Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Sumney on the Church/Empire Tension
In his recent Colossians commentary in the NTL series, J.L. Sumney has a lengthy excursus on the household code of Col. 3.18-4.1. On the place of Christians in the Graeco-Roman world, Sumney states this (p. 236):
"To sustain its existence, the church not only needed to oppose the justifications that Rome espoused for its claims to bring peace and security to the world; it also required a competing metanarrative. A metanarrative is an account given to make sense of the world. Such accounts include stories that explain why the world works as it does and why its adherents are in the place they find themselves. Rome's metanarrative included claims that the gods had placed the Romans over the world for the good of the world (Rest gest. 12-13; Appian, Bel. Civ. 5.123). Thus, those who oppose Rome oppose the will of the gods.
The church's competing metanarrative must explain how it can be a socially marginalized and sometimes persecuted group if they are truly the 'people of God' who have come to understand the will of God. The story of Christ's death and resurrection serves this purpose, for it recalls that the exaltation of Jesus comes only after his suffering at the hands of those in power. This becomes a paradigm for the church's worldview, a central element of its metanarrative. Just as the powers of the world opposed Jesus, they now oppose people who believe in him. Though Christ defeated those powers through his crucifixion and resurrection (as Colossians proclaims in 1:15-20 and elsewhere), they refuse to acknowledge their defeat. Thus, in their refusal, those powers sustain the structures of the world that oppose God and God's peole. So the church must exist in a setting that involves confrontation with both culture and empire.
The place in which the members of the first-century church find themselves in relation to the empire and the surrounding culture, combined with this counter-metanarrative, makes some of the insights of postcolonial reading useful for interpreting the New Testament, particularly the household code. Rejecting the metanarrative of the dominant power is central to the resistance oppressed or dominated people offer (Horsley 2003: 93). When Colossians advocates an alternative account of the cosmos, that account will influence the way its readers understand themselves and their lives. Wilson (244) shows that ethical exhortation in the ancient setting strove to give its hearers a conceptual framework that made sense of the thought behind the instructions. This insight encourages us to examine the way in which Colossians' ethical instruction, including the household code, enable readers to make sense of the letter's claims about Christ's sovereignty."