As an exploration of Paul’s dealing with subjection in Romans, Indebted Love engages the wrestling between Jesus' divine, uncompromising idealism, and Paul's own religious tradition and pragmatism in helping a nascent church build a solid footing. How does Christian transformation look in community? How does it impact society?
Just as Tubman reflected on her subjection and discerned that God called her to make the transformation a reality of heaven into ‘home’ by pursuing freedom for herself and others, Paul invites believers at Rome to live within the transformative realm of the divine and to pursue freedom… (79)
Stubbs equates this pursuit of freedom with the establishment of an environment of Christian ethics that echoes Jesus’ exhortation toward the Kingdom of God. Christian transformation demands tangible outworking in the real world. “Tubman’s transformation was twofold: God called her to freedom, and God called her to free others.” (79)
Stubbs explores Romans 5:12-21, wherein “Paul describes opposing spheres of existence,” contrasting the humanity of Adam with that of a new human order in Jesus Christ.
… To reign “in life” through Jesus Christ is to live a transformed life guided by the principles of grace and justice, rather than self-aggrandizing manifestations of death. Partnering with Christ “in life” to produce environments that invite and sustain life is the work God demands from believers, and it is also the gift God grants, through Jesus Christ, to believers. (85)
As I read Stubbs’ exegesis, I’m reminded of Paul’s practical nature. Where Jesus called people to take up crosses, to “come and die,” (as Bonhoeffer summarized) Paul tries to find balance between the liberation of Christ and a new kind of faith community as it exists in a broader culture. There, Paul “becomes all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9) while still struggling to maintain an authentic, differentiated gospel message. In the household code of Colossians 3, Paul seems chiefly concerned with differentiating Christianity from other controversial and often subversive contemporary religions. Andrew Lincoln writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible:
Any upsetting of the household’s traditional hierarchical order could be considered a potential threat to the order of society. In Greco-Roman culture, wives, children, and slaves were expected to accept the religion of the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, and so religious groups that attracted women and slaves were particularly seen as likely to be subversive to societal stability. (653)
Jesus was quickly identified as a threat to Roman rule and Pharisaic authority. Paul recognized the potential threat to the early churches, and wove a subversive ethic of love, interdependence and mutual submission into a community narrative that would not overtly challenge the empire. In Chapter Five, Stubbs explores how submission to domination does not necessitate agreement or surrender. She shares an illustration of a slave named “Joe” from Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman. In it, Joe is a highly-prized and highly-paid-for slave, valued, loyal and affirmed, but still whipped by the slave master to reinforce the domination-subjection mindset. (98) After submitting to the brutal whipping, Joe finally decided to escape. Physical submission to the brutality did not change his mind about slavery. Stubbs concludes that in Roman’s 13, “Paul’s supposed call for subjection by the believers in Rome to the governing authorities is part of his rhetorical strategy.” (99) Stubbs imagines this as descriptive, not prescriptive text, and after verse 7, Paul moves into re-imagining a more “horizontal” way of being.
While I immediately thought Stubbs’ conclusions here may be helpful for reconciling certain dissonant aspects of Paul’s writings in a contemporary setting, I was initially not convinced that “descriptive” was the intended tone of Chapter 13.
The end of Chapter 12 concludes:
The end of Chapter 12 concludes:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:17-21)
The very next verse, 13:1, begins: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Suggesting an immediate switch from a higher calling of Kingdom-ethics, where enemies are treated as brothers and sisters, to a coded observation of unjust political reality, seemed far-fetched to me. However, later Stubbs references T.L. Carter’s article, “The Irony of Romans,” which argues that Paul is using irony in his commendation of the state, as a rhetorical device to covertly subvert the authority of Rome. Carter’s argument made me reconsider:
The original audience of the letter shared with Paul a common experience of oppression at the hands of the authorities and were aware of the abuses that took place in the opening years of Nero’s reign. The consequent implausibility of Paul’s language would have alerted his readers to the presence of irony.
(Novum Testamentum XLVI, 3)
(Novum Testamentum XLVI, 3)
Stubbs book ends on a very contemporary note, examining current political debates about budgets, government fiscal policy, social services, and debt. What kind of world do we want to live in? How does Christ’s gospel, interpreted through Paul’s letter to Rome, help us frame current discussions, both religious and political?
The notion of debt/indebtedness challenges each of us to pause and reflect on the mindset out of which we discern our beliefs and thoughts about human interdependence. Essentially, debt… reflects the idea that people are obligated to give because they have received. (145)
Such an ethos extends into taxes, employment, education, ecology, infrastructure and investment, and every other aspect of our public lives. “We give, because we receive.” This is the message of the Gospel, it is the sensibility of Paul, and it is the liberated and liberating life of Harriet Tubman.