Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice
Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission
Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn is assistant professor of New Testament studies at Regent College.
Three very different books on Romans emerged around the same time in 2019, authored by Scot McKnight, by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, and by Jackson W. Not one claims or seeks to be a commentary; rather, they each provide a sort of conversational (to greater or lesser extent) guide to reading the book of Romans, each with their own ideological slant. McKnight reads through the lens of the Strong and the Weak from Romans 14-15 as the impetus for the letter. Keesmaat and Walsh read through the lens of empire and the quest for God’s justice for the poor and oppressed to be enacted in the community. And Jackson W. reads from his experience living in East Asia for two decades, bringing forward the themes of honor and shame in the text. It was a fascinating exercise to read these three volumes jointly, for the three different lenses force the reader back to the text again and again, hearing it anew, but they also create a sort of critique among them on the others’ reading of a given text. For the sake of clarity, I will introduce each book individually first and then begin to weave in the contrasts.
First, Scot McKnight’s Reading Romans Backwards is a delightful read, with that rare scholarly joy: a minimally endnoted book. He writes as though engaging a classroom or a church, guiding his readers through the strange task indeed of reading Romans from back-to-front. His premise is simple: we need to take the context of Romans seriously if we are to understand its content. Romans is not simply a book of systematic theology, in which we dissect Romans 1–8 or 1–11 for abstract principles, because what Paul wrote in those chapters was intended for the audience he greets in Romans 16. McKnight argues, “Only after comprehending Paul’s pastoral aims and narratival assumptions can we see the theology of Romans 1–8 for what it is: pastoral theology aimed at justifying the lived theology of peace in chapters 12 through 16” (xiv). His introduction raises the twofold problem in Rome, in which “the issue is the inability of the Privileged and the Powerful to embody the gospel’s inclusive demand and include the Disprivileged and the Disempowered,” as well as the mirror in which “the Disempowered [are] claiming their own kind of Privilege and Power” (xiii).
Elsewhere throughout the book, McKnight classifies these two groups as the Strong and the Weak, respectively, drawing from the discussion in Romans 14–15. He notes that “Weak” and “Strong” are also ethnic labels, although the weakness “is a matter of faith and conscience and not just ethnicity and Torah observance” (17). These two groups, then, are read back through the rest of the epistle, with further themes layered over them like watercolor washes, adding depth and nuance to the picture, even while the fundamental outline remains. The call is for peace to be lived out between wildly disparate groups, and this is worked out through Christoformity lived internally through generosity and welcome, and externally through participation in society. Focusing on these disparate groups brings clarity to the discussion of Romans 9–11 and changes the emphases we might hear in Romans 1–8 (which are unexpectedly read in order). Always, the goal is peace, the giving up of pride and rights in order that the peace of Christ might flourish in their midst, and thereby witness to the Empire.
McKnight’s book is highly readable, engaging, and very much the work of a teacher who has mastered his material. It is as though, instead of reading, one is sitting at the feet of a master lecturer who knows his material and draws you through with him, clearly guiding and signposting along the way. (In this sense it reminded me of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul, Baker Academic, 2018.) With reviews at the start of chapters and regular summaries, one could easily use this as a group study text, because it doesn’t assume that you will read it straight through. Sometimes that element leads to feeling a little beaten over the head with some of the points, such as having the identities of the Weak and Strong highlighted yet again on the third-to-last page, but that is a minor point and, given how disruptive McKnight’s reading is to standard interpretations, understandable.
Similarly, McKnight’s use of capital letters can get a bit distracting: “Weak” and “Strong” are his guiding categories through the book, so those make sense. But then we add “Judge,” which I am programmed to read as God when it is capitalized, but here it is a sub-category of the “Weak.” Others, like “Generic passage” (see, for example, 157) or the earlier mentioned contrast of “Privileged” and “Powerful” with the “Disprivileged” and “Disempowered,” compound through the text. These start to create their own technical language, which become their own shorthand for McKnight, but the idiosyncrasy of it also makes it harder to put the book in dialogue with others.
Lastly, and the biggest weakness to me, the book remains wholly in the first-century until the last page and a half, when McKnight claims with a bit of over-statement that “Romans, like no other book in the entire Bible except for perhaps Philemon, is more relevant for the churches of the United States than any book in the Bible” (180). As a scholar of the epistle of James, I might have to quibble! But more to the point, McKnight had not drawn out the significance along the way that he then banked on in his conclusion. What he is right about, however, is that Romans needs to be read in its own context, as a conversation into the challenges the Roman church was facing, rather than as an abstract theological document, in order for its relevance to resonate. The letter was revolutionary for the problems the church faced then, teaching a robust Christoform gospel which calls “the Strong and the Weak to drop their defenses and privileges and powers, to surrender them to the Christ of the cross, and to learn to welcome one another so they can live in peace in the heart of the empire” (180), a message we do indeed need today.
Romans Disarmed, then, picks up that emphasis, as Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh seek to understand the disruptive power of this text. Writing in the West, where the Church has too often been tied to power, they claim that “The good news, however, is that the church has itself been marginalized. … Part of our strategy in this book is to see how Paul addresses Christians living at the center of the Roman Empire in order to discern how the church might live at the margins of our own imperial reality” (8–9). This book follows from the authors’ work in Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004), where they introduced the idea of “double immersion,” “being deeply immersed in that text (within the context of the whole biblical narrative) while also being immersed deeply into our own world” (34). They provide what they call a Targum-like translation of the epistle throughout the book, translating the text piece by piece not merely into English but into twenty-first-century context in expanded poetic form. And throughout the book, they show their deep awareness of the ancient culture, the context in which Paul lived and ministered and wrote, but take seriously the idea that “faithful interpretation” means that “we will need to hear this text as if it were written two weeks ago. That kind of reading requires creativity grounded in serious spiritual discernment of our present cultural (and imperial) context” (35). As people grounded in living a radically faithful and communal lifestyle, their discernment is grounded in lived practice.
While McKnight ran his book (largely) backward through Romans, through the lens of “Weak” and “Strong,” Keesmaat and Walsh argue that “Paul’s letter to the Christian communities amid the empire is fundamentally about home” (106). This home stands opposed to empire, “a force of homelessness, its self-understanding as the only true ‘homeland’ notwithstanding” (105). The contrast they note is that of empire, looming and threatening, displacing and disrupting, and the Christian communities as places of welcome and hospitality, hope and dignity. The authors call this “our thesis. Or perhaps it is better to say that this is our ‘hunch’ based on these historical observations. … Forced expulsion, economic migration, oppression of minority communities, and denial of place and citizenship are as common in our day as they were in the first century” (106).
Keesmaat and Walsh are brilliant storytellers. They invite the reader into the lives of people in their community, and reading Romans Disarmed brings us right into the lives of “Iggy” and Iris, Nereus and Brian, displaced Judeans and displaced Indigenous peoples. Ancient and modern people’s stories cross and cross again, as the authors unfold the issues of empire, displacement, and oppression and explore the text of Romans for how it answers those issues. Instead of following text order, they sweep through the entire text repeatedly to show how it answers issues of “home” (and deconstructing the imperial narrative in order to replace it with God’s, ch. 4), “creation and the defilement of home” (ch. 5), “economic justice and the kingdom of life” (ch. 6), “welcoming the powerless” (ch. 7), “the Pax Romana and the Gospel of Peace” (ch. 8), and “imperial sexuality and covenantal faithfulness” (ch. 9). Of these chapters, only chapter 5 stays mostly in Romans 8, otherwise they span at least sections of text (for example, ch. 6 largely stays in Rom 12–15), if not the whole epistle (such as ch. 4), and each chapter keeps an eye toward embedding Paul’s letter into the Hebrew Scripture narrative. The breadth of Keesmaat and Walsh’s familiarity with the text of Romans and of the entire Bible is deeply apparent, but at every point they bring the text into juxtaposition with the lives of their fictional ancient characters (Iris and Nereus) or the lives of their many modern examples. It is clear that for them the text is a living conversation partner that addresses the lived human experience.
As with McKnight’s book, so also here my issues with Romans Disarmed are small and personal. Keesmaat and Walsh write engagingly and passionately, with wisdom gleaned from the whole of Scripture as well as from lives lived intentionally and hospitably. To critique can at times feel petty. But nevertheless, I found the dialogical method of writing to be distracting. They created an imaginary “reader” who interacts with them, but often the questions they had that “reader” ask were not mine, and I sometimes felt like I wanted to shake (as it were) the reader for taking the “conversation” in a direction that was not where I would have gone. It felt at times like words were being put in my mouth, and that distracted me from my engagement with their arguments.
At times, as well, Keesmaat and Walsh’s focus on Empire could feel myopic, such as when Romans 1 is dismissed as merely sharing “the rhetorical structure and tone” of standard Jewish diatribe against gentiles, “but the all-too-clear reference to the imperial household would not likely have been lost on Paul’s audience,” thus making it a “parody of the lives of the recent emperors” (22). This interpretation removes Romans 1 from intersecting the lives of the average Christian, relevant instead only as a critique of the powerful. Indeed, throughout the book there borders onto a sense of the idealization of the powerless, as though they are only the sinned-against. While there is no question that oppression sins against the oppressed, and those sins receive harsher condemnation across Scripture, such a casual dismissal of a traditional form for the sake of an argument against Empire feels a bit disingenuous. And when they return to sexual ethics in chapter 9, it is hard not to feel a bit that modern concerns and questions have driven the conclusions. That said, reading Romans in the heart of Empire is a much-needed task that again removes this epistle from being abstract theology and places it into the realm of lived theology. Making my final edits in the days after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, I found Keesmaat and Walsh’s reflections about the oppressiveness of empire and the need for the church to provide a safe home for the oppressed to be urgently needed today more than ever.
Finally, a third book, released around the same time as the other two, is Jackson W.’s Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes. Jackson W. writes under a pseudonym, because “he lives and works in East Asia and must write under a pseudonym for security reasons,” a practice he has lived with for two decades (Editor’s Note). His background in North America as a child of an unwed teenage mother, steeped in shame and instability, along with his drive to acquire honor to escape that shame, set him up well to understand this aspect of his neighbors in his work in East Asia (24-25). In this book, he argues there are “three major aspects of ancient biblical cultures that share significant affinity with contemporary East Asian cultures,” namely “tradition, relationship, and hierarchy” (13). He does not seek an imposition of an Eastern lens on the text, but rather offers it as another lens through which to view the text which may in fact be more aligned to the ancient world’s values. His first chapter, therefore, defines his terms and what it means to identify and read with a lens that may not be our own. The key term, unsurprisingly, is “face,” which is reckoned through achieved and ascribed honor. “In many ways, East Asians prioritize ascribed honor over achieved honor,” while “in the West, ascribed honor minimizes the value of achieved honor” (15). Contrasts like that can make it hard to hear someone else’s position, so having the roadmap of honor clearly laid out makes that first step of cultural translation possible. The rest of the opening chapter maps out how tradition, relationships, and hierarchy interact in ascribing honor to a person in Eastern cultures, in contrast to how they typically are enacted in Western ones, as well as some glimpses of how this affects our reading of the Bible. Thankfully, at this point Jackson signals that “the various themes and motifs of the Bible are complementary and should not be played against one another…. Honor and shame are among those themes” (20). His goal, therefore, is to use the Eastern lens to “make observations that would not be possible if we only used a conventional Western perspective” (25), a helpful reminder that through much of history we have likely been missing part of a needed perspective.
Jackson then begins his reading of the text by noting that Romans 1 and 15 provide a frame for the epistle. From this observation comes the conclusion, similar to McKnight’s, that “Social divisions undermine the church’s understanding of the gospel and its mission,” and “Paul’s message challenges the presumption and recalcitrance fostered by misplaced collective identity” (28). But more strongly than McKnight, Jackson notes that the terms and arguments Paul uses “sharply contrast with Greco-Roman honor-shame standards” (29), but he “doesn’t do away with honor-shame; he reorients them. … When Christ is the measure of glory, faith is the identity marker transcending every culture” (35). Paul shifts each person’s collective identity from identifying first as Greek or Jewish and seeing the other as Gentile or barbarian, to a redefined identity as insiders together of the Body of Christ. Jackson’s recognition of the cultural requirement for Paul to rebuke indirectly through subtle vocabulary shifts and framing devices helps to reveal Paul’s focus in this letter: the unity of the church for the mission of the Gospel and the glory of God.
From there, Jackson proceeds through the text, with chapters on “dishonoring God and ourselves” (Rom. 1–3, ch. 3), “distinguishing ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Rom. 2–3, ch. 4), “Christ saves God’s face” (Rom. 3, ch. 5), “who is worthy of honor?” (Rom. 4, ch. 6), “faith in the filial Christ” (Rom. 5–6, ch. 7), “the hope of glory through shame” (Rom. 5–8, ch. 8), “shamed from birth?” (Rom. 7, ch. 9), “they will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9–11, ch. 10), “honor one another” (Rom. 12–13, ch. 11), “the church as ‘harmonious society’” (Rom. 14–16, ch. 12), and a concluding discussion guide and bibliography. There was something profoundly helpful in not being frogmarched through the text in order, as though each chapter only had one thing to offer and could only be read once.
By returning through Romans 5–6, 5–8, and then 7 (chs. 7–9 of the book), for example, different nuances are unearthed without invalidating what had been seen. First, from chapters 5–6, Jackson unpacks what it means to have faith “in Christ,” whereby “what is true of Christ becomes true for those ‘in him’” (106). Because “Christ is the collective embodiment of Abraham’s offspring … Christ’s followers give filial honor to the Father. They do not primarily seek achieved honor. Rather, they seek ascribed honor from the Son” (107). Then, from chapters 5-8, Jackson shifts his focus to God’s glory, and how “paradoxically, it is only by Christ’s shameful death that we honor God” (119), and suffering is endurable “because of hope in the glory of God” (120). Moreover, “God transforms his people’s honor-shame perspective. Humility becomes a virtue. Service and suffering for Christ’s name bring everlasting glory” (120). Only after the perspective change is complete does Jackson then return to read Romans 7, exploring the role the law plays in shaping identity. Startlingly, Jackson can conclude that “six observations suggest ‘I’ refers collectively to Israel during the exodus rather than an individual” (132)! This move, Jackson suggests, allows Paul to walk a middle line whereby it does not “appear [Paul] distances himself from Israel” but also “prevents anti-Jewish sentiments from taking root among Roman Christians” (133, 134). The fruit of this, then, is to put Sin on trial as responsible for binding and misleading God’s people, to whom God remains faithful (Rom. 11:2). “Everything Paul says in Romans hinges on his defending God’s honor and removing the measures of worth that are based on anything other than Christ” (137). We can see in this, then, the fruit of Jackson’s circling back through the text repeatedly: he can unpeel layers to emerge with a collective reading of a notoriously difficult chapter that reveals that “Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament tells how God works in a world made up of Jews and Gentiles, not individuals” (141). That is not, unsurprisingly, how Westerners have tended to approach Romans 7!
Like the other two books under review, Jackson W.’s is well written and engaging. His focus on honor-shame felt, perhaps, the most integrative of the three, because he was able to include both the identity battles that McKnight focuses on and the individual’s relationship to the Empire that Keesmaat and Walsh focus on. He also includes short modern stories along the way that illustrate either the text in practice or the principle under discussion, so that his arguments do not remain “ancient” the way that McKnight’s do, but they also do not feel like they steer the interpretation as much as Keesmaat and Walsh’s do. Jackson’s book might feel overwhelmingly unfamiliar to those who have never thought about honor-shame as a significant interpretative lens, much less of attributed honor as essential and collective identity as important, but he seeks throughout not to alienate his reader—thereby demonstrating his own enculturation in indirect correction! And again, as with the others, although this book does walk through all of Romans, it is not seeking to be a verse-by-verse or passage-by-passage commentary, working generally with chapters at a time.
Having read these three books in close proximity to each other, they provided the starkest of reminders that our results are inevitably affected by our methods. None of these three seemed wildly off base, although they did find varying explanations for the import of different passages. For example, they each came to varied conclusions about the source and purpose of the tirade against idolatry in chapter 1, whether a typical Jewish litany of Gentile sinfulness, a subtle reflection and jab at the emperor, or illustrating how our sin makes God “lose face.” They also weight the challenges facing the audience differently, with McKnight and Jackson W. recognizing the setting of Empire but finding the more crucial conflict to be internal discord, and Keesmaat and Walsh more intensely aware of the oppression of Empire. Meanwhile, Jackson W. and Keesmaat and Walsh are far better at translating the text into the modern context, with powerful storytelling that brings their arguments to land.
But intriguingly, there are also some telling points of connection. For instance, all of them focus significantly on the importance of unity for the witness of the Gospel. If the people in the community derive their identity from their backgrounds (wealth and status, Jew or Greek), then the Gospel is compromised. For all of them, this is central, and yet it does not tend to be most theologians’ starting point for understanding Romans. Perhaps if this is the result of three such different methods, it should be given greater weight and consideration by those embedded in a traditional theological position! A corollary point comes in the emphasis each gives to the requirement for welcoming others because of a newfound identity in Christ, of being Christoform in our interactions. Again, while the details of that welcome might be nuanced among the different authors, the overall point of belonging in Christ and therefore being required to imitate Christ runs as a dominant thread through all the texts.
These books were a delight to read together. Their rhetoric, their tones, their conclusions in some ways were startlingly different when juxtaposed so closely. And yet, it was as if each shed a new light on the text, and what one left feeling a bit unsatisfactory, the next would bolster. McKnight’s would likely be the easiest for a Bible study setting, as its repetition and review would bear a week’s gap between conversations. One could imagine it providing a fruitful base for conversation between those who desire more focus on “order” these days (in parallel with his “Weak” category), and those who desire more upheaval of society (more in line with his “Strong” category), thus helpfully bridging some of the current divides in the church. But many a Bible study group might balk at reading the text in such a hodge-podge order! And so Jackson W.’s might step into the gap, with its more orderly progression still challenged by the reminder to examine the frame first. And he, additionally, provides a study guide at the end, preparing the group for conversation. Meanwhile, Keesmaat and Walsh will tear a group’s contented satisfaction with “the way things are” down around their heads and light the shreds up. Where Jackson promotes indirect rebuke and challenge, their examples of individuals and peoples shattered by Empire impel them to a prophetic tone. Whichever one chooses, the reader will be challenged to step out of presupposi- tions in which “justification by faith” is the main point of Romans. Instead, we see people, with all their complications and backgrounds, people brought into the light of the glory of God by means of the shame of the cross, who must therefore deal with their complications in the messiness of relationship. This transformative effect of the Gospel is at the heart of each of these books.