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The Roman Worlds

Review of "Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice"

I had the opportunity to see Keesmaat and Walsh speak on their latest joint effort, Romans Disarmed, last fall. The medium-sized lecture hall at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener was packed, with nearly 100 people in attendance. Every seat was full. People were sitting in the aisle, standing against the walls, in the gymnasium just outside, a dozen people stood huddled at the doors. Seems a lifetime ago, in these days of social distancing and self-isolation. Young people, seniors, council members, university students, young couples with their infants soundly sleeping in strollers or carriers, all huddled together to hear two scholars talk for a couple of hours about their years-long research into the epistle of Paul to the Romans.

As I stood there, surrounded by people, it struck me just how hungry the church is for good biblical scholarship.

Keesmaat and Walsh don’t pull punches, they don’t dumb down, they don’t play it safe, they don’t say what people want to hear. What they do, somehow, is bring the scriptures to life. With an encyclopedic historical imagination, a unified and intertextual canon, and a robust hermeneutic for engagement with pressing social issues, Keesmaat and Walsh invite us into the world of Rome in classical antiquity – or perhaps better put, the worlds of Rome, demonstrating how the lived experience of Greek and Jew, male and female, slave and free, were indeed worlds apart. As they draw us in to the pressing issues of Paul’s day – prime among them the dehumanizing and creation-destroying violence of the imperial military-economic machine, they draw connections to a whole host of contemporary social issues, including economics, colonialism, homelessness, ecology, sexuality, justice and war. 

The greatest strength of this volume is the authors’ exhaustive contextual scholarship. I was impressed with their respectful treatment of the Bible as a coherent whole – a canon, in the fullest sense of the word. Their exploration of Paul’s letter leads us from Genesis to Revelation, with significant stops in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Hosea, and Habbakkuk, showing how immersed Paul was in the Hebrew scriptures. Likewise, their encyclopedic approach to reconstructing the Roman Empire as Paul would have experienced it is creative, engaging, and exhaustively researched. This careful scholarship, both biblical and historical, opens the reader’s eyes to allusions, references, paraphrases, clichés, and sarcasm we might otherwise miss in English translation. This research grounds their engagement with contemporary issues. As they explain, “Faithfulness to the covenant God is always embodied in particular historical situations and contexts. Conversely, the challenges to such faithfulness – the power of evil, death, or injustice (adikia, as Paul puts it) – are always embodied in particular narratives, particular idolatrous practices, particular symbols.” In order to read and interpret scripture faithfully, Keesmaat and Walsh argue, God’s people need to name names.

Some people will accuse Keesmaat and Walsh of disarming Romans only to wield it as a weapon the other way (isn’t there something in the Bible about double-edged swords?), and that might be a fair assessment. The authors are rightfully angry about how those in power have historically wielded these words of scripture to further dehumanize the marginalized. Keesmaat and Walsh want to put the interpretation of scripture into the hands of the marginalized, “reading from the margins,” as they call it. The perspective is refreshing, challenging, infuriating, illuminating, terrifying, and encouraging all at once. Which feels right, when one speaks of the Word of God.

One thing I found troubling – I should rephrase that, because everything about this book is troubling; it will profoundly “trouble” you. One thing I didn’t really know what to do with was Keesmat and Walsh’s lack of engagement with the idea of “redemption” of empire. Throughout the book there was a kind of heavy pessimistic fatalism, as though the only faithful response to injustice in today’s day and age is to trade in your smartphone for 40 acres in cottage country. I know that that’s an unfair characterization of what these two scholars are doing up at Russet House Farm, but I must admit I was hoping for some deeper self-awareness in terms of their own privilege, and the ways that they (like Paul) use the tools of the empire to further the subversive and transformative message of the Kingdom of God.

I think Romans Disarmed is a helpful addition to the world of biblical scholarship. I would encourage pastors and thoughtful Christians to engage with it, understanding that it is not a light read. I do wonder, though, whether it arrives too late to a party that is already well underway. Christian leaders have been calling for the institutional church to lift up the voices of those who have historically been silenced for decades now, and the institutions of the church are (admittedly slowly) changing their practices in response. Christian publishers, colleges and universities, seminaries, think tanks, journals and magazines are all seeking to engage the voices of those who have been historically marginalized – commentaries, courses, lectures, books and scholarly articles by women, indigenous writers, and ethnic minorities are finding avenues for engagement with the broader Christian world. Jackson Wu’s Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, for example, received significant engagement and attention in Protestant and Evangelical circles last year. I wonder if these changing realities take some of the bite out of Keesmaat and Walsh’s critique. As more and more diverse voices are included in Christian scholarship, I wonder how much longer people will read books by white authors calling for greater representation in theology and biblical studies.

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