November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
May 9, 2019
It is not novel to argue that Paul’s writings have profound political overtones, claims, and implications. In recent years, various Jewish, Christian, and nonreligious thinkers have written much on the relationship between Paul’s philosophy and politics.1 Nonetheless, I find it remarkable that many Christians have not thought to read Paul’s Prison Letters through the lens of political resistance.
Paul wrote at least four significant letters from prison. According to Acts, he caused riots in Jerusalem, got embroiled in a theological form of resistance to the state, and was imprisoned and ultimately executed as its enemy.2 But why did the Roman Empire want to imprison and kill Paul? After all, if Paul hadn’t been executed, he couldn’t have become a martyr as the term is used in churches today. And there were plenty of religious people in the Roman Empire at the time who believed all sorts of things that differed from the imperial ideology, yet those individuals didn’t get hung up on crosses or have their heads cut off. So what was it about Paul, as well as Jesus and many other Christians, that led the state to jail and then execute them as political heretics?
Rejoice in the Sovereign Always!
Much like our American system of incarceration, Roman imprisonment was a system of detention that was meant to trigger dejection and even despair. Prison was—and is—a “penitentiary,” a place designed to produce “penitence” or “repentance.”3 As such, prison is a performative statement of the state’s capture and control over prisoners, reducing them to a powerlessness aimed at conversion.
But much to the chagrin of the Roman authorities, Paul’s spirit remains defiantly unbroken and bright during his imprisonment. Paul’s letter from prison to Philippi, a Roman colony, is famously known as his “letter of joy,” because there are no fewer than ten references to joy in its four short chapters. But readers often fail to notice that this joy is wrapped up in Paul’s provocative political defiance.4
Imagine Paul’s jailer censoring this letter. I expect that the fellow would be shocked, confused, and perhaps intrigued, if not outraged, that Paul rebelliously writes things like “I always pray with joy” (1:4); “I will continue to rejoice” (1:18); “I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (2:17); “Rejoice in the sovereign! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again” (3:1; my translation); and “Rejoice in the sovereign always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4; my translation).5 Whatever prison was doing to Paul, it certainly was not making him pliant, contrite, or converted to his captor’s ideology. Roman prison had not reduced Paul to powerlessness or filled him with despair. Rather, despite the chains that shackled the movement of his body (1:13), Paul embodied a defiant freedom.
Paul attributes his treasonous cheerfulness under Roman incarceration to Jesus, his “sovereign” (kyrios). This is a title archaically translated as “Lord” but which actually meant the highest position of authority, the sovereign ruler. Paul’s choice of terms is not accidental; Caesar also claimed to be “sovereign.” Thus, Paul was implicitly saying that the imperial sovereign’s prison had no power over the crucified sovereign’s joy. Paul pointed to another sovereign who is sovereign over the pseudosovereign Caesar.6
In short, then, the imperial system of detention and demoralization was shown to be a failure in the presence of a prisoner loyal to Christ. The springs of his joy were inaccessible to and inexhaustible by the state’s apparatus of capturing and crushing the spirit. Paul’s joy was therefore intensely political—it was an embodied resistance. Paul testified that the new life “in Christ” is sovereign over the state’s sovereignty, which it exercised and enforced through a system of policing, capturing, and conforming its subjects.
Therefore, God Exalted Him to the Highest Place
Throughout this joyful prison letter, Paul celebrates and inculcates an alternative vision of power, a vision of power that makes Caesar’s famously violent empire look both powerless and foolish. In chapter 2, Paul instructs his readers to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (2:5), which is constituted by this simple law: “value others above yourselves” (2:4). Paul goes on to write that this mindset led Jesus to give up all of his divine privileges, to “make himself nothing,” and freely to “take the very nature of a servant” like an ordinary human being (2:6–8). That is, rather than rising up over others, Jesus descends to be with and for others, even to the point of embracing a debased and despised lowliness. This is Christ’s governing mentality, his ultimate reason, his mind. And, shockingly, it is for this reason with this mind that “God exalted him to the highest place . . . that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is sovereign” (2:9–10; translation mine).7
Of course, this was ideological heresy and political treason. According to Paul, true power is found in presence with and sacrifice for others, not in rising up in terrifying height above them, like the Roman eagle circling above its prey. To the contrary, God exalted Christ as the ruler of the world because he valued others above himself to the point of death. Paul is here defiantly reimagining the very nature of power. If anything, Roman prison has intensified his conviction that true power—divine power—is found in Christ, in the one whose sovereignty represents the opposite of Caesar’s.8 Indeed, prison becomes a kind of creative base for Paul to clarify his ideas and spread his message throughout the empire with letters like this one to colonial Philippi.
Paul is not employing an empty metaphor, as though Jesus had become the sovereign of Christians’ hearts or taken up the metaphorical throne of their inner lives or even the church. No, Paul is emphatic that God has given Jesus sovereignty over “every name,” “every knee,” and “every tongue” throughout the entirety of reality. All will acknowledge “Jesus Christ is sovereign.” It is this fundamentally universal claim to Christ’s sovereignty over all people in all places that clarifies the reason for Paul’s imprisonment and execution. The Roman Empire was teeming with religions and spiritualities, which Rome generally welcomed as part of its strategy of assimilating people and defusing potential conflict, but Paul wasn’t preaching a new inner spirituality. He was propagating a new way of interpreting reality, authority, and thus political order.
Even if Paul affirmed that just rulers have legitimate authority under God and thus should be obeyed, he still affirmed that their authority was under God and thus that they were accountable to Christ not to cause terror for those who do right.9 Such an assertion was unthinkable and treasonous to the state precisely because it defied the totality of Caesar’s claim to authority. Paul insisted that the ruler and his state are subservient to a higher authority that will ultimately judge them.
All of this makes a sham of Caesar. When Caesar wants to prove his power, he does not go among the people and serve the despised. He does not spill his own blood. Rather, he makes claims to “being in very nature God” and imprisons people like Paul, trying to intimidate them into believing that he is worthy of being feared, obeyed, and even worshiped. This is how imperial power perpetuates itself. But Paul insists through Christ that Caesar’s imprisoning power is a hoax; it is an obsolete governing narrative that should no longer impress, much less imprison, the minds of Christ’s new community.
In Roman language, this marks the “new order of the ages” (novus ordo seclorum), what Paul calls “the day of Christ” (2:16). And this new “day” centers on a revaluation of power in which others are no longer seen as subjects or threats but as beloved sisters and brothers. Moreover, this is not a new religious tribalism but a fellowship of service that extends to everyone: “Let us do good to all people.”10 This is a new, universal affirmation of others that goes far beyond the elitism of Roman Stoicism.11
Thus, Paul’s rhetoric throughout Philippians carries a subtly insurrectionary charge of tender affection for others: “I have you in my heart” (1:7); “I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8); “[Epaphroditus] longs for all of you” (2:26); “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the sovereign” (4:1; translation mine). This is not the language of subjection or detention, much less of execution. Paul challenges the hierarchical, imperial, and subjugating rationality of Roman power with expressions of tender affection. For Paul, there is a higher law that voids the logic of political oppression: “Value others above yourself.”
They Will Be Destroyed
For all of his affection, Paul refuses to become passive, much less a convert, to Roman domination. Instead, he impenitently writes, “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed” (1:28).
Paul hangs much of his argument on this “sign.” In the previous sentence, Paul writes, “But whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). He unpacks this “manner” by saying, “Stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one for the faith (pistis) of the good news without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed” (1:27–28). In other words, Paul’s “sign” of destruction is not a vengeful intimidation strategy; he is not brandishing weapons. Paul’s claim is that this new community’s unbroken unity, which takes the form of togetherness in allegiance (pistis) to sovereign Jesus’s “good news” (euangelion, another term Caesar used for his rule) and thus results in a courageous fearlessness, is the sign of this fierce judgment.12 Paul calls for no counterviolence to the Roman practice of destroying others. Instead, he encourages a counterpolis that celebrates its own unity, works together in its allegiance to Christ, and thus isn’t “frightened in any way by those who oppose” them.
This is how, in the face of this defiant community, “they”—the persecutors, jailers, executioners, and all who enforce the “good news” of the pseudosovereign—are shown a “sign” that “they will be destroyed” (1:27). The Eternal City that they are defending is fading away. Its sovereignty has been exploded and overpowered by a new community that gathers around a new sovereign named Jesus, himself a crucified criminal. What originally seemed so powerful, permanent, and impossible to overcome is actually not able to puncture the unity of this counterpolis.
Paul beautifully describes this boundary-crossing, diverse, and unified community in all of his letters, which articulate his vision for Christ’s new ekklēsia, another crucial Greco-Roman political term meaning “the governing assembly.” Paul’s descriptions are profound and should be read with new political eyes, centralizing the other-prioritizing, ethnicity-transcending, favoritism-rejecting, slave-and-master–reconciling, equality-celebrating, wealth-sharing, good-doing nature of the community.13 It is this kind of community that—humbly, peacefully, affectionately, generously, counterculturally—embodies material evidence that those who divide, demean, and destroy human life are fading away.
But Our Citizenship Is in Heaven
Paul’s most explicitly political statements come in the middle of his letter. He writes, “Our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the sovereign Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (3:20–21).
Paul is not offering an antipolitical, heavenly opiate leading to religious escapism and the status quo, which Marx insightfully criticized. Quite to the contrary, Paul is defying the totality of the Roman Empire, insisting on another kind of citizenship that surpasses Roman citizenship in value, scope, and authority. In so doing, he punctures the basic claim of Roman hegemony—that it is total, that it is the best, that there are no legitimate alternatives, that Rome is all there really is. He hails a state that is inaccessible to, untouchable by, and above and beyond Rome. This is a radically subversive political statement of countercitizenship to any totalitarian state.
Paul continues, writing, “And we eagerly await a Savior from there.” Here he appropriates a central Roman political metaphor and uses it for his own counter-Roman purpose. Everyone knew that when Caesar went to make war against his enemies, the citizens should wait ready for his return as their “Savior” (sotēr). That was the basic geosymbolic structure of Roman imperial life: (1) Caesar goes out with his army; (2) they dominate the enemy; (3) they return in glorious triumph; and (4) the people welcome Caesar as their savior. So Paul cleverly hacks this system and declares that we await the sovereign Jesus “from there.” Caesar’s promise of domination does not make us wait in eager expectation. No, Paul explains, we have stopped waiting for that kind of presence or spectacle. We are looking the other way, in Christ’s direction, for his return beyond any human power.
And Paul says he will “come.” There is no hint of escapism in Paul’s politics. We do not plan to leave the earth behind or to abandon those who suffer under Rome’s occupation. Instead, we are awaiting “a Savior from there” who will come and bring everything under his control, giving us an undying bodily existence.14
Paul still isn’t passive. He laments, “Now I tell you again even with tears that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction” (3:18–19). Even as he warns for a second time of judgment, this is still not the outburst of a suppressed resentment. Instead, Paul is heartbroken; these “enemies” are those who oppose Christ’s law to “value others above” themselves with their imprisoning violence. They are those who continue to devalue, demean, and destroy the “servants,” those who will ultimately be lifted up by God. At last, the humiliaters, slavers, traffickers, jailers, torturers, executioners—all those who do the will of Caesar under the law of the imperial self that values itself above others—will be judged by God. It is their destiny that is “destruction.” But Paul—the defiant prisoner who rebelliously rejoices in prison—weeps about this. He is not gloating, which would be the way of the old sovereignand his violent “citizenship” with his triumphalist “coming.” Paul’s is a lachrymose politics of hope.
And the Peace of God . . . Will Guard Your Hearts and Minds in Christ Jesus
Early in his letter, Paul reports that “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (1:13). There may have been a guard looking over Paul’s shoulder as he penned these words. The beginning of Paul’s conclusion reads as a subtle, powerful statement of political resistance and liberation. He writes, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). The true “guard” is not a man employed by the state with keys to imprison others and a club to abuse them if they protest. No, the true “guard” is available to all, even under watch of the “palace guard.”
In this way, Paul brilliantly redefines the notion of jurisdiction and safety contra the Pax Romana. Yes, Paul is physically under the watch of an imperial guard who took away his freedom, had the ability to beat him, and eventually hands him over to an executioner. But, in the end, Caesar’s “palace guard” has no custody over Paul and cannot endanger him. Instead, Christ has custody over him as “Christ’s prisoner,” and thus he is always safe, even if he is imprisoned or executed.15 Indeed, Paul prays and rejoices, fearless of violence and death. There is a form of peace “which transcends all understanding”—again, something not accessible to or exhaustible by the violent power of Rome. Paul speaks of a divine transcendence that transgresses imperial totality and a peace that punctures its hegemonic iron dome over the earth.
Paul thereby returns to the defiant ethos with which he began this brilliant letter from prison. In the place that was meant to crush him into conformity, to break his will into remorse, and to “rehabilitate” him as a penitent citizen of the state, Paul is filled with a transcendent peace, and he promises the same for his brothers and sisters, who themselves may soon be in prison for their allegiance to the sovereign Jesus. Thus, he is filled with joy as he prays and reaffirms his heart’s jailbreaking affection for his brothers and sisters.
All God’s People Here Send You Greetings, Especially Those Who Belong to Caesar’s Household
In the penultimate sentence of his letter from prison, Paul provocatively sends greetings to the Philippian colony from those “who belong to Caesar’s household” (4:22). This is a cheerfully cryptic, cleverly critical way of announcing the presence of Christ’s people in the empire’s center of power. Caesar might be able to put some of the new sovereign’s followers behind bars, like Paul, but others are already inside and bearing witness to Christ’s new life and law.
Rather than hinting at an assassination plot, which was common in the Roman palace, Paul says that these people send greetings. Paul’s final word from prison is “grace” from his new sovereign, who guards the undefeatable “spirit” of his people, even in Caesar’s oppressive shadow. This juxtaposition between Caesar and Christ is unmistakable and brilliant.
Paul’s Politics from an Ethiopian Prison Today
On Black Saturday, March 31, 2018, I met a striking embodiment of Paul’s politics in an Ethiopian jail in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I went to the jail just before Easter to visit another prisoner, but when I learned that Eskinder Nega was also being held there, I asked to see him.
Eskinder was perhaps Ethiopia’s highest profile political prisoner. By profession, he was an award-winning journalist and an advocate for human rights, democratic government, and serious reform in Ethiopian politics. But the Ethiopian government had branded him a terrorist, and he had spent the last six and a half years in various Ethiopian prisons. For a time, his wife was also a political prisoner, and their son Nafkot (“Missing”) was born in prison. Eskinder was brutally tortured in the infamous Maekelawi prison and subjected to several years of confinement in a tiny cell with three other prisoners.
I had never met Eskinder, but I had assigned his 2013 New York Times op-ed “Letter from an Ethiopian Gulag” for my course “Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia” at Wheaton College, and I had followed the international campaigns for his release. So on Black Saturday, I was very curious to learn what kind of man he was, a dangerous terrorist or a voice for freedom and justice.
The filthy jail where I met Eskinder was probably not much better than the one that imprisoned Paul. The air reeked of human feces. The “jail” itself was a dilapidated house with a rusted metal roof. Prisoners could be “visited” by looking between the metal bars in a window in the high cinderblock wall that surrounded the house. I was told there were forty prisoners being held inside a thirty-two-square-meter room, with everyone sleeping on the floor, basically body to body. By any standard, the jail radiated utter humiliation and misery. It was a “penitentiary” par excellence.
And yet what immediately struck me about Eskinder as we talked through those rusty bars was his extraordinary joy. Looking into his face, I could see that he was physically exhausted, but he also exuded an irrepressible cheerfulness in that dehumanizing jail that made it feel like Easter had already come and overpowered the seeming hopelessness of Black Saturday.
When I asked Eskinder how it was possible for him to be incarcerated in such terrible conditions for crimes he did not commit and yet still to radiate joy, he said that it was because of Jesus. As we talked, I felt an uncanny freedom and life-giving power filling that place that was hard to describe. Later that night, I told a friend that this hellish jail was somehow converted into a holy church during that conversation. Despite being deeply grieved by the miserable conditions I witnessed, I couldn’t help walking away from that jail feeling inspired, feeling that Jesus truly is Lord and that our hope for his freedom and justice is certain.
I was so moved by the baffling discrepancy between the jail’s humiliating misery and Eskinder’s overflowing joy that I asked to meet him for an interview on April 11 after his release, and he generously agreed.16 During that interview I learned that Eskinder became a passionate follower of Jesus in prison while incessantly reading the New Testament, including Paul’s letters from prison. (He quipped, “Paul would have been the perfect journalist.”) And what I heard from Eskinder as he told me his story and unpacked his theology sounded much like a twenty-first-century rendition of Paul’s prison letter to Philippi.
For Eskinder, Jesus is Lord, and his kingdom is governed by the self-giving love and justice of God. Rather than fear and force, Jesus rules through service and sacrifice—through “gift.” His law of neighbor-love reveals and dignifies the equal humanity of all people and their right to be treated with respect and kindness. In other words, being a follower of Jesus leads to a heavenly citizenship that cannot be contained or crushed by any authoritarian state. Alluding to Philippians, Eskinder told me,
The promise of the heavenly kingdom doesn’t mean that we have to give up on the present world. It’s up to the church to be engaged in both our spiritual wellbeing and our earthly wellbeing. This is what the times demand. This is what Jesus taught. He spoke out against injustice.17
And what Eskinder emphasized again and again in this postprison interview is that this Christian witness signals that tyrannical government and the oppressive destruction of human life are fading away. They are not all-powerful or permanent as they appear. “They are temporary and will pass away as quickly as the blink of your eye,” he told me. In light of the true lordship of Jesus, these little lords are merely the desperate expression of human sin that will be brought under God’s judgment at last when perfect peace will reign. As Paul said, “They will be destroyed.”
I was amazed by Eskinder’s lack of resentment or rancor despite his freedom, family, and physical well-being having been stolen from him for nearly seven years. As we talked, he passionately spoke about the need for forgiveness and the birth of a new community through enemy-love. Eskinder did not want any revenge or retaliation for the brutal injustices he and other Ethiopians have suffered. Instead, the “sign” that kept shining through this conversation was a call for a fearless togetherness that refuses to give up on Jesus’s sovereign will for freedom and justice for all people, including oppressors.
For Eskinder, this welled up into that unbreakable joy which I had observed at the prison. Jesus loves us. Jesus offers us a new kingdom that is meant to bring new life and justice on earth as it is in heaven. No human power can thwart or alter his sovereign will. And, thus, we live with hope. Even in the most miserable and humiliating conditions of prison, our hearts are guarded with Christ’s peace, and we can smile—even at our captors and fellow prisoners, who are human and in need of Christ’s grace just like us. Eskinder said,
Jesus is watching constantly. He never forgets. He reads your heart. And as long as you firmly believe in that, you’ll have the strength to withstand what difficulties the government could bring. . . . It’s how you stand in God’s judgment—what Paul calls “that day”—that matters.18
As I talked with Eskinder, I was struck by the way in which he had withstood the crippling movement toward penitence, silence, passivity, and cooperation that oppressive governments inculcate through fear, violence, and prison. Instead, he embodied joyful impenitence and resolute courage. He made injustice, oppression, and death seem like a passing, ultimately powerless mirage in light of Christ’s promised coming. The larger-than-life totality of a totalitarian regime became small and pitiable before the confident hope that the crucified Jesus is indeed exalted to the highest place and thus that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is sovereign. I felt an intensification and renewal of my calling to live a fearless life of witness to Jesus’s sovereignty and his law—“Value others above yourself”—even when doing so may bring me suffering.
There is much work left to be done in Ethiopia. But Eskinder’s prophetic witness from prison, echoing Paul’s from two thousand years ago, is already being vindicated. A new prime minister, who is also a follower of Jesus, has come to power in Ethiopia and released thousands of prisoners. The atrocious practice of torture in Ethiopian prisons has been documented on national television, and key prison bosses have been fired. The totalitarian state of emergency has been repealed, and some of Ethiopia’s most oppressive laws are under revision. Numerous other reforms and reconciliations are underway. What seemed untouchable and virtually impossible to change only a few months ago has been brought to its knees. Eskinder, who has said that he is prepared to return to prison if necessary, has new freedom to pursue his Christ-empowered vocation to be an advocate for freedom, justice, and human rights in Ethiopia.
Paul’s theology was defiantly, brilliantly, subversively political,
and Eskinder’s theology shares that same subversive spark, educated as he was
by Paul’s letters and his own experience of prison. Allegiance (pistis) to our sovereign (kyrios) Jesus requires nothing less than
joining Paul and Eskinder in that subversion, and it offers us a joyful freedom
that breaks through the bars of all human oppression as we bear witness to the
final coming of Christ’s politeia.
Andrew DeCort is director of the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good (www.iccgood.org) and writes at www.andrew-decort.com. His book, Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation, was recently published by Fortress Academic.