Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire

  • Brian J. Walsh, Sylvia C. Keesmaat
  • Mar 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004. $ 22.00. 256 pp. Pap. ISBN 0-8308-2738-2.

William is a postmodern who has finally come to recognize his need for God but can�t bring himself to believe in absolutes. Elanna is a well-educated member of the media who can�t make ethical decisions because she recognizes there is always another side to a story. Eric finds every truth claim oppressive because of its Fascist potential. How will the gospel appear as good news to these three individuals? With such people in mind, this husband and wife team of university chaplain (Walsh) and biblical studies professor (Keesmaat) in Toronto, both enervated by working with N. T. Wright and the research and reflection that went into his more traditional Tyndale Commentary on Colossians and Philemon, have penned a remarkably creative and significant work that is part commentary, part cultural analysis, part contemporary application, part poetry, and completely inspiring and delightful. More importantly, it offers crucial countercultural perspectives on the empires today that threaten to swallow us up and stifle out distinctive Christian witness, just as Rome did two millennia ago.

Ever since the spate of books emerged alternately praising and condemning postmodernity, I have looked in vain for support for my growing conviction that modernism is far from dead, nor will it ever soon be, and that Western culture is in fact a complex mixture of the postmodern and the modern, if for no other reason than that technology, so crucial to Western success, is unrelentingly modern. No amount of wishing that many paths led to the same outcome will overcome wrong computer programming and produce the originally desired results! At last I have found two soul-mates. Chapter one �places ourselves� in precisely such a world, except that Walsh and Keesmaat expand their discussion from technology to include all of globalization�the imperial designs of the grand political empires and multinational enterprises of our day.

Our authors then use Colossians to address this world. They alternate between expanded paraphrases and applications to contemporary society (or targums, as they call them) of individual texts, proceeding sequentially through the letter, and interactions with a hypothetical but skeptical friend whose protests regularly uphold the point of view one might expect from a traditional, politically right-wing, hermeneutically conservative evangelical trying to come to grips with what Walsh and Keesmaat are proposing. Interjected as well is a chapter of plausible historical fictional autobiography of the experiences of Nympha�how, despite her honored position as a benefactor in Roman society and a well-to-do textile merchant, she became more and more attracted to the house-church fellowships of fledgling Christians that united people from every social stratum and walk of life in a form of worship and service that undermined the imperial claims of Caesar to be the only true Lord and God of the first-century world. At the end of the book, we read of Nympha�s arrest and trial as well, showing how the beliefs and behavior of the Christians was rightly perceived as subversive, as a political threat to the imperializing absolutes of Rome.

Along the way we learn about the four characteristics of empires: (1) built on systemically centralized power; (2) secured by socioeconomic and military structures of control; (3) legitimated by powerful religious myths; and (4) sustained by captivating imagery that perpetuates a false portrait of the empire�s attractiveness. In Paul�s day, the overarching myth was that of the pax Romana, the Roman peace, the belief that the empire was needed to sustain economic prosperity and safety from one�s enemies, even while it was impoverishing the peoples it had subjugated by enforced exports of their most valuable goods and natural resources for the comfort and luxury of Roman citizens on the Italian peninsula. Striking parallels emerge today as North America and Western Europe luxuriate on goods disproportionately imported from �Economic Processing Zones� (EPZs) in China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines, where factory workers, mostly women, work twelve- and fourteen-hour days so that children in the West can have every cute toy and piece of clothing imaginable and so that adults can enjoy the Disneyization of their lives too, with endless choices of food, entertainment, recreation, and grownup toys as well..

Against this backdrop, the so-called Colossian hymn (Col. 1:15-20) emerges as downright subversive poetry. Virtually every line in it challenges imperial hegemony. Or, as Wright likes to put it, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not! The rest of the theological half of Colossians establishes the metanarrative to back up this claim: it is Christ�s atonement that alone makes possible the reconciliation of all things to God and to each other. But, although a metanarrative, this is anti-imperial, anti-modern, because, as the culmination of a story rooted in the history of Israel, it is �radically attentive to suffering,� liberating people and groups �from violently imposed regimes of truth, not a story that legitimates a newly imposed slavery.� Moreover, �a story with the redemption of all creation as its focus subverts any partisan, self-justifying co-option of its message� (p. 109). This creates the inversion of the classic tale of might equaling right. God wins this struggle �by sacrificial love absorbing the violence and fury of the powers� (p. 111). As the imperial and even demonic forces of the universe thought they had triumphed over Christ at his crucifixion, it was in fact he who was conquering them. �Instead of aping the enemy�s act of violence and rejection, Christ, the victim who refuses to be defined by the perpetrator, forgives and makes space in himself for the enemy� (p. 112). Herein lies the radical distinction between modernity, globalization, capitalism, secular democracy (and any other worldviews that claim to be right and good for the entire world) and the kingdom of God�s beloved Son.

A worldview that is truthful and viable, as it turns out, must share five characteristics: (1) comprehensiveness in scope; (2) coherence or internal consistency; (3) sensitivity to justice; (4) humility and openness to correction; and (5) ability, at least in part, to be put into practice. When Christianity is genuine, it contains these attributes; most who have rejected Christianity have rejected a pale imitation of the real thing that does not come close to fulfilling this five-part vision of its founding documents. Today�s Colossian heresy may appear in the garb of consumerism or emotionalism or hedonism or nationalism or homeland security, but at root all these alternatives to the gospel prove idolatrous.

How should we then live? As Colossians 3-4 turn to the ethical implications of the gospel, they surprise the reader by appearing to enjoin mysticism: �set your eyes on things above. . .� But these heavenly realities are quickly defined in terms of ordinary moral living on earth. Paul calls us to secede from the world�s immorality while our feet are firmly planted on the filthy ground of this world. Key aspects of Christian morality do form absolutes but, unlike the depersonalizing, dehumanizing absolutes of globalization, imperialism, technological or scientific hegemonies and modernist philosophies, Christianity�s absolutes are based on relationships and narratives. In those two respects, then, authentic Christianity has more in common with postmodernity than with modernity; it subverts empire rather than promoting it.

The links between sexual immorality and greed or covetousness in the Colossian vice lists are scarcely coincidental. Sexual sin is based on trivializing human personhood and exclusive relationships by refusing to control bodily appetites and delay gratification. We want what we want when we want it. Overspending, desiring and indulging in more than we need as consumers springs from the identical root sins as sexual incontinence. (One might add that Augustine, in his classic Confessions, emphasized the same point in the fifth century.). And both reflect the ideology of empire. One should not be surprised to hear such language as that of the president of Campbell�s Soup Company calling for �a global consumer crusade� or the CEO of Wal-Mart describing the company�s priorities: �We want to dominate North America first, then South America, and then Asia and Europe� (italics mine in both sentences). �When �free trade� means corporate sovereignty, �fiscal responsibility� means that the poorest in our society have to put up with even less, �quality of life� means quantity of consumption and the �liberation� of Iraq means the expansion of the Pax Americana, then our language has been debased and deformed into a discourse of deceit that justifies violence� (p. 166).

What, then, does the Christian alternative look like? It is first of all an ethic of community. And that community survives only by love and forgiveness, by gratitude and worship. It denies the absolute claims of the state or the multinationals. It honors the ordained authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) precisely by refusing to idolatrize them. It works for what is truly in their well begin (Jer. 29:7). When asked for specifics, Walsh and Keesmaat give answers that lean heavily in the ecological direction�organic gardening, home cooking, food co-ops, walking or bicycling where possible rather than driving, using cloth rather than disposable diapers�but also getting rid of television, home schooling, keeping Sabbath, and so on. Although they don�t say it in so many terms, presumably they would acknowledge that the time and expense needed for some of these items might be better spent by certain Christians in other forms of stewardship, but that these are good examples that have worked for them and should be tried more often than they are.

But how can the Colossian Haustafel or domestic code be incorporated into this liberating context? Don�t we have to see it as a return to patriarchy and oppression? Here our authors employ the literary device of Onesimus writing to Paul about the receipt of his letter in Colossae. The Christians there puzzle over this part of the letter, too, at first dividing into three interpretive camps. First, some see it as endorsing the Roman status quo, just with a humanizing touch. Second, others interpret it in terms of love patriarchy (a term borrowed from Gerd Theissen). The most radical group suspects that Paul does not want any more danger for his flock than is already present, if this letter should fall into the wrong hands. But these readers point out Colossians 3:11 and its similarity to Galatians 3:28, they notice the qualifier on wives� submission (�as is fitting in the Lord�) and the promise of inheritance for slaves and suspect Paul is hinting at something more sweeping. Suddenly, Archippus discloses the second letter sent by Paul to this community�the one with specific instructions to Philemon about Onesimus. In several places, culminating in Paul�s line about his confidence that Philemon will do even more than Paul has asked, it discloses a request for Onesimus� freedom. After all, these were letters steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, a narrative that emanated from God�s founding covenant act of freeing his people from slavery in Egypt. Applying that concern for today�s slaves means not buying goods made in EPZs or investing in companies that pay no attention to human rights around the world and rape the environment as well.

It would be far too easy to select a few predictable, one-sided, anti-American swipes by our authors (whether at George W. Bush or our rejection of the Kyoto accords or their belief that the present government thinks it is a Christian state) and tune them out. In so doing, one would miss the massive amounts of truth they have to tell throughout the majority of the book. Of course, specific applications can be debated, but the overall analogies between American political and Western multinational corporate hegemonies and the first-century Roman empire are far too striking to be ignored. And even if one is convinced that Paul�s domestic codes do represent love patriarchalism more than modern feminism, his agenda still differed sufficiently from standard Roman imperial ones to be both individually liberating and socially subversive. And there is no question that Walsh and Keesmaat have tried to practice what they preach. Perhaps the most striking paragraph in the whole volume, to one who has read countless book dedications to authors� family members, comes in the preface: �St. Paul knows that the vision that he is talking about makes no sense if it doesn�t shape the Christian household as an alternative to the dominant roman model of household life. And so the testing ground for anything that we say in this book is first and foremost our family. Out three children, Jubal, Madeleine and Lydia, did not have to �suffer through� the writing of this book. If they did then the book would in fact lack credibility. We did not �sacrifice� family life through long absences while researching and writing. So we offer the kids no apologies. Rather we thank them for grounding our lives in the important things like learning and housekeeping, playing and growing up, stories and nighttime prayers, tears and laughter� (p. 9).

If you dare to read this book, it will �rock your world.� Or at least it should.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
March 2006