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The Politics of Scripture

A Relational Ethic for a Fragmented World

The story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus is nothing but the story of people fleeing the violence of an authoritarian empire, though the glitter and celebration of Christmas may have muffled the brutal reality of migrants and refuges seeking sanctuary from death. It is in the midst of such imagined Christmas that the veracity of homeless migrants dying in choppy waters and people stuck in border detention camps waiting for a new future gives us a reality check. The violent empires may have faded but their legacies linger on.

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear 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. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let 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. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:12–17, NRSV

On a cold wintery night last month (November 25,2021) 27 people, 17 men, seven women—one of whom was pregnant—and three children travelling in a 5-meter-long life raft perished while trying to cross the English Channel. This is one of many perilous journeys undertaken by people, running away from death and seeking life. There has been widespread crisis across borders in Europe, Asia and in the Americas. According to the UN refugee agency, in 2020 alone more than 82.2 million people became displaced ending up as refugees and migrants across the world. These are people, leaving behind their lives, homeland and all their belonging, in search of safety and survival. My own earliest encounter with displaced people happened when I was about eight years old.

My dad took me to a refugee resettlement camp for Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in our town (Vellore) who were fleeing civil conflict. While helping my dad, I got to spend time with many of them and play with kids my age. On that day, it dawned on me that they were just like me, the only difference is they didn’t have a home and didn’t know what the future held for them. That experience stuck with me and continues to remind me that behind the words, “refugees,” “migrants” and “asylum seekers,” there is a person like me.

There is enough evidence to suggest that much of the displacement of people is due to conflict around resources, failure of economic policies, and corrupt governments.  Most recently, the Cop26 conference in Glasgow identified a clear link between climate change and human displacement. Many of the causes of human displacement—such as systemic centralisation of power, underpinned by socio economic and military abuse of power, and legitimised by religious myths and imageries—are not new, but lingering characteristics of empires and authoritarian regimes for centuries. The contemporary world may not be under Pax Romana or Rule Britannia, however, scholars like Anthony Reddie (Theologising Brexit) and Kwok Pui Lan (Postcolonial Politics and Theology) argue in their work that the systems of such imperial, social, cultural, and political worldview still operate, albeit masquerading under a different pretence.      

Reading the letter of Paul to Colossians in the shadow of imperial vestiges offers a fresh perspective for rethinking the characteristics of ekklesia, the church, both local and universal. The authorship of Colossians may be debated among the biblical scholarship; however, its focus and context are not. The letter addressed to the fledgling Christian community in Colossae, a prominent city in the Roman empire, displays Pauline theology including Christology, and, most crucially, an emergent ecclesiology. The Pauline authorship of the letter to Colossae offers a critical alternative to the dominant Roman worldview, a new understanding of community, built around the person and name of Jesus. What did it mean to be the body of Christ in in the eternal Roman empire witnessing for the works of Jesus?          

The Roman empire was built on systemic centralisation of power, underpinned by socio-economic and military power, which were legitimised by religious myths and imageries. The Roman empire’s worldview was shaped by the dominant imperial culture. In such a context, the Pauline letter to Colossae offered a subversive imagination to the early Christian communities. The primary Pauline exhortation to the church was to strip away oneself of the marks of Roman empire (i.e, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abuse and lies). Which was followed by an invitation to clothe oneself in Christ, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Thus, Pauline idea was directly opposed to the Roman imperial politics and offered a critique of the empire.

The Roman worldview was exclusively and firmly built around hierarchy and exclusion. However, the Pauline worldview was one of redemptive inclusion, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (3:11).  The Pauline notion of expansive and inclusive community was utterly opposed to the segregated and graded Roman society. By envisioning such a worldview as the mark of the church, with Christ as the core of reality, the author of Colossians distinguished the Christian community from Roman society. Further, by emphasizing the virtues of Christian life centred around the name of Jesus, not Caesar, the church in Colossae was exhorted to be fundamentally opposed to the Roman empire.

The church, ekklesia, opposed to the empire was inevitably political. The Pauline conception of ‘the church’ was not simply a small group of desperate believers, but an imagination of humanity that had the potential to be the body of Christ, an alternative to the empire.   

The Pauline alternative community was seen as the embodiment of love and practical outworking of the virtues it embraced (i.e, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness). The love mentioned in this epistle unifies, heals, and “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). In the context of fragmentation and division, this love actively sought to reconcile, not through fudging relationships but through the pursuit of justice.

Here Paul’s theology comes through clearly. For Paul love is the substance of justice. Going one step further, the peace of Christ advocated in this epistle was brought about by love and justice. In the context of Roman empire, peace was achieved through violence and military power. On the contrary, the Pauline pathway to peace was through love and justice. Here the Pauline intention was to juxtapose the peace of Christ with the violence of the empire.  The church, ekklesia, for Paul was inevitably political, because it is fundamentally opposed to the Roman empire. Thus, the political engagement of the church was shaped by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love and peace.

Pauline politics were rooted in love—not mere sentimentality. This love was politically shaped by Justice, which would lead to peace. The Pauline radicality of God offers an alternative relational ethic. Brian and Sylvia, commenting on such a relational ethic in Colossians Remixed, say:

It is a resurrection ethic that refuses to bow the knee to the empire and its idols. It is an ascension ethic that refuses to be subject to the principles of normalcy. It is a liberated ethic that dares to imagine a world that is alternative to the present brokenness. It is an eschatological ethic of hope that engenders this worldly praxis in anticipation of a coming kingdom.

Ultimately, such a Pauline ethical commitment came to the fore and manifested in the words, deeds and worship of the Christian community. 

Is it possible to envision such a politically engaged church as the one advocated for in Pauline ecclesiology?

The story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus is nothing but the story of people fleeing the violence of an authoritarian empire, though the glitter and celebration of Christmas may have muffled the brutal reality of migrants and refuges seeking sanctuary from death. It is in the midst of such imagined Christmas that the veracity of homeless migrants dying in choppy waters and people stuck in border detention camps waiting for a new future gives us a reality check. The violent empires may have faded but their legacies linger on.

Hence, Pauline appeal to the church for renewal is a pertinent one for our times. The church embodying Love, which is politically shaped by Justice and leading to hope and peace is a necessity not an afterthought. In Born from Lament, Emmanuel Katongole argues:

. . . what the church uniquely offers, and what the lives and work of the faith activist illuminate, is the theological grammar of hope. The church’s unique calling and mission at the intersection of social brokenness and repair is to be a sacrament of God’s ongoing work of social repair. What this means is that the church’s life and work at this intersection are not grounded in the conviction that she has something to bring, something to give to those who are suffering, she participates in the mystery of God’s ongoing work of social repair.

The church ought to heed the call of “stripping away” the influences of the empire (i.e, the politics of our times), which turns away from the misery and pain of millions of innocent people and embrace a new character, “clothing oneself afresh” with skills, virtues and practices of the alternative Christian community espoused by the Pauline epistle. The challenges faced by migrants and refugees provide an opportunity for the church to make explicit why such a renewal is needed, and the kind of church needed for bringing hope and peace to the broken world.

Such an explicit ethical posturing will have political and public policy implications in the civic domain. David Clough, an ethicist, stressing this point, says, “it is therefore more important than ever to make the case that unjust and uncompassionate policies on international aid, the reception of asylum seekers, and immigration, are contrary to Christian ethics.” The Pauline call to “the church” was not simply to a motley group of desperate believers in the Roman Empire, but to the church here and now living in the shadow empires, to strip off our narrow definitions of “insiders and outsiders,” put on a deep feeling for the pain of others, and become the alternative community rooted in Jesus, carrying on God’s work of social repair in our world today.

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