In an earlier post I noted some of my reservations with Griffiths’ “quietest proposal.”  I attempted to ask how a so-called quietest proposal could sit squarely within an apocalypsed universe.  Was St. Paul and the early church really on about sitting back and letting things unfold, all the while knowing that God is in control and our best course of action is simply to not try to get a hold on history?  Isn’t there something more to do now that the incarnation has happened and all has changed?  A quote from Badiou drove a lot of my thinking: “the work of love is still before us; the empire is vast.”

At the time I suspected that Neil Elliott was on to something when he wrote about the inherent tension within St. Paul between quietest reservations and divine reality of the spirit’s groaning “in sights too deep for words.”  After completing The Arrogance of the Nations, I concluded that Elliott does in fact draw us to this very position.  In light of the tension, Romans draws us toward the “collective unconscious” element or the Spirit’s attempt to break free from within the confines of the ideological structures of 1st century Rome.  Our real task is to inhibit and bring to fruition the work of the Spirit here and now.  It follows that if we truly take Barth to task, as Elliott seems to want us to do given the introductory quote of his book, this is still a letter directed to us; we still have the work of love to do.

Elliott notes the varying interpretations over Rom 13 (154ff.).  On the hand, there’s the simple acquiescence to political power; roughly, the Niebuhr position, which is easily enough dismissed.  Then there’s the Yoderian perspective, the very one that says that by submitting we’re actually serving to undermine the sovereignty of empire.  The issue with this particular perspective, as Elliott notes, is would such actions have been considered subversive?  This interpretation hangs on a big question.  On my own account, it borders on a characteristically bourgeoisie interpretation.  It’s a very easy call to make when one is not under the heal of empire, colonial power or a violent situation, such as spouse abuse.  Elliott then moves on to noting that some scholars attempt to maintain that St. Paul was being ironic.  Of course Cesar is not in control; any self-conscious Roman citizen would pick up on St. Paul’s irony when discussing Cesar’s claims to the peaceful yielding of the sword.

At the end of the day for Elliott, most of these claims are problematic at best and cannot, despite the best attempts, fit squarely within the earlier passage of Romans were St. Paul is decisively arguing for counter-imperial claims to Cesar.  And so Elliott concludes that it is “impossible to read a single coherent posture” in Rom. 13.  Instead, we find a St. Paul who is himself under “the constraining force of ideology, with ‘voice under domination.’” (156).

We might be lead to believe that there is no other role for the ekklesiai than patient submission and endurance, which might be roughly characterized as the Quietest position.  But there’s more going on.  As Elliott continues:

“nevertheless the letter is driven by a the longing for the earth’s peoples for their liberation from bondage and entry into their proper destiny as the children of God (8:18-25).  At just this point, we see the compelling power for Paul of those collective aspirations that Fredric Jameson has termed the ‘political unconscious,’ temporarily repressed from the public sphere by the pressures of hegemony but ultimately irrepressible.  It is the work of an energizing Spirit that brings these aspirations to expression in ‘sighs too deep for words.’  Alongside the kyriarchal representation of God as the lord subjecting the world to bondage, Paul – also – simultaneously – speaks of the activity of the Spirit in the longings of the oppressed world” (159).

Elliott concludes that the letter of Romans is haunted by a “spectrality,” which is the destiny of the world’s liberation through the agency of the poor (161).  Herein lies our task, our work or praxis.  Perhaps it is the Quietest then who only considers the surface of a text like Romans, and in doing so forgoes the sighs, groaning and ultimately the “energizing” power of the Spirit.  Beyond the Quietest proposal and in true apocalyptic fashion, Elliott boldly proclaims that the letter, when read today as it once was in Rome, is about a spectrality that haunts and prompts us toward agency; about who and what must be done in response to the Spirit (165).  Is then yet another attempt to “get a  hold on” the course of history (Yoder)?  I think the answer for Elliott is an resounding “yes.”  Quoting Sorbrino, Elliot states:

“From within the civilization of wealth, a future such as Paul projects is strictly utopian – ‘the (impossible) ideal of social and political perfection, conceived out of abundance’ by the non-poor.  But to the wretched of the earth, ‘utopia’ means a dignified and just life for the majorities’; it is ‘eu-topia’, that ‘good place’ that must exist” (161).

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