. Overpriced speakers staying in overpriced hotels at overpriced conferences frequently do not. If the force of Law, if Death itself, no longer holds sway over us, then we demonstrate this, not by talking about how great this is, but by breaking the Law. If we do this, we will better understand what it means to “suffer with” messiah.

Indeed, the ease with which Jennings speaks of “suffering with” or “solidarity with” is baffling to me. For example, when addressing Romans 6:5, which speaks of participating in the resurrection/uprising of those left for dead precisely because one has been united with messiah in a death like his, Jennings seems to assume that this very specific kind participation can be taken for granted in the lives of his readers (and perhaps himself?). But how can this be? How can a Settler like me who benefits from colonialism and is rooted in a position of privilege and power, be meaningfully said to be united with messiah in a death like his? How can I speak of being co-crucified or in solidarity with the Haudenosaunee and Ahnishinaabe whose land I occupy, or with the Haitians shot by my military, or with the Arana dispossessed by companies funded by my tax money disguised as “foreign aid,” or with Korean sweatshop laborers who made the products I use, or with temporary foreign workers dancing in strip clubs? What might they have to say amongst themselves about any claim I might make about solidarity? And if this claim is inappropriate, how can I think I am also a participant in the resurrection/uprising of those left for dead?

3. Who Will Deliver Me?

I am left with my original question: is this an epistle addressed to Settlers like me, Romans amongst Romans, enslaved within a body that is both dying and death-dealing? Despite Jennings’ efforts, and despite how comforting his book is to me (and to others who wish to both engage in an emancipatory messianic politics and remain rooted within the context of relatively high comfort, status, and privilege), I cannot help but conclude that, no, this letter is not for us. Those being addressed in Rome are likely slaves and the children of slaves who have been freed—they are Gauls and Greeks and vanquished and colonized people dragged from their homes and living in tenement slums at the heart of the empire. We are not these people. Perhaps it is not even for us to speak about this letter at all but, instead, to listen to what the crucified and colonized people of today have to say about it. How does one read Romans in Guantánamo? How do those incarcerated there understand justice and the Law?

However, that this letter is not addressed to us does not mean it is irrelevant to us. This letter is relevant to us in the same way that YHWH’s call to Moses is relevant to Pharaoh. While the colonized may read the words of Paul and his co-authors and hear, “the Law of the Spirit of Life in messiah Jesus has set us free from the Law of Sin and of Death,” Settlers need to read these words and hear “Let my people go!” Ultimately, this text reveals to us whose side we are on and what we must do in order to be united with messiah in a death like his (and thereby participate in the ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν). This epistle heaps burning coals upon our heads and it is the burning of these coals that reveals to us the fundamental choice we face between Life and Death: we can give up all that we have and be delivered in the taking up of our crosses, or we can walk away weeping and dealing out death . . . until we are drowned in the sea.7

  1. When I make reference to “Settlers like me” here and throughout, I do not mean exclusively white, male, heterosexual, middleclass people of Christian European descent. Rather, the emphasis is intended to fall upon that ofbeing a Settler and so the phrase “Settlers like me” is intended to refer to any person who is a Settler. I include the words “like me” to emphasize that I am not exempt from any of the criticisms posited in what follows. The same applies to the “we” or “us” language used throughout—it should be understand as reference to “we Settlers” or “us Settlers.”

  2. Of course, for this to take place, the entire context of Settler colonialism would need to be destroyed.

  3. I believe that of the approximately fifty-five contemporary authors mentioned in Jennings bibliography all but three (Brigitte Kahl, Elsa Tamez, and Gayle Rubin) are men, and all but two (Elsa Tamez and José Porfirio Miranda) are either European or Settlers of European descent in North America. Note, also, that those contributing to this symposium continue to reflect this dynamic.

  4. Furthermore, the post-Marxist emphasis upon “God” as “Justice” (a God understood more as a possibility, however impossible, than a being?) and the ongoing efforts of Jennings to downplay any cultic or spiritual/religious significance of the content of this epistle is also problematical from this perspective. While Jennings’ effort to push back against the religiosity of Settler Christianity is commendable, this approach does not account for the ways in which returning to traditional forms of spirituality and religion—including both experiential and cultic elements—can be a significant part of the broader emancipatory project of indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.

  5. Elsewhere, when Paul calls upon others to imitate him as he imitates messiah I think he means he wants us to live and not just write like him.

  6. NB: this line of criticism does not apply to the grassroots community organizers/members, and indigenous land defenders, whom I have encountered over the years. As some land defenders point out: “Everyone calls themselves an ally until it comes time to do some real ally shit!”

  7. I would like to thank Dave Diewert for reading a draft of this essay. Of Dave it can be said that he has, not just in word but far more often in deed and in the pursuit of a particular trajectory in life, imitated Paul as Paul imitated messiah Joshua. Of course, since Dave read and responded to a draft of this text, any errors or omissions that remain (grammatical, ideological, or otherwise) should clearly be attributed to him and not to me!

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    Theodore Jennings


    A Response to Daniel Oudshoorn

    When I first read Oudshoorn’s response to my book I confess that I was tempted to dismiss it as an ad hominem rant. However I have decided that there are certain points that might be taken up that might illumine the project in which I suppose that Paul may have been engaged. In fact it appears that it would come as some surprise to Oudshoorn to learn that I actually agree with many of his sentiments though of course not as pertinent critiques of the project in which this particular book is engaged.

    Because he does not seem to engage any of the actual arguments of the book it is not always clear to me what in the book he has actually thought about (though apparently he has read the index, something I encourage my students to do, though not for the purposes of playing “gotcha” games). But he does seem all too confident that he knows the mood of ease and comfort in which it was written.

    He does seem to think that the fact that I engage certain voices means that I set out to exclude others; what he writes is: “he is operating within an exclusionary epistemological and pedagogical paradigm that carefully establishes and patrols boundaries around what can be constituted as knowledge.” Never mind the incoherence of writing sentences like that in order to take me to task for writing in ways too academic for the tender ears of those for whom he intends to speak. The idea thereby seemingly expressed is that by welcoming some voices excluded from the conversation about the meaning of Romans (excluded by ecclesial as well as certain academic authorities)—voices for example of Jews, communists, atheists, and queer folk—I thereby exclude others and even patrol boundaries to make sure they stay out, is itself rather curious. For surely the point is to emphasize that what is at stake for Paul is justice. Not justice for an in-group (ecclesial, academic, etc.) but justice for all as Paul insists. It is my hope, perhaps in vain, that if academic and ecclesial authorities can be persuaded that an all-embracing justice, a justice not individual but corporate is Paul’s theme, then space may indeed be opened for the voices of others especially when they too cry out for justice. (Recall that something like this was also claimed by Engels in comparing his and Marx’s project to that of Paul.) But note well: their voices, not me serving as their ventriloquist.

    I should perhaps also note that there is something deeply ironic to talk of “policing boundaries of knowledge” when one has in view the work of thinkers like Derrida and Badiou whose work aims precisely at the very opposite: the transgression of all such boundaries of presumed and inherited knowledge.

    Perhaps there is some use after all in learning from Lenin the absolute importance of a genuinely intellectual labor in the service of those who are left without access to these tools, or from Paul, whose privileges—whether as part of the chosen people or perhaps as a citizen of Rome—he placed in the service of those who had been excluded by those very establishments. (Perhaps too Paul was something of a “settler.”)

    Now Oudshoorn seems to think he knows something about me, my commitments, involvements, and so on. But of all this he is apparently ignorant. He seeks to remind us that outlaw justice involves “illegality.” But this is not something at all surprising to me. Long before I started to lecture on Paul my work in South Africa with the anti-Apartheid movement and Steve Biko was a fairly dramatic baptism or rebaptism in the ways that the quest for justice makes one a criminal in the eyes of the law (something I had already been learning growing up in Jim Crow South). Whether in welcoming into our home and “family” persons labeled as “illegals” or into my classroom and companionship those criminalized as prostitutes and drug addicts, this is the sort of criminality I and my dearest friends, colleagues, and students have cheerfully embraced over many decades and on several continents in our personal lives and in our public commitments. Should I also point out that the “crime of hospitality” is something of which Derrida has written with searing passion (and which he also practiced in his own home)? I purposely choose this rather mundane example of hospitality since too often we may think in exaggeratedly heroic terms about the sorts of illegality into which the practice of faithfulness may bring us. Paul knew this was something not only true for his rather dramatic escapades but also true for those who lived lives of simple generosity and hospitality (terms I greatly prefer to “solidarity” by the way).

    But the other side of that illegality or criminality of the quest for justice is the “how much more” of the generosity of those who have been excluded and indeed violated by the structures of privilege in which one is embedded. In the extravagance of a woman in Nicaragua who embraced me in the peace of Christ the same year her son and grandson had been killed by the Contras funded by my own government (she knew nothing about me save that I was a gringo and in her church on Palm Sunday), or the moment when this teacher raised in Florida was presented with a ring to signal my inclusion in the Seminole people by an elder of that people which generations before been deported from Florida to Oklahoma, in times too numerous to recount here, what has been made evident are traces of that divine generosity of which Paul writes and which I have attempted to elucidate as that which both enables justice (as Messiah has welcomed you) and also exhibits it (so welcome one another). Indeed Paul also knew of such occasions of extravagant welcome as he himself writes in 1 Thessalonians and Galatians (and perhaps hoped to receive in Rome, should he ever make it there).

    I should in passing disabuse Oudshoorn of the romantic notion that publishing books “like this” serve to gain one entrance into the exalted ranks of the tenured, etc. At least in my experience and that of others of my acquaintance, exactly the opposite is true. In my case, despite publishing a number of books, I wandered in the academic wilderness of the “independent scholar” for many years, in part on account of certain of my commitments as an intellectual and writer. In fact, for a number of those years I had to make do without health insurance, something perhaps fortunately unimaginable for the settler society to the North. A far more dramatic example is found with Derrida, who was for many years denied the doctorate despite writing many groundbreaking works of undoubted brilliance. These are, to be sure, but reflections of the trajectory of Paul who renounced certain privileges attendant upon his own position within his own intellectual culture (for example as a Pharisee) in order to try to be faithful to the call of divine justice for those who had been excluded.

    Now it is true I did not pepper my book with such personal stories since the book was not about me but about Paul, and since I have tried to learn from Paul something about not “bragging” or engaging in self-righteous chest thumping contests (and recalling that when Paul is forced into a recounting of his own experiences he says he is “talking like a fool”). In trying to follow Paul’s argument about what it might mean to be assimilated into the justice project with its attendant risks, costs, and joys I certainly do not claim, any more than Paul, that I have already arrived, but in company with him and with many, many more, including Oudshoorn, I press on, with fear and trembling and also with confidence not in my own work but in the messianic project itself.

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      Daniel Oudshoorn


      A Reply to Theodore Jennings Jr.

      While I am grateful for the opportunity to dialogue with Jennings and others about matters that I believe are potentially substantial, I do not feel our conversation has achieved anything particularly significant. I lay the blame for that entirely upon myself. Clearly, my essay was more polemical or obtuse than intended and, while I did intend for it to resonate personally—with myself, with Jennings, with the people who are inclined to read this kind of exchange—I did not intend it to be a malicious or a condescending personal assault upon Jennings. I fear that what I wrote has been read that way and, once again, I lay the blame for that entirely upon myself. For this I apologize to Jennings and to the other readers. I wish to try again.

      I will begin by reiterating, perhaps more clearly than in my initial review, my appreciation for what I have read by Jennings – not only Outlaw Justice but also other texts like Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul (which was one of the first texts that helped me to connect what I had been reading by anarchist authors about the Law with what Paul and his co-authors and co-workers were teaching about the Law). I have appreciated Jennings’ writings over the years. In my response to him, I did not mean to be malicious and I certainly was not trying to claim any sort of moral superiority over him.1 However, that said, the essay is a personal one —and it is personal in a way that is often disallowed by the Academy. Yet I think that it is in keeping with the writings and the projects of Paul and his co-workers to reflect in a way that is constantly and uncomfortably personal.2

      This is certainly uncomfortable for me, too. Because I respect Jennings and find myself desiring his respect . . . but still I chose to write what I did. It would have been far easier for me to write a standard response to his book. I could have pieced together some clever sounding words, arranged some pretty phrases, and drawn some other scholars into conversation with his text (perhaps Foucault or Gramsci should be brought to bear upon this Derridean reading… perhaps one should appeal to anarchist voices and traditions, especially since Paul and his co-workers were a part of a transnational grassroots anti-hierarchical movement . . . perhaps indigenous voices should be referenced to help us better understand what was going on with those colonized by Rome . . . and on and on we could go). I’m sure that this would have produced a conversation that was intellectually stimulating, perhaps even invigorating, and we would all walk away feeling satisfied and go on and . . . well . . . go on and do what exactly? Write another essay? Read another book? Talk some more about justice? Regretfully, at the end of the day, I’m not sure that conversations like that really advance us too much and that’s why I want the conversation to be personal.

      Consequently, when I read people talking about Paul and justice, and “outlaw justice,” I don’t want to hear just another clever phrase or pretty expression. I want to know what thatmeans. What that means “on the ground,” here and now, and, as I explore in my response, that “here and now” for myself, for Jennings, and for a good many of those reading and participating in these symposia, is the here and now of settler colonialism (alas, despite my efforts to emphasize this matter, Jennings does not respond to this subject at all . . . apart from an apparent throw-away remark about the possibility of Paul being a settler . . . but, again, the fault for that is on me for failing to write the kind of essay that invited a different sort of response).3 I think Paul and his co-workers would desire the same kind of emphasis and would scratch their heads at a lot of what goes on in “Pauline” circles. The whole point, after all, is living transformed lives in the very nitty-gritty details of everyday life together. In order to do that well, we need to understand how power dynamics are arranged within our live. Once again, that means understanding settler colonialism (since, no matter how much we wish to ignore it, we are settlers) and it means understanding dynamics related to power/knowledge (since this conversation is in an academic context).

      It is this point that I tried (and failed) to press with Jennings. Although Outlaw Justice is not without its problems (which, as far as I can tell, are more related to method and overly vague rhetoric than they are related to the ways in which Jennings reads the content of Romans), Jennings mostly paints a very exciting and pretty picture of Paul and the project in which he participated. It sounds lovely—and I mean that sincerely. But where do we go from there? If one accepts Jennings’ picture of Paul and the commitments of the early assemblies of Joshua followers how does one seek to embody something like those commitments within our context? Does it just mean living out the sort of commitments Jennings’ describes in his response to me? I hope not. Not that I am opposed to hospitality or charity or advocacy or table fellowship or any of the things of which Jennings speaks. A lot of good people are doing very good things in all of these areas and perhaps I, too, have been involved in these struggles in my own small (and ever failing) ways.


      Yet I am afraid that there is still too much of a “we can have our cake and eat it, too” mentality operating in the vague rhetoric of Jennings’ book and the more detailed response he provides to me. All of this seems to suggest that I can, for example, benefit from and contribute to Settler colonialism while being honoured by indigenous peoples, or that I can benefit from and contribute to imperialism while being embraced by family members of those killed by American-backed contras, or that I can live an essentially middle class American life of privilege, while being hospitable to those on the margins and advocating for those who suffer from various forms of oppression. What a relief all of this would be for members of dominant populations and for settlers like me! We can both tell ourselves a story about ourselves wherein we are rooted in the pursuit of justice and continue to benefit from our context of privilege, power, and violence.

      It is this both/and that I want to highlight as extremely problematical—not because I have overcome it—but because I think Joshua and Paul and those who struggled alongside of them, found it to be extremely problematical. The Super Apostles in Corinth wanted this both/and. Paul and his co-workers struggled against them . . . and probably lost. Some of the Jesus followers in Jerusalem wanted this both/and. Paul and his co-workers struggled against them . . . and probably lost (which is why the Collection was actually probably a failure). The Rich Young Ruler wanted this both/and. Joshua struggled with him . . . and probably lost. It is very difficult to give up this both/and! Indeed, giving it up has very dramatic consequences. Joshua and Paul rejected this both/and they were both executed as terrorists! Yet that is the example they set for us. This is how they model the pursuit and embodiment of outlaw justice for us.

      How does one live this out in our context? Perhaps Chelsea Manning seems to show us a particularly good example of one way to do this. I wonder if Jennings can show another way. After all – I’m a father and lover and friend and sibling – I don’t want to die or go to jail. Joshua and Paul don’t seem to leave me much of an alternative, if I want to follow one or imitate the other. Jennings has not yet convinced me that there actually is an alternative if, that is, I believe in the outlaw justice pursued by Paul and his co-workers as they imitated messiah Joshua.

      1. For example, by perusing the Index as I did, I was not playing “gotcha” but, rather, seeking to demonstrate how certain contexts tend to impose certain boundaries or barriers or priorities regardless of the intentions of the participant. That is to say, I do not think Jennings had “set out to exclude others” but that he does (quite clearly) exclude certain voices,regardless of his intentions, speaks to the way in which one’s rootedness within hierarchies of privilege and power—notably, in the context of my own essay, those of settler colonialism and the academy—can influence us more than we may recognize.

      2. Here, I am reminded of the words Bakunin spoke when he quit the Jura Federation: “During the last nine years more than enough ideas for the salvation of the world have been developed by the International (if the world can be saved by ideas) and I defy anyone to come up with a new one. This is the time not for ideas but for action, for deeds.”

      3. In response to Jennings’ remark, which (in part) refers to the possibility of Paul being a Roman citizen in order to suggest that perhaps “Paul was something of a “settler,'” I could refer to the detailed conversation that has occurred in Pauline scholarship around that theme—perhaps to argue that Paul did not have a Roman citizenship, perhaps to argue that if he did have a citizenship, it wouldn’t have been a full citizenship as we think of it, but would have only been the lesser citizenship granted to the children of slaves who had been freed (making Paul the child of somebody taken away into slavery during the conquest of Palestine)—in order to problematize the way in which Jennings seems to want to hastily create a correlation between our context as settlers and Paul’s context (in order to brush aside the whole topic settler colonialism??). However, to engage in this kind of conversation would be to just repeat what has been written elsewhere—anybody who is familiar with that debate already knows all the moves in advance and knows how far our conversation would progress and where we would end up agreeing or agreeing to disagree, and while that could be very fun and stimulating, I am, once again, not convinced that it really gets us anywhere significant—at least if significance is understood as actually embodying or working out in practice something like the outlaw justice Jennings speaks of.

      4. Although we should not forget that the Super Apostles were also notable practitioners of charity and we should also recall the disciplinary function that a lot of institutions and discourses focused upon charity, human rights, and development play today (cf. for example,The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex and Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs From Idealism to Imperialism). Over against our contemporary practices of charity and hospitality it should be emphasized that Paul and his co-workers were advocating for something very different—a sibling-based practice of economic mutuality. In this regard, I wish Jennings had dwelt in more detail on the Collection, its centrality to Paul and his co-workers, and why the language of adelphoi is significant precisely because of the economic implications sibling-based language had in Paul’s context (something that is lost when adelphoi is translated as “comrades” rather than as “siblings”).

        Also, perhaps at this point I should highlight that I continually speak of Paul and his co-workers or Paul and his co-authors because we need to remember that Paul was always working with others and that all of the letters ascribed to him were written in conjunction with others. It is important to remember this to mitigate against the hero-cult that has developed around Paul (something found not only in Protestant readings of Paul more generally but also in a lot of counter-imperial readings of Paul). Post-Marxism is appropriately skeptical of such heroes and so we should remember the communal element involved with Paul and remember that Paul is very much dependent upon others (and, here, I will tangentially mention that the description of me as an “independent scholar” was a title assigned to me without my knowledge. I would neither describe myself as “independent” nor as a “scholar” . . . but I have also learned over the years to not be offended when well-intentioned people call me names!).

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      Theodore Jennings


      A Reply to Daniel Oudshoorn

      I am happy that Daniel Oudshoorn has responded to my response in the way he has. I shall once again not try to reply to everything he has proposed since others may wish to join in the conversation. I agree that the challenges posed either by Paul or by Joshua to our ways of trying to live out justice and mercy are daunting. Indeed I think this is even more true of the Gospels as I tried to make clear in my “Insurrection of the Crucified” on the Gospel of Mark. I do not think I can or should provide a recipe for how we might begin to meet those challenges. I think in reply to Rasmussen I pointed to some examples of groups with which I have been associated that in their own way do attempt to respond to the challenge. Their example encourages me to suppose that we are confronted here not with sheer impossibility. But it is my practice to set out the challenges and point to examples in the class room and see how my students and others take up that challenge. I am often (of course not always) quite heartened by what they do, the lives they live, the groups they foster, the commitments they live out.

      Speaking of groups, I am in complete agreement that Paul must generally be understood as working in collaboration with others. This is, of course, far more evident in letters other than Romans (especially since I don’t think the last chapter belongs to the argument of Romans itself but probably has a different community in view). Thus in this text I did not think I was obliged to say everything possible about Paul but only that which I hoped might clarify the argument of this particular text. And I do emphasize “argument” because I wanted to show that Paul moves rather deliberately in unfolding his vision of justice in this text, something rendered invisible when bits and pieces are torn out of context or the text is truncated for dogmatic purposes (only 1-4, or 1-8 or even 1-11). This is also my rationale, especially for this text -though it is something I do for all of Paul’s texts in materials provided for my students- to eliminate the received chapter and verse divisions.

      I may add that Oudshoorn need have no doubt about my respect for him and the issues he raises. (By the way Daniel, I was not referring to you but to myself when I spoke of being an “independent scholar” something put on the dust jackets of some of my books from that period).

      I hope others join the discussion

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      Daniel Oudshoorn


      A Reply to Theodore Jennings Jr.

      I have been thinking more about how I have been trying to respond to Jennings and the thoughts I have had based upon my reading of Outlaw Justice. I wanted to pause to see if others would contribute—and, like Jennings has also said, I would be delighted to hear from the other participants in this symposium. However, now that a more friendly tone has been established perhaps a third effort to press my point may be worthwhile.

      I would like to offer an analogy or, if you prefer, a parable.

      Once upon a time there was a community of cancer cells. The community was like most communities, not without its conflicts and hierarchies of power, but also not without those who really tried to love their neighbours and who tried to make the world a better place—at least for the short amount of time allotted to them. Some died of old age, others died at the hands of the macrophages, still others were blasted by radiation (various cancer cells tried to come up with various theories about why death was a part of their living, perhaps the radiation blasts meant that God was punishing them, perhaps the macrophages had been sent to teach them to repent and be more loving towards their neighbours, and perhaps their moments of thriving and abundance were also signs of God’s blessing . . . but nobody really seemed to know for sure). Some cancer cells became particularly concerned about the impact they were having upon their environment and took steps to reduce their “cancer footprint”. Some cancer cells began to care for the abandoned children of other cancer cells, in order to try and assist them to arrive at adulthood where, hopefully, they could experience a little something of the abundant life for which they longed. Some cancer cells talked a lot about peace and wished there was a way for all cancer cells to just get along. This went on for some time until the community had grown so large that it killed the body of its host . . . and then all the cancer cells also died. The End.

      I reckon that the interpretation of this parable is rather obvious but in order to avoid all possible confusion I will say that we, as settlers, are like a cancer in this land. We, who benefit from and contribute to the socioeconomic and political structures of contemporary capitalism, of the oil based economy, of our respective imperialisms (Canadian and American), are like cancers in this world. Maybe we struggle for justice in small ways. But unless we stop being cancer cells, well, I reckon the harm we do far outweighs the good.

      Given this context, if the good news has anything to say to settlers like me, then it requires me to stop being a cancer cell in order to participate in a new kind of body (“Let my people go!” or “Sell all that you have . . .”). The completely shocking and nearly unbelievable thing about this call is that the Spirit of Life can make a transformation like this possible. That, at least, is what various texts within the New Testament (including Romans) seem to suggest. Consequently, when people talk about these texts and talk about the perspectives on justice that arose from communities of people who were transformed and in the midst of being transformed, I want to know what that looks like now. I’m disappointed if ends up looking like small acts of charity or hospitality or little things we can do while continuing to drift along with the status quo of empire. Charity is the domain of Super Apostles and Caesars. I want something more. I want to know how cancer cells can become non-cancerous. If that’s the case, then we can talk about salvation for all, even for settlers like me.

      But if this kind of talk cannot be backed up by concrete examples of this miraculous kind of transformation (I don’t use the word “miraculous” lightly), then what are all of our pretty words or smart arguments really good for? Well, my fear is that they are a useful means to make us feel that we have set ourselves apart from the violence and oppression and death-dealing of the status quo—they make us feel that we are just (or, at least, are becoming just)—when really we are continuing to contribute to and benefit from everything we wish to disavow. This talk can become a story we tell ourselves about ourselves (an overcoding, if you prefer the language of Deleuze and Guattari), that actually permits us to not define ourselves by what we do but, instead, allow us to define ourselves by what we believe. Žižek strongly criticizes “Western Buddhism” for doing this, but the same line of criticism should be applied when people like me talk about justice (and I think Jennings and I have a lot in common).

      A quotation from Endgame by Derrick Jensen may help me to communicate my point. This is what Jensen writes:

      “In his extraordinarily important book The Nazi Doctors Robert Jay Lifton explored how it was that men who had taken the Hippocratic oath could participate in prisons where inmates were worked to death or killed in assembly lines. He found that many of the doctors honestly cared for their charges, and did everything within their power—which means pathetically little—to make life better for the inmates. If an inmate got sick they might give the inmate an aspirin to lick. They might put the inmate to bed for a day or two (but not for too long or the inmate might be “selected” for murder). If the patient had a contagious disease, they might kill the patient to keep the disease from spreading. All of this made sense within the confines of Auschwitz. The doctors, once again, did everything they could to help the inmates, except for the most important thing of all: They never questioned the existence of Auschwitz itself . . .

      We as environmentalists do the same. We work as hard as we can to protect the places we love, using the tools of the system the best that we can. Yet we do not do the most important thing of all: We do not question the existence of this death culture . . .

      And we certainly don’t act to bring it down.”

      This line of criticism also applies to others.1 As settlers, as members of the dominant populations in the United States and Canada, we are all Nazi Doctors working in the death camps—because, even if we are asking questions about our empires, we aren’t really doing much of anything to bring them down. This is just as true of social workers as it is of activists as it is of reformers as it is of academics. It applies to all of us middle-class settlers who keep on keepin’ on, fighting the good fight, working hard every day.2 Sadly, it seems to me that this work will be almost entirely futile for as long as we remain Nazi Doctors and for as long as we remain cancer cells. Jesus and Paul and their co-workers seem to think that we can be transformed and stop being Nazi Doctors or cancer cells. Jennings seems to also take that for granted in his text about Romans. In response, I am saying, “don’t just tell me about it, show it to me. Please!”

      1. Who is not an “environmentalist” these days? The largest solar farm in the world was built by Enbridge(!) right at one hub of Canadian oil production. At Aamjiwnaang (Sarnia, Ontario), where the Ahnishinaabe have been so heavily poisoned by the oil plants that, amongst other things, birth rates of female to male children are comparable to those of fish populations who have had their endocrine systems disrupted because they lived downstream from chemical plants (basically 66% of all children born are female and when those female children hit puberty, a good many of them are not getting their periods). Environmentalism, oil, and settler colonialism can all go hand-in-hand these days which, once again, further illustrates the need to talk in detail about what we mean when we talk about things like “justice.”

      2. And do we ever work hard. Working hard for liberation, for love, for freedom, for peace. It is as if we have bought the line displayed above the gates—Arbeit macht frei.



Abundance and Justice without Law

Paul’s letter to the Romans according to Theodore Jennings

THEODORE JENNINGS SAYS THAT he in his book Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul reads Paul’s letter to the Romans as a text that deals with the basic issues of political philosophy. And that will be my angle of response. I will not discuss other ways of reading Paul. I will simply try to understand what Jennings’ account, as a text of practical political philosophy and theology, might mean in concrete terms. If I don’t have some idea of what this striving for justice that Jennings is talking about might mean when applied to some actual social order, I doubt that I understand it. So I will begin with a summary of the political philosophy displayed in this book and then follow up with some selective critical comments on Jennings’s understanding of scarcity/abundance and justice without law.

If I have understood it, Jennings’ argument goes something like this. In the letter to the Romans Paul develops “a messianic politics that stands in contrast to the political order established by Rome and as an alternative to the polity of ‘Moses’ or of the ‘Judeans.’”1 The first part of the letter consists of critiques of the failure of justice in the Greco-Roman world and argues that Judean law is no alternative. The law cannot create justice; it produces instead injustice. Paul is not here interested in something like individual justification, but justice for the whole social order. Individuals, however personally just they may be, are embedded in unjust social orders.

But “the messiah of God was rejected by the responsible representatives for Israel and was executed by the responsible representatives of gentile society” (31). The polities of the divine collided totally with the orders built on law. But this messiah was resurrected by God. And “somehow” this makes real justice outside law possible. It causally leads to “a real, an efficacious, transformation” (79).

There is thus an absolute contradiction between law and justice. Jennings writes: “Justice cannot be captured in a knowable legal system that one needs only to repeat and obey. Justice is an immeasurable claim that bends toward mercy and compassion. It is only love . . . that can do what the law ultimately intends or requires” (153). Justice thus is mercy, generosity, and gift. One might even say that God is justice, and justice is God. Our current political and economic orders are built on the logic of scarcity. The messianic order, on the other hand, “entails a logic of abundance in which more for some means an exponential increase in more for all” (166). To live after the flesh is to live in scarcity, to live according to the spirit is to live in abundance. Jennings can describe the latter as a form of nihilism that grants no authority to economic, political, and social structures and thus “provokes a different form of sociality and thus of politics” (127).

What does a justice apart from law look like? How is it embodied? To answer these questions in terms of the letter to the Romans, Jennings talks about vanguard messianic cells that begin to live a life that is exemplified in chapters 12 to 16. The cells live as “those who have passed from death into life” and they therefore “do not play by the rules of the old order” (181). Instead they intelligently, but in an improvising way, refashion new forms or styles of the common life as signs of the coming of the messianic. They are all members of one body, but there are different ways of being faithful. This messianic “social” democracy is characterized by a harmony of difference. The generosity of the messianic society turns also to its enemies, to its persecutors. It refuses to answer evil by evil; it instead answers evil by “creative, innovative” justice (188).

It is in this context Romans 13 has to be read. Jennings thinks Paul relativizes state power. He sees it as similar to how Paul in 1 Corinthians relativizes institutions such as marriage, business, and religion (e.g., if you are married/unmarried live as if you were not); Paul offers not a frontal attack, but instead robs these institutions of their power. Likewise, messianic politics does not aim to take control of the state. The state has no role in the coming messianic order. Jennings relates his discussion to the debate in messianic Marxism and Leninism, and he sides with the thinkers who renounce the attempts to take control of state power. The new order is not something we create, it is something we receive. Messianic politics is a politics of love directed to the welfare of everyone “beyond or outside law” (196), although the law can still function as a resource for a playful imagination.

Jennings also stresses that Paul only talks about love of neighbor, not about a love of God that could relativize the love of neighbor. Messianic politics is a radical humanism that welcomes the other as other. He talks about “a cosmopolitan sociality, one that does not impose uniformity but welcomes difference” (201) and does not judge the other. He sees the conflict here and answers with Derrida’s statement: “Negotiation is always negotiation of the nonnegotiable” (208). Democracy must include the anti-democrats, which may undermine the democracy. Messianic politics is improvisation for the sake of the empowering of the neighbor, creating messianic cells that cut “across preexisting cultural, linguistic, and even religious identities” and instead are built “on a shared commitment to the messianic project and mission” (225). The book’s last sentence is: “Thus, the Pauline messianic project can even be identified as ‘democracy itself,’ a democracy that, of course, has never existed but always remains a democracy to come—or, as Paul has called it, ‘divine justice’” (231).

Jennings often asks about what all this means “concretely,” but he never becomes more concrete than this. Can we find traces in history of these messianic cells? Jennings does not tell us much. It seems he thinks there were some remarkable beginnings in what we often call the early church. But after that the history of Christianity and the church is mostly, he seems to say, a “history of atrocity” (97). Using the language of Romans 11 he can say that some branches of the Eastern Church were broken off the tree and replaced by Islam, and later on other branches like the Tsarist Church in Russia were broken off and replaced by the Leninist movement. This language seems to imply that the church or Christianity had some continuing role, maybe as the carrier of the Scriptures and the promises, but this is not something Jennings says positively. For him, the words “church” and “Christianity” mostly seems to trigger strongly negative reactions, as does everything else that may sound “religious.” Jennings wants to liberate Paul from the religious ghetto in which he has been imprisoned. The gospel Paul proclaims is about the “struggle for a new society, a democracy to come perhaps, in which exclusion and exploitation are ended and all enter into the messianic radiance” (ix).

One of Jennings’s most central metaphysical concepts is “somehow.” “Somehow” the death and resurrection of Joshua (Jennings’ way of referring to Jesus) leads to a new social order built on abundance and generosity. There is no more scarcity. As a theologian I am interested in some further explication of this “somehow.” Jennings seems not to be. One may also ask why Derrida, Badiou, Agamben, and their like, on whose work Jennings builds, do not seem to need this transforming “somehow” for developing their similar accounts of justice. So maybe it does not make much difference, although Jennings seems to say it does.

In the following I will instead focus on the “somehow” of abundance as such. Of course, the only way to open my eyes about the latter may be to explain the former—how Joshua affects the transformation. But if we leave that for the moment, what does Jennings’ talk about abundance mean? This seems to be very popular language in some quarters in recent theology. Somehow, sin has constructed a world built on the logic of scarcity. The gospel, on the other hand, is built on the logic of gift. This language can be understandable if specified. But Jennings does not specify it. He talks about two different social orders and about scarcity and gift-giving/abundance in general. Likewise, he does not make any distinctions in his understanding of justice. He uses the same conception for everything. One might compare this with Michael Walzer’s classic book Spheres of Justice in which he argues that you have to think of justice differently in different spheres of life, such as citizenship, welfare, money and commodities, education, kinship and love, divine grace, and so forth. But, of course, Jennings does not believe in distributive justice at all. All such language is part of the old order. Messianic justice is mercy, love, generosity. The problem that Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, discussed under the title “Love and Justice” simply does not exist in the messianic order of abundance. Justice is love.

There is, however, in Jennings’s book an unresolved, and undiscussed, tension between the more tragic messianism of Derrida and the more utopian messianism of his Marxist interlocutors. The messianism of Derrida is not, it seems, a utopia, but an undeconstructable horizon that always stands as a judgment on all we do. In this sense Derrida is more like Niebuhr. There is a tragic tension between law and the messianic. So when talking about diversity and democracy, Jennings, following Derrida, stresses the inherent contradictions in all attempts of inclusivity and democracy. Giving space to the otherness of the other put limits on the other other. Likewise, democracy undermines itself in its openness to anti-democrats. For Derrida loving the other necessarily means sacrificing the other other.

In the Marxist tradition, tragedy is overcome. The new social order is on its way to becoming reality. In Marx’s thought the technological and economic development (through the phase of capitalism) together with class-struggle and the liberation of the universal class, the Proletariat, will ultimately lead to the absolute economic abundance that makes communism possible. In a situation of abundance there is no more conflict over resources. Thus one can sacrifice the other for the sake of the coming new abundant order of the other others. Sometimes Jennings seems to presume this utopian messianism, at other times he sounds more like Derrida.

One place where this tension is on display concerns his description of the messianic cells. He can talk about the “shared commitment to the messianic project” in the messianic cells, and this shared commitment helps transcend other differences, ethnic, cultural, social, sexual, religious, and so on. But there is a shared commitment that excludes the others who do not share this commitment. Quoting Josiah Royce, he can say that “salvation comes through loyalty” to “the messianic project” (22). On the other hand, these cells should live a life of radical inclusivity, a harmony of difference. The anti-democrats are not excluded, feminists and anti-feminists are living together. This inclusivity is a central part of the messianic order. But a generalized celebration of difference as such seems to lead to a radical individualism that does not fit well with a shared commitment to the coming messianic order. Put differently, how can you reconcile Derrida’s “progressive liberalism” with Lenin’s disciplined struggle for a new social order?

Jennings may object that I am still thinking in terms of the old order of scarcity. The gospel “entails a logic of abundance.” Classical Marxists believed in exponential economic growth. So did liberals. However, Jennings seems to have another account of abundance, though I am not sure what it is. Instead of specifying, he talks about scarcity and abundance in general. It is often meaningful to say that more for some means more for all, but not as a general unspecified statement. More learning for some means, at least potentially, more learning for all. Trust creates trust. But Jennings is concerned with material resources. The economy is far from a zero-sum game, but there are always limits. Even in a growing economy you always have to make choices about how to use the limited resources at hand. Making such choices requires some form of consensus, which excludes other possibilities. Moreover, in the absence of infinite abundance, it is difficult to avoid thinking about distributive justice, nor can you avoid thinking about how to create resources. Marx at least tried to give an account of this, however inadequate; some recent Marxists do not. Nor does Jennings.

If you have been on department or faculty boards of a university you know that many academics don’t really understand how the economy of their own department or faculty functions, but the same persons still seem to be experts on the global economy. The function of the global economy seems so much simpler and clearer than the mysteries of the economy of their own department. On the global level they know why we are where we are and what the future policy should be. And some of them seem to think that they “somehow” already live in the messianic time of abundance beyond any scarcity. It is just that the deans, the department chairs, and the bureaucrats responsible for the economy don’t understand this. They still live under the old order of law. The abundant resources “somehow” are there, therefore we don’t need to make any hard choices.

The title of Jennings’ book is Outlaw Justice. What would a social order outside law mean? Or a social order with a playful attitude toward the law? One could say that law preserves the status quo. Marxists could talk about the bourgeois law as an instrument of oppression. The “Revolution” (say the French, Russian, and Chinese) broke with the law and tried to initiate a creative justice beyond the old law. The consequences were, and Jennings seems to agree, horrifying. It was horrifying especially for the poor. A constitutional order above politics is a safeguard, however fragile it may be, for the weak and vulnerable. The law may be bad, but it gives at least some protection. So the Apostle Paul seems to think.

Sweden’s welfare state, for example, is built on law. People have a relatively high degree of trust towards the system, because it follows the law. One might say that the basic foundation of the Swedish welfare system is mercy, but the system works according to law, and it is very legalistic. For public administration, following rules is crucial. It is part of what generates trust. But human beings and life situations do not always adapt very well to these rules. This fact produces many human tragedies, and generates distrust of the system. Sometimes the mercy of individual civil servants opens up new possibilities. Sometimes the government itself choses to act mercifully. Sometimes people meet with mercy outside the system. And sometimes the laws themselves are changed. We want mercy, but do we really want a justice that completely transcends the law and its distributive justice? Do we really want an improvising playful use of the law?

I am often in South Africa. What could a book like this mean in this context? We know that a non-corrupt public administration is more important than democracy (and I support democracy) for such concrete and measureable goods as decreased infant mortality and poverty, increased length of life, and so forth. Of course, you can have good laws but high corruption, but not the opposite. Currently, both the ANC government and some outside “radicals” are criticizing and attempting to control the judicial system (as well as the media), precisely because they don’t want the increasingly widespread corruption in the political system exposed. Their public argument is not infrequently that the current judicial system preserves an unjust system. Yet, it is the poor who mostly have to pay the heavy price for this political corruption.

To conclude in a more constructive tone, one could say that what Jennings calls “messianic cells” should work on different principles than the state, that in these cells mercy and forgiveness transcend, but do not abolish, law. Many Christians would say this about the church, and I would agree. It is part of messianic Christian theology (if one should use that language), that the follower of Jesus or Joshua Christ lives in two worlds or two overlapping times. Derrida’s ultimately tragic account lacks the incarnate coming of the future in Christ, its continuation in the body of Christ, and its eschatological fulfillment. For Derrida, the messianic is a never-arriving horizon always judging us. In contrast, Christians think they live in two times, two ages, and in the time between they have to live both as part of the messianic cells and with the “secular” political order. They can see the relative value of the political order of law, how God uses it, although they should not let their life be conformed to it. Just because the church witnesses to the already-come and still-coming messianic order, Karl Barth can write that the church does not need to think in terms of filling all the slots in a society, that is, in terms of a generalizable ethic or politics. Christians do not need to think in terms of a general responsibility for all outcomes. Instead of seeing reality from the vantage point of the sovereign or from the perspective of anyone, one can identify with and think from the standpoint of the victim or the opponent. Living in the reality of Jesus Christ, the church can go beyond the law, improvise, and be creative. It can witness to a new reality, introduce another presence in the world, even if it often has failed to do so. However, it knows, as Jennings also says, that the church cannot create the future. It witnesses to the new reality; it does not create it. It therefore has to live in hopeful patience. The Leninists did not (and do not) have this patience. The hope of the coming just and abundant order legitimized the use of means opposed to the order they hoped for. The present generation was sacrificed in the name of the hoped-for future they were responsible to create. A hopeful patience knows that means cannot be separated from ends.

Nevertheless, even if the messianic cells witness to the new reality of resurrection, they still live in a finite world. They have to make choices, choices about how to use limited resources and choices about which paths to take as a community. One choice excludes another. So far as it concerns communal choices, this means there have to be some limits to diversity. Some forms of consensus are needed. Politics, even the politics of the messianic cells, is about making choices. Jennings’ politics seems to presume a post-political order of abundance. But making choices is part of being finite embodied beings. So, by the way, are ritual, liturgy, institutions, common practices (as alien and useless they may seem in Jennings’s super-Protestant account). But that is a theme for another time.

  1. Theodore Jennings, Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 1. Subsequent page references to this book will appear in the text.

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    Theodore Jennings


    A Response to Arne Rasmusson

    But if justice must be and is actualized within these new socialities coming into being in the wake of the messianic event, then Rasmussen’s question about what this might concretely mean in practical terms is indeed as urgent as he recognizes.

    It may be helpful if I first underscore that a good bit of the diversity to which Paul refers has to do with a diversity of kinds of communities as Zerbe has realized. This, I think, is the way the discussion of diverse ways of honoring the messiah through styles of eating and drinking or even of honoring or not particular days and so on are to be taken. These are differences of something like religion, itself an eminently political issue, as Plato insists for example in extended discussions of eating and drinking together in The Republic and in the Laws, and as Cicero also emphasizes.

    But these koinonias or perhaps communes are, I think, necessarily fairly small scale. I have ventured something like ten to twenty-five people; that is a number that might fit into a Roman apartment dwelling (the so-called house church) or a workshop for a workers cooperative. It is precisely within such a koinonia that there is contemplated a variety of gifts that together constitute the sphere of sharing or mutual participation in the life and work of the commune. These koinonias or assemblies both in their internal life and in their relations to one another constitute a sort of counter politics to that of the empire. (Or we might say a rebirth of the political against the destruction of the political within and by the empire.) I should note that I have found considerable help in thinking about these cells from Robert Jewett’s reflections on Romans 16 even though I do not share his confidence that this was originally a part of Paul’s correspondence with the faithful in Rome.

    These ekklesia or assemblies may be helpfully conceived as what Deleuze and Guatari indicate as rhizomatic as opposed to arboreal structures. They are more like crab grass than like the fabled cedars of Lebanon. Thus they are distinct not only from Roman imperial structures but from all imperial structures including that within which global humanity seems fated to live today. In my interventions in the Paul and Politics or Paul and Empire group I have insisted that Paul’s argument not be restricted in relevance to the specificity of the Roman empire but, with the help of post- or neo- Marxist thinkers be understood as a continuing challenge to those empire like structures we face today.

    Rasmussen points to contemporary versions of arboreal structure when he notes the example of Swedish bureaucratic democratic socialism (for which I as an American do confess a certain envy) and points to the conundrum of a corrupt democratic polity in contemporary South Africa. I am glad he mentioned South Africa, where I spent my sabbatical in 1977 working with the Christian Institute, a consortium of groups struggling against, and embodying alternatives to, the political economy of Apartheid. It was there also that I met and agreed to work with Steve Biko and the Black Conscious movement. These, the Christian Institute and the Black Consciousness movement, were the contexts in which I learned the strength of the rhizomatic networks that undermine the structures of oppression. It is when they begin to conceive of themselves as seeking to take over the functions of the State, with its monopoly of violence, its violently instituted legal system, its aggrandizement of wealth and power that they become a negation of the political in favor of what Ranciere calls the police. Thus I would offer those movements, and there are many of them in contemporary South Africa and in the Philippines and indeed wherever one looks beneath the arboreal systems of power, as the paradigmatic examples of what a practical political thinking means “on the ground.”

    Let me proffer one partial but perhaps illuminating illustration. Since 2001 I have had the delight of working with and sometimes on behalf of the LGBT Solidarity in Human rights group in South Korea. They form a committed community of struggle that has always had the policy of engaging in solidarity with all movements of struggle of the excluded or repressed in Korean society (immigrant laborers, for example, or those who protest the degradation of the environment by military and capitalist development projects, and so on). This work has just borne some fruit in the formal alliance among these groups to struggle together for a more open and just society. At the same time there are a number of other groups related to the struggles of lesbian and gay folk who have a different character. But all seem to recognize and affirm one another as of the same spirit despite differences of polity and policy. I may also say that the internal life of this particular solidarity group is characterized by astonishing generosity and hospitality as well as the sharing of laughter, food, and song—a rather exuberant version of a Pauline community (1 Corinthians 12–14) in which the distinct abilities and talents of each are respected and deployed for the common purpose that unites them. They have even included me, asking me to contribute a number of essays to their blog in order to help them counter the virulent homophobia of most protestant voices in Korea. And that work has itself borne some fruit with the emergence of late of specifically Christian groups militating for justice for lesbian and gay folk. They are quite different from the committed secularism of the group I have been a part of but clearly “welcome one another” in many wonderful ways.

    One might also think here of the radical Marxist party of which Alain Badiou is part of the collective leadership. This party seeks no political office at all but rather agitates for the rights of those excluded or demeaned by the political process in France (homeless, undocumented, women who wear veils, etc.)

    Now what has this to do with the arboreal structures of national political economies (whether of Sweden or South Africa or even the US)? One way of approaching this is to use the idea of another Paul, the writer of 2 Thessalonians where he speaks of the restrainer, the katechon. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for in that context (and it is indeed much to hope for) is that these structures and polities will restrain the worst even if they are utterly incapable of enacting the best. That at least is how I tend to view the political landscape in my own country.

    An all too brief word on scarcity and abundance. Of course the development of insights germane to an economy of abundance are far more common in the Gospels than in the letters of Paul, and what there is in Paul is concentrated not in Romans but in 2 Corinthians. However I have found as a pastor and as an academic dean wrestling with budgets that it is indeed sometimes possible to pluck abundance out of seeming scarcity, although this generally requires shared sacrifice, thinking and acting outside the box, and a concomitant equitable sharing of the resultant abundance. But I have also for many years taught courses on the global economy as something that needs to be understood since it impacts all our neighborhoods and communities. But the principles governing global economy with its casino capitalism and vampiric appropriation of values from the “real” economy to serve the “virtual” economy (of speculation), is not at all isomorphic with household or small institutional economies. Thus I understand how it is possible for one to have a sense of how one may work and be clueless about the other. (And this works both ways.)

    A word about “somehow.” This is by no means an ontological concept. I have used it to signal to the reader that there is something here that Paul has not (yet) clarified. This often serves to signal that Paul’s argument has not finished yet and so we should await further clarification. And indeed it is the case that not everything we need Paul to clarify will be clarified in this text, a text that after all points forward to a fuller discussion, face to face, to which it is but a prelude.

    As contemporary radical thinkers of the political struggle to discern what in our time might be a radical politics outside and over against the state and even the party there is much to learn from Paul. He will not teach us everything we need to know nor provide us with blue prints or cook books, still less a platform for State or party politics in the narrow sense. But he will exemplify what it might mean to improvise together just socialities in which justice has the root and the form of love, a love that seeks not its own but the benefit of each and all.

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      Theodore Jennings


      A Reply to Arne Rasmusson

      A word about the Derrida as ‘tragic vision” and Marxist thought as overcoming this. Derrida is a wonderfully exuberant exponent of the always more to come (not tragic I think) vision. He is for example very vigorous in support of things like abolishing the death penalty, extending human rights regimes through the UN, including animal rights (overcoming the meat-industrial complex) and radically revising laws of immigration and so on. And as he says deconstruction begins and ends in a sort of Joycean affirmation. On the other hand the marxists (or those thinkers who are also heirs of Marx) Badiou, Zizek) seem more on the order of waiting for an event yet to come. They have eliminated the idea of a takeover of the state apparatus and seem simply to await the irruption of an event (However Badiou is at least deeply involved in what might be called protest politics) The thinker with whom I engage in this commentary who so far seems most likely to fit the bill of tragic vision is Agamben. (But my doctor son is translating what is presumably the final volume of the homo sacer series- once Agamben is done with it- so we shall see if that is really so.) The mantle of optimistic vision seems to have fallen upon Hardt and Negri, especially in their final volume of their trilogy. My point is that things are a bit more complicated than Rasmussen’s suggestions seem to imply



Justice and the True Polis

AT THE CLOSE OF HIS splendid commentary on Romans, Ted Jennings fittingly lets Jacques Derrida have the last word, naming Paul’s struggle for justice as “democracy,” indeed, as a “potentiality” that is self-aware of the problem of auto-immunity. (Derrida seems his most favorite, not just his most frequently cited dialogue partner.) The Pauline messianic project is thus analogous to Derrida’s notion of “democracy itself,” never having actually existed, but always a “democracy to come.”

In a perhaps similar way, Plato follows up his concluding imaginative picture (eidos) of the perfectly just human (following the perfectly just polis), by having Socrates assert that this person will avoid honors both private and public, and will avoid forces that might corrupt the established condition of the soul. The perceptive Glaucon catches the implication, that politics as usual has been rejected:

Glaucon: So, he won’t be willing to take part in politics (prattein ta politika, affairs of state), then, if that is what he cares about.

Socrates: Yes, by the dog, in his own city (polis), he certainly will. But he may not be willing to do so in his fatherland (patris), unless some divine fortune (theia tychē) chances to be his.

Glaucon: I understand. You mean in the city we have just been founding and describing; the one that exists in discourse/rationality (in logos), since I do not think it exists anywhere on earth.

Socrates: But there may perhaps be a model (paradeigma) of it in the heavens for anyone who wishes to look at it and to found himself on the basis of what he sees. It makes no difference at all whether it exists anywhere or ever will. You see, he would take part in the politics of only this [city], and of no other. (592a-b; Reeve, modified)

Earlier in the Republic, Socrates had suggested that the imagined polis likely has existed deep in time past, and presently in some distant land. And while he acknowledges that its emergence would be extremely difficult and improbable, he emphasizes that it is certainly not impossible, though realized in the future only by some divine intervention in what we could call a messianic figure (the true politikos, or the philosopher-king).

Plato is the most frequently cited philosopher from antiquity in Outlaw Justice, although used, alongside Aristotle and Cicero, primarily as a foil. At the close of this response, I’ll return to the matter of how Plato is taken up in this commentary, exploring some points of resonance—even “apocalyptic” ones—between Paul and Plato.

As I intimated, I think Outlaw Justice is a magnificent and refreshing commentary. Any rejoinders that arise in my comments here are mere quibbles, or intended as openings for further conversation. Jennings has fully met the tests that he lays out at the beginning: 1) the reading must “make sense of what Paul has actually written (that is, it is rooted clearly in the actual texts)”; 2) it must be “situated in the social context of the first century”; 3) it should help us “make sense of recognizable realities we face in the world of the twenty-first century” (10). In contrast to the reading offered by his primary dialogue partners—more recent politico-philosophical readers of Paul—Jennings reads Romans far more contextually and holistically (and thus coherently) relative to the sometimes more imagistic and selective reading by these main co-readers. By offering clear guidelines for how the text should be read (8–10), Jennings has helpfully opened up a framework for further conversation (and debate) about his own reading. In terms of genre, this commentary most approximates that of “theological” commentary (e.g., Brazos series), versus the narrowly linguistic, literary, or historical-critical commentary.

The judicious lacing of his explanation of the text of Romans with observations, resonances, or reflections offered by his fellow philosophical readers is not arcane, but provocatively stimulating. Indeed, his commentary offers a useful introduction to the contribution of these readers to theorizing about Paul. Meanwhile, Jennings is also clearly familiar with crucial trends in the guild of biblical scholarship, and this supports his political and philosophical reading considerably. As a result, I think this commentary will also be more understandable, tolerable, or accessible to those of us professional Bible scholars schooled in narrowly exegetical, historical-critical reading.

To be sure, there continues a conflict over “inheritance rights” to Paul, mimicking the debates of the first and second centuries over the Hebrew Scriptures in emerging Christianity and Judaism (e.g., Barnabas, Justin). In his 2007 essay titled “Paul and Sons,” playing on Derrida’s essay “Marx and Sons,” discussing inheritance rights to Marx, and in his earlier book Reading Derrida / Thinking Paul,1 Jennings argued that Paul must be freed from the imprisoning clutches of his ecclesiastical readers, Paul’s so-called “friends.” In this commentary, however, Jennings offers his appreciation for at least some “theological” readers of Paul who have taken the “theo-political” in Paul seriously. And he acknowledges that the winner in the dispute (not quite his way of way of putting it) will in any event go to the one who can make the best, that is, most compelling case for its ongoing meaning, in the context of multiple readings or interpretations of these texts. I for one think that theological readers of Paul can benefit greatly from those who read Paul purely (and sympathetically) for the “theory,” not the doctrine, indeed, eschewing the doctrine. More worrisome to me is the claim of historicist biblical scholars, that they have a monopoly on Paul’s meaning, and that it should stay in the first century.

But let me offer a few topics of potential dialogue with Outlaw Justice.

1) In this exercise of reading and reflecting on Paul, I am in complete sympathy with Jennings on the need to “de-familiarize” the received, narrowly religious-theological reading of Paul. As with Ted, I believe this begins with a series of simple yet obvious choices on the translation of key words: “fidelity” or “loyalty” instead of “faith” or “belief; “to entrust oneself in loyalty” instead of “believe”; Messiah for Christ; “justice” instead of “righteousness”; “generosity” instead of “grace”; “nations” more regularly than “gentiles.” Jennings offers a number of other fresh alternative words: Joshua instead of Jesus, comrades instead of brothers and sisters, cells instead of assemblies.

The problem of translating Paul, however, is that some words are almost impossible to render adequately in one-word equivalents: the difficulty is trying to find a word that best brings out the historical meaning (with appropriate social resonances in the first century) and at the same time brings out a field of meaning and appropriate resonances in the contemporary world. As for “sin” (which Jennings retains) I find that it conjures up too much of traditional Christian experience or doctrine; so I translate hamartia as it is in Plato, as “error” (capitalized when personified as the ruler of a regime), but glossed as acting unjustly, and then allowing Paul’s own argument to unpack the meaning. To translate words in the koinōnia word group with “sharing” doesn’t quite capture the sense of “partnership” that is crucial to Paul’s meaning (it too is a key word in Plato and Aristotle). And I think that doxa in Paul carries not so much the notion of shining forth and brilliance, but as a socio-political status term fundamentally implies “renown,” playing on the Roman aristocratic value and quest for gloria, along with auctoritas and dignitas. To “glorify” in many cases is therefore to ascribe with renown, or to elevate to (glitzy) renown. The metaphor of “wrath,” I think, should be glossed as “retributive justice,” given its parallel use with ekdikēsis (executive vindication/justice, often misleadingly translated with “vengeance”). Reclaiming “salvation” with a political valence, as Jennings does, is I think a worthy way to proceed, since alternative renderings are not easy to find; but I think most North American readers “by nature” can’t understand the word salvation communally-politically. I still don’t know what to do with hagioi; arguably hagioi in Paul also has a political, even missional valence, something that hardly shows with the translation “saints.” These may all seem like minor items; but I think small word choice decisions have a massive impact on how the text is read. Standard translations are bound by long interpretive histories difficult to break.

2) The main line that Jennings proposes for the reading of Romans is very much on target: Paul is better thought of as a “political thinker,” even “public intellectual,” than a theologian espousing doctrine. Romans attempts to develop “a messianic politics that stands in contrast to the political order established by Rome and as an alternative to the polity of ‘Moses’ or of the ‘Judeans’” (1). At the same time, Jennings reminds us that Paul is not “anti-Jewish,” and nor do we have a simple partisan attack on Rome. The key contribution of Paul is to articulate a notion of justice apart from law, indeed a justice against law, based on messiah’s own foundational and paradigmatic loyalty and on radical, unconditional generosity. Moreover, Paul’s politics has more to do with social entities, their nature and relations, than dealing with the generic individual (in relation to God).

I do, however, have a few hesitancies, or would frame things slightly differently. For instance, I think that Paul should be thought of, even in Romans, not primarily as a “political thinker” (that is, neither as a doctrinal theologian or a doctrinal politico), but as a political activist with a theoretical-visionary bent and a flexible rhetoric. In this respect, Slavoj Zizek’s (and others’) characterization of Paul as more analogous to Lenin (relative to Marx) seems on target.

Related to this overall characterization is the question: what are Paul’s instrumental goals with this letter? Why this particular argument with this particular audience at this particular time? Jennings offers two main instrumental purposes: that Paul wished a) “to provide some assistance to the messianic group” in Rome; and b) “to seek their assistance for his own messianic vision” (11). These are indeed the explicitly stated general goals expressed in the letter itself (chap. 1, 15). The first goal is further explained in respect to Paul’s desire to “assist them in understanding and living out the extralegal response to the divine claim of justice” (12). But I think a little more nuance is needed here, especially since Paul seems always instrumental (and adaptive) with his rhetoric. In what specific way is this particular discourse designed to assist them? For instance, why in Romans does Paul actually soften the even more radical interrogation and undermining of the Mosaic/Judean nomos that we find in Galatians?

And why is the assault on the Judean polity of Moses far more explicit and stronger in Romans than the somewhat more implicit one against Roman (gentile/pagan) polity; and why does the debate about nomos mainly (though granted, not exclusively) engage Judean nomos? I think that part of the answer is that Paul has concluded not only that the Mosaic nomos has forsaken the prior and more fundamental dynamic of justice apart from law via unconditional gratuity and loyalty, but also, and perhaps more critically, that it circumvents Scripture’s more fundamental meaning and internal purpose in envisioning God’s promise to reclaim and reconcile the world, not just a single people. That is, the problem is that the Torah has become a weapon of exclusion, against the Scripture’s own internal purpose of the universal reconciliation of all nations. Justice in Paul is not merely abstract justice relative to law, but relational, restoring justice among peoples.

Of course, Romans is a combination of a complex “convergence of motivations.” My own view is that most everything in Romans leads up to the closing exhortation: welcome one another (15:7), following the call to ascribe renown (glory) to Joshua not as disparate cells, but only as united ones (15:5–6). Even the theory of justice propounded in the letter, therefore, seems somewhat subordinate to that primary rhetorical agenda. Paul doesn’t seem merely to be propounding a generalized theory of justice and its improvisation (this would be to make Paul’s method actually strikingly similar to the traditional doctrinal accounts of Romans, except that on this reading the application is more socio-political, not so much individual).

Paul’s main instrumental interest, as he seeks to promote persistent loyalty to Joshua Messiah himself, is to foster a kind of identity politics of solidarity internal to the messianic assembly, both locally in Rome, and globally across the empire—a unity and solidarity marked by welcome prototypically modeled by Joshua Messiah. The concern is not dissimilar from propounding the truly international character of the Proletariat (against nationalist resurgence). What Paul must do is subvert competing identity politics internal to the messianic movement that are on the verge of causing the whole project to come apart. Thus, the eschatological vision of relational interdependency of Israel and the nations (chap. 11) is expected to be proleptically realized in the relationships among competing cells. And while the divide between the weak and the strong is certainly not precisely coterminous with the Judean-gentile divide in the movement, there appears to be considerable overlap in these two binaries. In Jennings’ reading, however, 15:8–13, which specifically invokes the Judean-gentile binary in concluding fashion, is largely divorced from 14:1—15:7 (pertaining to the weak-strong binary).

Likewise, I think Paul’s comments on the collection destined for Jerusalem do not mainly play out the concrete economic-ethical ideals of the messianic way, the stress offered by Jennings. Paul visualizes the relief fund primarily as expressing a “partnership” that involves mutual obligations and solidarity (not as a mere “sharing from . . . [one group] to . . . [another group]”), a partnership that concretely and symbolically brings the increasingly alienated wings of the messianic movement together. At the same time, in this act Paul seems to be self-consciously hoping to fulfill prophecy, in the form of the final ingathering of the (tribute of the) nations to Jerusalem, reversing the standard eschatological scenario (as in 11:25–26), and perhaps designed to entice God into direct intervention to fully usher in the age to come. Thus, Paul closes the letter with a reference to a global solidarity that symbolizes and situates the local imperative of welcome and solidarity among Roman cells committed to the messianic movement. (This theme is of course not absent in Jennings—see e.g., page 227—it just seems a bit muted where it seems the crucial outcome of the justice/law and other arguments.)

In this rhetorical context, what is also striking then, is how justice is transfigured in the course of the argument, and actually gives way to the images of mercy and welcome as the letter-essay unfolds. Insofar as “justice” in Romans is carefully transfigured in Romans in the course of the argument, relative especially to notions of retributive or distributive justice, modern translations would do well to gloss dikaiosynē as “restorative justice.” But also striking is how considerable ambiguities and tensions remain in the argument (for instance, the continuing role of executive vindication by the divine sovereign [2:6; 12:18; 16:20], despite the rhetoric of radical gratuity as the sole framework of a new polity). (Here, Jennings proposes that 16:20 is best thought of as an interpolation; but the notion of the divine sovereign or his messianic vice-regent, for executive vindication, along with [violent] military imagery of conquest, is too consistently found throughout Paul’s letters to be easily excised this way.)

3) This leads to my next minor demurer. While “leader” as a translation of kyrios may be more amenable to modern political sensibilities (except in cells committed to leaderless movements; e.g., Gramsci is Dead2), I’m not sure the translation “leader” does justice to Paul’s notion of kyrios. Paul’s “kyriarchalism” is many layered and all too pervasive. While Paul indeed can invoke Joshua as the leader of the “improvised” social reality of the new politics, he actually claims much more—that this leader is the appointed global sovereign. What frames the entire argument of Romans are two royal acclamations, one as a sort of investiture (1:3–4), with crucial counter resonances with the imperial claims of Imperators as divi filius, and the other as proclaiming the final outcome of messiah’s world-wide dominion (15:12, “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations”), replicating the movement of the encomium to Messiah in Philippians 2:9–11. Jennings notes rightly that the first acclamation, to use the words of Jacob Taubes, offers a “declaration of war on the Caesar.” But he explains this only in terms of the legal dimension of the overthrow: the notion of the return to life of the executed, robbing the state of its violent power to intimidate and to exact obedience, and the undermining the regime of the law, depending as it does on the death penalty (19). The pervasive notion in Paul of Joshua as God’s appointed world counter-sovereign, however, is muted (as in the discussion of Rom 15:12). Paul’s imaging of final salvation operates with the imagery both of world-subjection and of world-reconciliation, a tension, I would suggest, at the heart of Paul’s vision of justice. (Meanwhile, Jennings does offer a fine summary of Taubes’ rendering of Paul’s “world nihilism”: Paul’s negation is not targeted at the world as such, but it “refuses to give authority to any of the structures of social, political, and economic life” [127].)

4) At the close of his book The Arrogance of Nations,3 Neil Elliott raises some potentially troubling aspects of Paul’s politics, doubting, for instance, whether Paul offers an adequate theory of (ecclesial) agency in and for the world, insofar as the major assault on evil seems to be left to the messianic imperator/liberator while the faithful seem to be enjoined to sit back and wait passively for the final parousia. To this issue, Jennings offers a significant rejoinder (though not directly in relation to Elliott’s queries). Here are just a few samples:

  • The “new messianic social groupings” demonstrate “what this justice looks like in the concrete now”; as “vanguard social reality” it gives “persuasive evidence of the coming messianic transformation”; that is, it is both demonstration and proleptic figure, showing “the improvisation of justice” that resists any retreat back to a “legal structure” (12, on Rom 12:1—15:7). It gives “dramatic testimony” to what is to come; and simultaneously is “messianic justice taking shape now” (226, on Rom 16:1–27). Still, as provisional “improvisation,” we could add with Giorgio Agamben that it is ever conscious of the danger of taking on prerogatives and a “substantive social identity” unto itself, but rather seeking to “liberate itself through autosuppression.”4
  • “The messianic community aims at the transformation of the unjust or, perhaps failing that, leaves them without any pretext or excuse for your unjust behavior. . . . The corporate body that is the evidence of the messianic in the world is to overcome all evil by doing only good toward what until now has been an instrument of injustice” (188, on Rom 12:14-21).
  • “Here as elsewhere, the aim is to take the world by surprise—the messianic surprise of love” (p. 194, on Rom 13:1–7).
  • “The weapons of light would appear to refer precisely to the comportment that vanquishes evil with good, so is not passive but active in its surprising ways of engaging ‘the enemy’ with a disarming goodness as well as with the capacity to endure affliction and even to exult in it” (198, on Rom 13:11–14).
  • “The new sociality . . . will demonstrate or embody the aim of divine justice” (200 on Rom 14:1—15:7).

I would add to these insightful comments the overt synergy propounded by Paul in 8:28 (translated alternatively), anticipating the rhetoric of 12:21: “Together with [not “for”] those who love God, who are called according to this purpose, the divine spirit co-works (synergei) all things toward the good.”

5) Finally, I return to the issue of comparisons and contrasts between Plato and Paul noted at the outset. In this commentary, Plato is somewhat flattened, placed alongside Aristotle and Cicero as one of the foils unable to properly separate justice from law. This is perhaps partly because Plato is not interviewed on much more than the topic of the relationship of justice and law. While there are certainly crucial areas of dissimilarity and contrast between the political theory of Plato and Paul, there are a number of intriguing points of resonance, especially between the Republic and Romans as discourses on dikaiosynē, with multiple overlapping themes and vocabularies, though usually lost in standard translation. (I have been teaching an undergraduate course for the past ten years titled “Plato’s Republic and Paul’s Romans in Dialogue.” Plato provides a provocatively alternative framing and reading context for Paul’s Romans other than that of received Christian doctrine or experience, or modern standard liberal-democratic political assumptions. The Republic and Romans become foils for each other. Where Plato is easily belittled for his totalitarian, elitist, top-down, or patriarchal assumptions, it is easy to point out that Paul might not also measure up so easily to modern sensibilities on many matters. And where Paul is claimed to be so distinctive, or simply right, even though he does not measure up to these same sensibilities, one can often ask how differently from Plato.)

Some further nuancing of Plato (and as different from Aristotle or Cicero) in relation to Romans, therefore, might also point to Plato’s own critical reflections on the limitations of law. Plato emphasizes in the Statesman (202a–302b) that in the true polis, which operates in accordance with true justice by the technē and epistēmē of politikē (inadequately rendered as “statesmanship”), there is no need for either written or customary law; the rule of law is formally the second best politeia, and particular laws are merely secondarily attempted “copies” of epistemic truth from the various arenas of life. In the Republic, the law is ineffective relative to paideia, especially the for elite class of guardians. And arguably the law-making procedure in the Republic is a heuristic to create an image (eidos) in/by logos (discourse, rationality) by which true justice can be discovered. (Granted, the mentality of law and justice, even eidos, in the Laws is clearly more closely akin to Aristotle.)

The careful balancing of dikaiosynē as applied both to the individual person and to the polis is also something that Plato and Paul share. And whereas Paul holds to both a notion of an individual eschatology (e.g., Rom 14:10–12), and a political eschatology pertaining to the entire world (e.g., Rom 8:17–39; 11:25–32; 15:12; 16:20), so also Plato holds to both an individual eschatology (Book X) and to a political eschatology with “apocalyptic” dimensions (whatever that word “apocalyptic” means). This is apparent in the messianic figure of the true politikos, the philosopher-king, the “one true scientific ruler,” in whom true knowledge, virtue, and wisdom and effective political power are somehow blended (Republic, 473e, 499a–b) And arguably, both the Republic and Romans are “revelatory” discourses in their own way. Even in the cave, liberation occurs through a force outside the individual, and in Plato and in Paul, dikaiosynē can be treated as a power. And finally, the reality of the true polis, always a polis to come (even while it truly exists in heavenly exile), is posited to be something only possible in the physical world through some sort of divine intervention. The polis of perfect justice and felicity will arrive only if “the one true scientific ruler . . . were to appear on earth” (Statesman, 301d). Just as it only the divine that truly “saves” the soul and city in the present (492e–493a), so also the true politeia, “when the philosophic Muse has taken control of the state/city,” will not arrive “unless some divinity intervenes” (492a), by “some divine fortune” (theia tychē, 592b), by “some necessity/chance/crisis” (anagkē) or by “some divine inspiration” (theia epipnoia), as it already may have come in infinite time past or may exist right now in some barbaric region (499b–d).

  1. Theodore W. Jennings, Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

  2. Richard J. F. Day, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto, 2005).

  3. Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

  4. Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005) 31–33.

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    Theodore Jennings


    A Response to Gordon Zerbe

    First let me express my gratitude for the organizers of this discussion and symposium. The notice that these scholars, previously unknown to me, had decided to focus attention on my book on Paul’s letter to the Romans came as a complete and most welcome surprise. The organization of the original panel in 2013 AAR/SBL and the innovative organization of this symposium are both surprising and gratifying.

    Most of all I am grateful to the panelists who have taken the trouble to read with some care and to actually write about the book, producing remarkable provocations for further reflection. I know how difficult it is for academics to carve out time for this sort of labor. Thus I am deeply honored and grateful to each of you for your labors, and your insights. I only regret that I will not be able to do justice, if there were such a thing, to the many contributions you have made to this discussion.

    Now, before attempting to respond to these responses it might be helpful to situate this project a bit, to indicate how it came about and what I hope for it.

    Although I was trained in systematic theology and philosophy of religion I have always had a deep interest in reading and interpreting biblical texts. I say “although” since it has become all too rare for theologians to engage the Bible or for biblicists to engage serious theological (and philosophical) reflection. The division of academic disciplines even in schools of theology inexorably pressures us to become what Ernst Kasemann called “fach-idioten.” In any case it was in reading Rudolf Bultmann as a seminary student nearly a half century ago that I began to suppose that there might be something of interest and importance in Paul. That hope was nourished by Hendrik Boers who, although a self-avowed atheist, demonstrated a great love and appreciation for Paul as well as Plato. Our late night discussions about Paul lasted until Boers’ untimely death a few years ago. But it was his project of a humanistic interpretation of NT texts that persuaded this Christian theologian that these texts, if they were to be meaningful or true, must be in some way true as well for those who are outside the ghettos of dogmatic confession and even “belief.”

    But in what way, with respect to what domain, are they to be found to be helpful in clarifying basic issues of human life and action. And it was here that I found great help from Ernst Kasemann, who through his recognition that Paul could not be reduced to an existentialist focus on inwardness and individuality (a recognition that comes in part through his recognition of a sort of apocalyptic origin and frame for Pauline texts), decisively reopened the question of how Paul was to be understood, interpreted, appropriated. It is this that by a circuitous route leads me to seek to develop something like a radical political hermeneutic for the interpretation of NT texts.

    So then: demythologizing from Bultmann, humanistic interpretation outside the ghetto of my own confessional commitments from Boers, the search for a more adequate and wider frame for the meaning of Paul from Kasemann.

    I began teaching Romans in Mexico, in Spanish, in 1984. The seminary did not have the luxury of separating the fields of Bible and history and theology, for which I am grateful. I continued teaching Romans when I returned to CTS in 1991 and then also taught the required courses in Epistles and Gospels.

    It was while I was teaching Romans that I discovered that many of the issues in Paul that I was trying to clarify with my students were also being wrestled with by Jacques Derrida. In spite of the fact that he never wrote anything like an engagement with a Pauline text his reflections on justice and law, gift and welcome, and so on seemed to me to show that what Paul was wrestling with were also issues of continuing importance for contemporary thought. I tried to indicate as much in my book Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice. In the meantime however I had also come to engage Marxist theory and the thinking of those who are seeking a way beyond the encirclement of humanity in the global political economy of capitalism. Some of these thinkers actually find significant help from Paul. A few like Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben have written insightful books on Paul. While others without discussing Paul as such, Nancy, Negri, Zizek, and so on, are nevertheless dealing with issues that are also of great importance for the understanding of NT texts generally and for Pauline texts in particular. This had already been prefigured by Friedrich Engels, some of whose later essays draw parallels between the project in which he and Marx had been engaged and that of Paul.

    Of course a major drawback to the recognition, at least in English of the political import of Paul, especially in Romans, has been the insistence on the substitution of words like “righteousness” for “justice” and “unrighteousness” and even “wickedness” for “injustice.” Teaching Romans in Spanish is of great help in this regard, for in Spanish and Portuguese the translators have not played such obvious and underhanded tricks upon their readers. (Something similar is true in the French of Derrida and Badiou or the Italian of Agamben.)

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    There are still many interpretive hurdles to be overcome here of course. One is the tendency to reduce the sphere of the political to the machinations of parliamentary democracy or party politics. Hence the necessity of situating the political in terms of the classical discussions of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero for each of whom the political refers to the constitution of human sociality, and thus of the human as such in relation to justice. Thus the political does not deal with one dimension of human life among others but with what it means to be human as such. Zerbe has remarked that I could or should have deployed Plato more in my discussion and I think he is right. I loved Plato long before I was interested in Paul. He is also right, up to a point, in suggesting that there is an eschatological dimension to Plato’s thinking. This has so far as I can see primarily to do with Plato’s various myths of a sort of last judgment, the details of which provide considerable fodder for early Christian theologians who borrow heavily from Plato’s myths of judgment, finding little to their purpose in biblical texts as such. But I worry a good deal about how much use can be made of Plato in this regard. His deep suspicion of anything like democracy derived from the trauma of Socrates’ sentencing and death, and his own failed attempts to instantiate a better constitutional system in Syracuse, leads him in the Statesman (Ho Politikon) to favor something like an absolute dictatorship. And the Timaeus begins by taking off from a discussion of an ideal State to ask what it would be like to see such a State in motion, in act, and the idea that springs to mind is the State in war, all too reminiscent of the later reflections of Carl Schmitt on the political. So while in the more systematic account of messianic political theology that is my current project I am making more use of Plato I am still wary of the benefit, save that of contrast, to be gained for the illumination of that problematic. I look forward to learning more from Gordon Zerbe as he develops his wonderfully conceived project of reading Plato and Paul together, something I also tried to do in my book on the origin of Western homophobia.

    I may say that I agree with him that “leader” may not be a strong enough term to get at Paul’s designation of the messiah as “kyrios” but I also unhappy with “world counter sovereign” given the many ways the “counter-” has been somehow forgotten in the theo-political tradition, at least since Constantine. For this is a leader who leads only by kenotic example—an extremely odd form of sovereignty, indeed the destruction of all sovereignty as such.

    Another issue for the development of radical messianic political thinking is the narrowness of some of our received ideas about the meaning of justice. One is the tradition going back to the ancients of conceiving justice in tight connection with law. I have tried to show that Paul, as an inheritor of the prophetic traditions of Israel, never surrenders his commitment to justice. But he does find it essential to fundamentally distinguish justice from law. I had spent considerable effort following that distinction in my book on Derrida and Paul and may have presupposed that work too much in Outlaw Justice. But at least I should emphasize that while justice comes outside the law, and may even be against the law, the justice Paul envisions is one that is fully consistent with what he takes to be the intent or aim of the law, perhaps especially the law of Moses. And this intent he finds to be expressed above all in the love of the other, which breaks out of the machine like deadness of the law into the improvisational space of responsiveness to the neighbor, indeed even of the enemy (Romans). Thus justice is not retribution, nor even distribution or even restorative (although that may come closer) but creative, innovative. I would be rather leery of talk of rectification since it seems to me to be rather too much like a return to a prior balance (like balancing tires or checkbooks) instead of a creative anticipation of what has never yet existed. Justice is not perfected by love, I think, but is rather grounded in love, in generosity, or as the old translations say “grace” or graciousness.” It is thus based on the new thing that God has done in and through the messiah.

    The scope of this justice is one that embraces all humanity, not just this or that empire, this or that nation. It is this totality that is indicated by the development in Romans 5 of the Adamic and Christic modes in which humanity is comprised. These are not, I believe, mythological or cosmological concepts as some seem to believe but rather ways of indicating the full human scope of the import of the messianic project. Indeed, as I have also maintained, the effect of the actualization of messianic justice reaches out to embrace “all flesh” as Paul says, (echoing the meaning of “all flesh” as all living or all that lives in the Genesis Noah account) beyond any confinement to the human species, a horizon of hope underscored by Paul’s reflections on all creation in Romans 8. But I resist the mythologization of these ideas under the pretext of giving weight to the apocalyptic horizon of Paul’s thought. To be sure what is involved here is far more that the ways humans are unjust to one another. We are more like cogs in mechanisms of mutual violation and violence. Not Pilate but the system of which he is but a functionary, not Wall Street but the inexorability of capitalist expansion and “creative destruction.” Latin American theologians have done much to clarify the actual role of systems and structures of death as they weigh upon our lives, to which we might add the indelible stain of racism in the US that infects us all, or that of the masculine domination of women. There is no need, I believe, to mythologize the forces of sin and death; that can only obscure the radicality of Paul’s analysis and render him so arcane as to provide no challenge at all either to the Roman or the contemporary global world. But for the same reason I find the substitution of error for sin to be too prone to minimize precisely this overwhelming and all-pervasive power of sin that Paul’s argument brings to light.