Politics,  Theology/Bible

Is the Apostle Paul Anti-American? (Part 3)

Andrei Rublev. Apostle Paul. c. 1420s. Tempera on wood. 160 x 109 cm. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.In two of my previous posts I have been discussing what N. T. Wright has dubbed a “Fresh Perspective” on the apostle Paul. What we have seen is that the Fresh Perspective (FP) reads Paul’s gospel as a confrontation with the Roman Empire. This confrontation implies a confrontation with all empires, including the so-called American empire of the current day.

Today I want to consider whether this reading of Paul’s letters finds any resonance in evangelicalism and whether it will provide Evangelicals with a more faithful way to interpret the Bible.

It is perhaps those in the emergent wing of evangelicalism who have the most in common with this understanding of the way the Bible addresses America’s current role in world affairs. We note the frequent references to America as an empire within the writings of emergent leaders and their friends on the evangelical left.

Brian McLaren, “Christianity and the ‘Pride of Power'”:

I just returned from a five-week, seven-country speaking tour of Latin America. . . In each country, I heard Christian leaders . . . express amazement and dismay at the relative silence of the church in the USA. . . They know we are against terrorism, but they don’t know if we are against American empire and domination.

I tried to tell our fellow Christians in Latin America that many of us are speaking out against these things, but I had to admit that doing so feels like an exercise in going against the current, not only in the culture at large, but in the Christian community as well.

The degree to which Christianity in the USA has capitulated to a neo-Constantinian compromise with empire is disturbing to our Christian brothers and sisters around the world … and it should be to all of us in the church in the USA.

Brian McLaren, “An Open Letter to Chuck Colson”:

The U.S. action in Iraq may convince many people around the world that we’re just another powerful elite bent on domination, coercion, and elimination of our opponents through a messianic metanarrative of American Empire. So 9/11 may not mark a return to the good old days of modernity after all, at least not outside our borders, and not for long.

Jim Wallis, “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s theology of empire” Sojourners (September-October 2003):

The use of the word “empire” in relation to American power in the world was once controversial, often restricted to left-wing critiques of U.S. hegemony. But now, on op-ed pages and in the nation’s political discourse, the concepts of empire, and even the phrase “Pax Americana,” are increasingly referred to in unapologetic ways. . .

The real theological problem in America today is no longer the Religious Right but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration—one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God’s purposes with the mission of American empire.

America’s foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous. George Bush’s personal faith has prompted a profound self-confidence in his “mission” to fight the “axis of evil,” his “call” to be commander-in-chief in the war against terrorism, and his definition of America’s “responsibility” to “defend the…hopes of all mankind.” This is a dangerous mix of bad foreign policy and bad theology.

The extent to which McLaren and Wallis are indebted to the FP interpreters is unclear. But it is widely known that N. T. Wright is a favored author among those participating in the Emergent conversation.

In any case, the real question is whether the FP provides for evangelicals a more faithful way to read Paul’s letters. I think the answer to that question is no. The FP founders on a hermeneutic predisposed toward eisegetical readings of Paul, on a refusal to accept the authenticity of all 13 of Paul’s epistles, on a bias that fails to see the critical lack of analogy between modern day America and imperial Rome, and on an inability to incorporate Romans 13:1-7 into its paradigm.

I unpack all of these shortcomings in my ETS paper. So if you are in Washington, D. C. on Friday, November 17, please come and hear why I don’t think the Fresh Perspective is a faithful interpretation of Paul.


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