“Outlaw justice” – was Paul really a political theologian?

The standard average Christian evangelical, or Reformed, reading of Paul makes him into a huckster of cheap grace.

How many times have you heard a sermon on Romans, or a Christian song on the radio, or some radio plug for a new church or ministry, invoking the Reformation-revivalist message that it’s all about giving up trying to make something out of your life on your own, surrendering to Jesus, and accepting his lavish love as shown on the Cross?

This formula is so familiar, Christians unconsciously assume that is what Paul in Romans and elsewhere is actually saying.  N.T. Wright has warned us repeatedly about uncritically reading Paul in this way, but because of the relentless reinforcement by theologians and pastors of such a reading, we rarely have a choice  even to consider there might be something amiss here.

The formula derives ultimately from Luther’s view of Paul as expounding the notion of an “imputed” righteousness through the saving death of Christ on the Cross. Through the crucifixion the “righteousness of God” is revealed and transferred to us sinners when we confess Jesus as our Redeemer.  Although all “fall short” on God’s righteousness and holiness, “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 3:24, NIV).

But what if something altogether different than classical atonement doctrine might  be going on in Paul?   What if Romans were more what we understand nowadays as a radical “political theology” focused on a vision of universal justice than a therapeutic sop for the lonely and the lost, as it has become in our present culture of Christian spiritual consumerism?

Scholars for some time have noted the curious way in which Paul throughout Romans deploys the word dikaiosyne, normally translated as “righteousness.”   But in both the ancient and Hellenistic Greek milieu dikaiosyne had more the force of “justice” in both the sense of morally normative social relations and the person virtue of habitually behaving “justly” toward others.

It is the same word that constitutes the centerpiece of Plato’s deliberations about both the just soul and just government in the Republic.  In Aristotle dikaiosyne is the binding force that holds competing wills and interests together in the polis.

So is Romans really a tract in political theory rather than a view of religion or a soteriology, as we are accustomed to construing it?

In his recently published book Outlaw Justice:  The Messianic Politics of Paul, Theodore Jennings (Stanford University Press, 2013) makes exactly this kind of case.   Following Jacques Derrida’s well-known distinction between “law” and “justice,” which is undeconstructible, Jennings sees Paul’s well-known “dialectic” in Romans as

“While agreeing with the tradition of political thought that the basic issue has to do with justice, Paul deviates from the tradition by offering a fundamental critique of the supposition that justice is to be achieved through a legal structuring of society,” Jennings writes (p. 3).  Justice instead is “messianic.”

The familiar Pauline and Reformation refrain that Christ-followers are “justified”, or made just, through faith has nothing to do with a “forensic” mutation of “God declaring people to be just who are manifestly not just” (p. 62), but of the establishment on earth of real justice by means of the transformative resurrection power of the risen Jesus.

The “justice” present in the eschatological community that is “in Christ” is the kind of just order only the messiah can establish.  It is not established through “law”, that is, nomos (Paul’s locution in Romans is the standard Hellenistic term for the broader legal and juridical framework of social obligations and not simply for the Jewish Torah), but through “faith”, or pistis – a kind of revelatory intuition of the new Christ-community, or koine,  in which “justice” or dikaiosyne reigns.

In the Christ community political justice, social justice, and divine justice are all one and the same.

Christian eschatological justice, therefore, completely inverts law-based justice, on which both Roman and subsequent Western society are founded.  Jennings argues convincingly that the rhetoric of Romans 2 is not aimed singularly at the decadent morality and cultic excesses of pagan society, but primarily at a social order that privileges narcissistic preoccupations over interpersonal responsibility, that is founded on ruthless self-aggrandizement at the expense of relationality.

It discerns the “liveliness” of a new way of being as “the messianic takes form” in those “societies somehow lodged within the old and increasingly hostile institutional orders of the world”.  (p. 177).

In his famous essay “Force of Law,” on which Jennings depends for much of his interpretation of Paul, Derrida calls justice not a state of relationships between two parties (i.e, giving everyone their “due”), as it was for Plato and the Greeks in general, but a “performative force.”

If God is just, as even the agnostic Thomas Jefferson thought, then does that mean God is the  the ultimate performative force?  The force of God, then, is what we call justice in a Christian sense.

Christian justice would also imply that we  rely on this force in relation to the other.  Justice itself is always surprising.  Consider Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  All the characters in the story do what they were supposed, or expected, to do according to the nomos.  But Jesus, as both social outcast (like the hated Samaritan) and as theological outlier (“unlike,” as the Gospel tell us the scribes and Pharisees)  exercises the performative force of justice that ultimately ensues in the crucifixion.

In doing justice, divine justice, Jesus deconstructs everything about well-ordered human relationships that systems of “justice” (i.e., law) have put in place for ages.

In theological language, we can say that by going to the cross as a “criminal” under the highest, rational system of justice that the world at the time had devised – i.e., Roman law – Jesus deconstructed the justice system and established justice and righteousness once and for all.

We like to think of Jesus as a rebel against the system.  But actually he corrected and perfected the system , as we find Jesus saying in Matthew 5:20.  “unless your justice (dikaiosyne) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven .”

It is this “excess” of justice over what is deconstructible that makes justice undeconstructible.  Derrida also says that “deconstruction is justice.”  What he means that justice is also the force of deconstruction.  We do not merely deconstruct. Deconstruction happens, like the Holy Spirit, to us and through us.  It happens because of the force of deconstruction that is in all texts, that is “at work” in every work, including the work that is us and in us.

We can, therefore, understand the Christian community, or the church. as embodied theodicy.  The church is the outworking of God’s universal justice.  God’s universal justice is not the same as giving everyone their due, but about establishing right relationships and exhibiting justice through the permanence, force, and sustainability of those relationships.

One of the major failures of Christian thought, or at least American Christian thought, in the last fifty years or so has to do with its seeming inability to comprehend the meaning of the term “justice” and its epochal implications for the church.   Its clutch has always remained stuck in flitting back and forth between the idea of dikaiosyne as either personal “righteousness”  or impersonal, “distributive”, social justice.

One does not need to distinguish between personal and social justice any more than one can distinguish between pregnant and very pregnant.   Whoever is “just”, according to Scripture, does justice.  Whoever is “saved” does justice in the way the prophets described it – at the gate, in the marketplace, not just in the voting booth or by working two days a week at a homeless shelter.

Jennings is quite thorough in his recasting of Paul as a theoretician of a new “outlaw justice”.  As exponents of this new kind of justice, Jennings insists, “we do not play by the rules of the older order” that is, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7: 31 “passing away” (paragei).

The word paragei also applies to what the ancients called the aion, the saeculum, the secular.  Justice cannot be found in the secular.  That is why Plato’s theory of devolutionary cycles of the republic has to be taken seriously.

The justice of the saeculum is always a work as a work of deconstruction, an ephemeral  text of discursive positionings and re-positionings, that ultimately disintegrates.  Only “in Christ,” the justice of eschatological interpersonal relationality, the undeconstructible Christ community, can justice be found.

“More law, less justice,” Cicero wrote.  But the messiah is he who “fulfills” every kind of law and manifests justice in the fullness of time, and of all human relationships.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and Senior Editor of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His most recent books include Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory (University of Virginia Press, 2012), GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008), and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004).  His most recent book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy will soon be forthcoming.

  • http://camostar.wordpress.com/ Camo Star

    Thanks again Carl for the illuminating post! I came across Derrida’s distinction between law and justice in Caputo’s Against Ethics and found it a helpful distinction to make. It would be interesting to look at the work by Jennings, and it sounds like he unpacks dikaiosyne a bit. My only concern is to what extent we can assume Derridean categories to be analogous with Pauline ones! The New Perspective points out that this was the mistake of the Reformers (though their interpretations of law and righteousness are dependent on earlier Western traditions), who did not understand the significance of Torah.

  • roselyn drake

    Always a relief to find theory in line with lived experience

  • Christopher Erik

    Thanks, really helpful!