Paul and the President

Imagine this scenario: the apostle Paul walks up the steps of the White House, preparing to meet with the President of the United States, George W Bush. My hunch (given Paul's tendency to contextualise — 1 Cor 9) is that he would wear cowboy boots, a ten gallon hat, and he would be armed with a packet of pretzels. He would talk about oil rigs rather than altars (Acts 17) and I'm fairly confident he would have perfected a Texan drawl especially for the occasion.

ut how would the conversation go? Throughout America's history there has been a number of significant church leaders who have met with the president to offer support, prayer and advice. I could be wrong, but I'm not so sure Paul would offer much support for President Bush's recent response to terrorism. Understanding the context of Paul's message gives clues as to why this is so.

Wherever the apostle went, he was saturated with images (in shrines, temples, idols and festivals) of the imperial cult — the worship of the Roman emperor. The use of the word 'gospel' in this context is particularly revealing. Many of the images claimed that the emperor was the source of 'good news' or 'glad tidings' or 'gospel' for the empire. The most famous example of this use of the word is during the reign of Augustus. One inscription claims that Augustus will do "the work of a benefactor among men" and that he has been sent, as:

a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . . the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him . . . .1

So 'gospel', in the first century, was a political term. It was the 'good news' that Augustus and those who succeeded him would bring 'salvation', 'peace' and 'security' to the world. It was the 'glad tidings' announced on coins and inscriptions and celebrated in imperial festivals in honour of the emperor.2 It was the 'good news' of a salvific figure who would bring deliverance, peace, joy and wholeness for the entire civilized world.3

How did the empire hold together and maintain its power during this time? How did Caesar and his successors create the 'glad tidings' of 'peace and security' that were upheld as the benefits of the Roman Empire? One of the primary methods was through military might and force. While Roman patricians "sometimes bullied their way into control of an area through negotiations under threat of force, they usually employed 'forceful suasion' — systematic destruction, slaughter, and enslavement — as their means to the end of imperium."4

o what does this tell us about how Paul uses the word? It should alert us to the possibility that his 'gospel' might have political implications — especially in light of the way the word is used in the Hebrew scriptures so familiar to Paul.

In Isaiah there are two occurrences of the relevant root (Isa 40:9; 52:7)5 that bring to a climax the two intertwined themes of the section (Isa 40–55): YHWH will return to Zion to be enthroned and Israel will return from exile in Babylon. Here "the bearer of good news" is used as a way of encapsulating the comfort and hope that is believed to be in store for God's people when their exile comes to an end. Later in Israel's history this 'good news' theme of God bringing his people out of exile, and thus fulfilling his ancient promises, is similarly evident.6

In all of this literature "The 'good news' or 'glad tidings' would be the message that the long-awaited release from captivity was at hand."7 This was never understood in a purely 'religious' sense, but was always both a political and religious expectation. The belief was that when YHWH acted in history to deliver his people he would set up his own king as the ruler and all other political kingdoms would be confronted with their rightful sovereign. The politically revolutionary nature of this would have been clear to first-century Jews: to proclaim that God is king is to announce that Caesar is not.8

f Paul and his readers were therefore familiar with the political nature of the word 'gospel', in what sense is this evident in Paul's letters? To what extent would Paul's message have challenged the imperial gospel preached by Caesar?

According to Paul, the good news is that God has intervened in the world, through Christ, to transform and renew humanity and creation. He believes that the time of peace and restoration that Israel was supposed to bring to the world has now arrived in the person of Jesus, the Messiah. What this means is that people who follow Christ have become participants in what God is doing in the world — they are the first fruits, the initial stage, in God's transformation of the entire cosmos.

Paul applies this in a variety of ways. Those who follow the Messiah will become "instruments of justice" (Rom 6:13) bringing wholeness and rightness to the world. Identifying with the story of the cross will mean standing with the poor, the oppressed and the despised in society (1 Cor 1:18–2:5). Being a participant in God's transformation of the world will include "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:19) bringing healing to situations where this did not seem humanly possible.

Most pressing of all is the belief that in Christian communities there will be a transformation of relationships: where there was once ethnic, racial, gender and class division, there will now be love, shalom and unity (Gal 3:28; 5:15, 22; Eph 2: 11–22). For Paul, all of this (and more) is the 'good news'.

n what sense does this message represent a challenge to the claims being made by Caesar and his successors? First, it implicitly contradicts the emperor's claim to being the great benefactor of the people who would bring blessings of peace, justice and security to the world. For Paul to proclaim that Christ's death and resurrection represents the first stage of final peace and prosperity for the earth, is to set up an alternative announcement to that being propagated by the Roman empire.

Paul's message is that the world has begun to be put right by God, not by the Roman imperium. Such a claim was obviously difficult to demonstrate. There would have been little visible evidence that God was in the process of bringing peace and security to the world, at least in terms of how this was understood in the Roman world. Paul could not back up his 'gospel' proclamation by talking of military victories brought about by an army or navy or economic prosperity achieved through a safe and efficient road system.9

Instead, for Paul, God's intervention in the world is seen in the miracle of the new communities to whom he writes. Wherever there are communities working for peace, justice and reconciliation, in these places there is evidence that God, not Caesar, is making the world right.

Second, Paul's writing is peppered with phrases and concepts from Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as 'this age' (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; Gal 1:4) and 'new creation' (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Significantly, this apocalyptic literature made a claim about who would have final dominion over the earth — it insisted that the people of God would be delivered from imperial domination when God achieved final victory over all other nations and powers.

Therefore, for Paul to say that these communities are already 'new creation' (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) communities, is to make an implicitly political statement; they are the first fruits of God's final dominion over every sort of power — human and supernatural, earthly and spiritual. By encouraging his audience to think of themselves as 'new creation' communities, Paul is inviting them to perceive themselves as the first step in God's victory over all rulers of the day, including the imperial authorities.

urthermore, this undermined the fundamental structure of the empire. The political power of the Roman empire was perpetuated by hierarchical relationships of injustice. If this was how 'peace' and 'security' was created, what would represent a subversion of this power? One way in which this power would be undermined would be through the creation of communities that refused to relate in this way. If even small pockets of people within this vast empire began to structure their communities in ways that denied the inequality and injustice at the heart of Roman power, then this would be a challenge to the imperial gospel.

A message which permeates Paul's writing is the belief that relationships in these new communities are to be shaped by the self-giving example of Christ rather than by self-serving relationships of power (Phil 2:1–18). Underlying Paul's theology is his desire to establish cells of people who ordered their lives according to stories, symbols and praxis different from the ones propagated by Caesar. This represents an implicitly counterimperial act.

While Paul's 'gospel' is loaded with political overtones, however, it is clear that his primary purpose for writing is not to bring down the structures of the Roman empire, as Romans 13:1–7 reminds us. Instead he writes to remind his communities that God has begun to transform the world and to encourage them therefore to embody a new social reality. But it is as he makes a claim about God and the world, and as the first Christians begin to live out this new reality, they are implicitly subverting the claims and praxis made by Caesar and his successors.

n light of all this, what would Paul say to President Bush? Although the first century Greco-Roman world is vastly different from the one we live in, it's not difficult to recognise some similarities between the claims made by Caesar and his successors and the claims made by George W Bush and his administrators.

Just as Caesar claimed that he would bring justice and peace to the world through military intervention, so Bush believes that America has its own version of 'good news' for the world. The role and destiny of the United States, he frequently preaches, is to extend the "blessings of freedom" and peace across the globe. It will be America, Bush claims, who will bring about "the hope of all mankind".

It is this hope that "drew millions to this harbour". And it is this hope that "still lights our way". "The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it."10 How will the world ever be rid of the threat of terrorism? By pursuing "the terrorists in cities and camps and caves across the earth."11

Bush believes that America's military intervention "will give strength to others. By our courage, we will give hope to others. And by our actions, we will secure the peace, and lead the world to a better day. May God bless America."12

n some points Paul and George Bush would probably agree. What happened on September 11 was an act of evil. Both Paul and the President would react with disgust and anger over the events in Bali in October 2002. But I believe Paul would differ on how to respond to such terrible events.

While President Bush's response is to hunt the terrorists "in cities and camps and caves across the earth", Paul, I suggest, would have something very different to say. He would say, "No, President, what you are proclaiming to the world is not good news. Your approach can never bring true peace and freedom to humanity.

"The good news is not that America can save the world — in fact, the good news has nothing to do with the size or skill of America's military machine. The good news is that God has begun to transform the world through Christ and this transformation will continue wherever there are followers of Jesus prepared to participate in what God is doing."

Such a response does not offer a quick solution to evils such as terrorism. But Paul's vision of God and the world does address the seeds of terrorism such as injustice, racism, oppression and poverty. Paul writes to nurture communities of justice, peace and reconciliation, and it is communities such as these that are needed today more than ever.

Paul's vision is a reminder why the work being carried out by organisations such as TEAR Fund is one of the most powerful responses to terrorism. As Stephen Tollestrup, Executive Director of Tear Fund NZ, recently wrote, "For those of us working here at TEAR Fund our resolve to be active in fighting poverty, the very seedbed of terrorism, was strengthened in the aftermath of September 11th. We considered and asked ourselves afresh how we might help build a more just and prosperous world through our partners and projects by making an unequivocal decision for the justice and compassion of Jesus."13

ur imaginary between Paul and the President is a reminder that just as in the first century there were two versions of the good news, so today, there are alternative ways of perceiving the world. One version preaches quick-fix freedom and peace through military might and a relentless pursuit of the perpetrators. The other has a longer and broader view of reality — waging peace and nurturing communities of justice and freedom as a witness to the good news about God.

It is Paul's version, not the President's, which needs to be told and lived out globally and in our local communities today.


1 Inscription dated to 9 BCE quoted from U Becker, “Gospel, Evangelize, Evangelist”, in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol 2, p 108.
2 Horsley, Paul and Politics: Eklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2000, p 93.
3 J L Martyn, Galatians, Anchor Bible Vol 33A, New York: Doubleday, 1998, p 130.
4 R Horsley, “The Gospel of Imperial Salvation: Introduction”, in ed R. Horsley, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1997, p 10.
5 See also Isa 60:6; 61:1.
6 The Psalmist in Psalms of Solomon 11, for example, believes that the return from exile has not yet happened and therefore hopes for the ‘good news’ of God’s intervention in Israel’s current plight. (Pss Sol 11:1–9). Likewise in at least two Qumran texts of the same period, there is evidence that certain Jews were still earnestly expecting a fulfilment of the Isaianic promises. For example 1QH 18.14–15 and 11QMelch. Both references cited according to G Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987, pp 200, 301.
7 N T Wright, “Gospel and Theology in Galatians”, in Gospel in Paul eds L A Jervis and P Richardson, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994, p 226.
8 N T Wright, “Gospel and Theology in Galatians”, p 228.
9 Martyn, Galatians, p 132.
10 President’s Remarks to the Nation, Ellis Island, New York, New York, Sept 11, 2002.
11 President’s Remarks to the Nation, Ellis Island, New York, New York, Sept 11, 2002.
12 President Bush, Cincinnati Museum Centre — Cincinnati Union Terminal. Cincinnati, Ohio. October 7, 2002.
13 S Tollestrup, Tear Talk, Spring 2002, p 8.

| Top | Home | Back to Index of Issue 54 |