Every fall, graduate students who work in Lonergan studies gather at Marquette University for a conference named Lonergan on the Edge. This year, the graduate students have chosen as their theme "The Problem of Liberation." This is, I think, very timely, not just with respect to Lonergan studies but also with respect to the growing global fascination with authoritarianism. In this spirit, I want to continue thinking about Romans 13, now within the context of liberation theology and exegesis.
For those unfamiliar with the term, "liberation theology" refers to a fluorescence of theological thought in the post-war era that has focused upon the question of social, economic, and political liberation. If I might sum it up in a single sentence, the foundational premise of liberation theology is that if Jesus came to save humanity then that must entail saving humanity from unjust conditions. From this, liberation theologians argue that Christians have a duty in the concrete here and now to work towards constructing an equitable world in which all are free to become the best version of themselves. Liberation theology has made significant and enduring contributions to Christian thought, not least because it represents a decentring from the theological hegemony of white, male-identified, straight-identified, cis persons hailing from western Europe and its more privileged colonies, in order to create space for persons of various backgrounds and experiences to speak from their reality and to their world.
Liberation theology has wrestled significantly with the Christian scriptures. Some of these scriptures are easy to deal with if one is a liberation theologian. For instance, the story of the exodus has become a central leitmotif in much liberation thought. But it must also deal with narratives and passages that prima facie do not proclaim liberation but rather submission to authorities. Romans 13:1-7 is an example of such a passage. Liberation theologians and exegetes influenced by liberation theology have often attempted to neutralize this passage by saying that of course Paul understood that not all authorities pursue the good, and that in those cases they must be resisted. I find myself generally unpersuaded by these arguments. That they are on shaky empirical ground seems evident when they must resort to arguing that this or that passage in Paul implies that Christians should resist the empire and the emperor, and that of course Paul couldn't come right out and say it, because of fear of the imperial authorities. I am not as convinced as such exegetical colleagues that we can know what Paul meant to but did not say. I just don't think that we can turn Paul into a liberation theologian avant la lettre. Paul must be read in his own place, at the level of his time. And that place and time was one in which those persons with relative privilege thought that the Pax Romana was a largely unmitigated good; that slavery was a necessity and even a good; that the subordination of female persons to male was just the natural order of things; etc. In such areas, Paul frankly gives nary a hint of breaking with his apparently affluent upbringing, and in fact the classicist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix has cogently argued that in some regards Paul was even less "progressive" than his fellows.
If liberation theology--or any Christian who desires a Christianity that uplifts rather than tramples down the marginalized--is to flourish, it must come to terms with Paul on a level other than exegesis. One can pretend that Paul says the opposite of what he says, but that would constitute a failure to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. One must simply accept that Paul was, at best, indifferent to imperial rule. We never read in him anything negative about the empire or the emperor, and in his earliest biography he does not hesitate to take advantage of his privileges as a citizen. The question cannot be "Given that Paul opposed the empire, how can Christians resist oppressive state regimes today?" but rather "Despite the fact that Paul failed to oppose the empire, how can Christians resist oppressive state regimes today?" Here some of the work of liberation-oriented exegetes can be retrieved. No, we cannot state that when Paul says that there is one lord, namely Jesus, he must have considered this to be a challenge to Caesar's legitimacy to rule. There is simply no evidence that Paul drew this conclusion, and it is bad exegesis to suppose that authors are always aware of the necessary corollaries of their own statements. But we can state that this is indeed a necessary corollary of Jesus' lordship as conceived by Paul, and with that insight build towards a theological argument for resisting oppressive regimes. Paul need not have drawn the necessary corollaries of his own statements for the contemporary Christian to do so. Put otherwise, we must remember that the work of theology includes but is not exhausted by or completed with scriptural exegesis.