Thursday, 5 June 2014

Colossians Remixed

Well folks, there's been too much politics on this blog lately and not enough theology, so it's time to review a book I've just finished reading on Paul's letter to the Colossians. Oh, hang on a minute...

The book's title, Colossians Remixed, would not normally have got me in. Sounds dull, and Colossians is one of those books you tend to read quickly on your way between Romans and Hebrews. Still, the subtitle, Subverting the Empire,  was a bit more intriguing.  However, what really got me in were the authors. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat are a couple from Toronto, where Walsh is a university chaplain and Keesmaat an adjunct professor of biblical studies.  A couple of years ago they did a speaking tour of Australia and although I didn't hear them I read the text of one of their presentations and found myself wanting more. The clincher, though, was Walsh's book Kicking at the Darkness, a theological reflection on the songs of Bruce Cockburn. Anyone who is that serious about Cockburn deserves to have his books read!

I wasn't disappointed. This is not only the closest I have ever read the book of Colossians (which runs to a mere two and a half pages in my edition of the NRSV), it opened my eyes to a new way of understanding Paul's writings in general.

This is not really a commentary - in fact it is a response to the authors' frustration with commentaries. In particular, Walsh acted as a reader for NT Wright while he was writing his commentary on Colossians and felt a deep frustration that the limits of the commentary genre didn't allow Wright to take the logical next step from the interpretation of the text in its context to helping us understand it and apply it in our own.  This is, first and foremost, a work of hermeneutics, outlining both what the text meant to inhabitants of the first century Roman empire, and what this same message means in the 21st century Pax Americana and globalised economy.

The first surprise for me, given that our standard readings of Colossians are so conservative and so focused on eternity, was just how subversive this letter is in its first century context, and how easy it is for us to miss this fact. For example, consider this piece of early Christian poetry which forms chapter 1, verses 15-20.

He is the image 
of the invisible God, 
the firstborn of all creation; 
for in him were created all things 
in heaven and on earth, 
things visible and invisible, 
whether thrones or dominions 
or rulers or powers—
all things have been created 
through him and for him.  

He himself is before all things, 
and in  him all things hold together. 
He is the head 
of the body, the church; 

He is the beginning, 
the firstborn from the dead, 
so that he might come 
to have first place in everything. 
For in him all the fullness of God 
was pleased to dwell, 
and through him God was pleased 
to reconcile to himself all things, 
whether on earth or in heaven, 
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

We typically read this passage as a piece of cosmic theology, showing the divinity and eternity of Jesus and the promise of his final victory. What we are unaware of is how profoundly and subversively political these statements are. Jesus is described here in the language used by the Romans to describe the Emperor, who himself expected to be revered as a god. Caesar was the one who was before all things, who held all things together, who had first place in everything. Caesar was the head, and the empire was his body, united in him and directed by him, while all thrones, dominions, rulers and powers were subject to him. Caesar brought peace through the shedding of blood and so established an eternal empire.

Walsh and Keesmaat explain that the image of the Emperor was everywhere. His face was on the coins, his statues stood in all the public squares and on street corners, even in the temples. Not only that, but private homes would be adorned by by dozens of items that bore his image - lampshades, water jugs, cups, plates, all stamped or printed with the Emperor's face.  So when Paul applies this message instead to Jesus, this is a direct challenge to the empire. The empire is no longer the dominant force in the lives of Christians because Jesus and his kingdom take its place. No wonder the Christians were persecuted.

Nor is this simply an abstract set of ideas. The practical instructions Paul gives the Colossians also represent a direct challenge to the imperial system. This system was a very efficient means of distributing wealth from the poor to the rich. Unable to pay their crippling taxes, poor farmers and business people would be forced to sell not only their goods, but their own freedom, to the wealthiest citizens of their cities and provinces, who also occupied the most prominent official positions in the local imperial hierarchy. Hence the rich got richer, amassing huge estates, which were then worked by their newly enslaved former owners for little or no reward at the pleasure of their new masters. This empire was strictly hierarchical. Everyone was under the patronage of someone else, to command as they chose. Children were at the mercy of their fathers, wives of their husbands, slaves of their masters. Nor could you break free or opt out.  Roman laws required widows to remarry after a maximum of three years.

Paul turns this on its head.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! 

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

He is asking them to change the way they live, not just in an internal, spiritual way but in the way they relate to one another. Gone is the arrogance and the relationships of power that pervaded the empire. In its place is a relationship of equality. There are no racial divisions, no divisions between slave and free. They are instead to be humble towards each other, seeking one another's forgiveness for wrongs, treating one another with love, following the example of the Head of this alternative kingdom.  

This has many implications for the way they were to live back then. For instance, while the letter does not explicitly command them to release their slaves, they are warned; "you know that you have a master in heaven". Slavery is relativised. This letter was, is seems, accompanied by another, the letter from Paul to Philemon asking him to accept back his runaway slave as a son and treat him as he would treat Paul, his spiritual father and mentor. Hence, Walsh and Keesmaat suggest that its first readers would have been able to read between the lines a message Paul was not prepared to commit openly to writing for fear of endangering his followers' lives - that slavery was incompatible with the equality they had in Christ.

However, the real power of Colossians Remixed is in how its authors translate Colossians for 21st century readers. If this book directly challenged the imperial system of the Roman Empire in the first century, what is its equivalent in the 21st? They believe the signs of our time point clearly and unequivocally to the forces of globalisation led by the American empire. Like the Roman oligarchs, the powers of global capitalism - the multinational corporations and the governments that back them - seek complete domination. They ruthlessly move into any country or community they can reach, usurping local businesses and replacing them by global brands, leaving poor residents with no option but to work in their sweatshops and buy their products in their supermarkets and department stores. Wealth is systematically funneled from the poor to the rich. Those who challenge this system are invaded or boycotted in the name of peace.

We feel disempowered before this system, that we have no choice. That is what empires do. They are totalising systems. They drive us to participate in exploitation and oppression because we feel there is no other choice, this is all there is. Paul, as interpreted by Walsh and Keesmaat, begs to differ. Into this total global system he inserts an alternative, the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus, where we are asked, indeed commanded, to treat people differently, to see things differently, to put the poor before the rich, to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed, to release our slaves, to treat our women and children with love and respect.

Living in this kingdom is not easy. Paul wrote this letter from prison. Many of its readers were likely to have died or been imprisoned in their turn. Before that, its wealthier readers would have been guided to give up substantial parts of the wealth. Following Jesus comes at a cost - not merely a spiritual cost but a concrete social, political and economic one. Yet it also has benefits, for the poor and the rich alike, in the building of a new, loving kingdom, a body in which all take responsibility for one another, in a new living community based on genuine justice and peace, not war and oppression disguised by those labels. Do we have the courage to live in this kingdom, and wear the consequences?

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