Romans 13 - Be Indebted to No One for Nothing

December 2, 2010
David Driedger |

Romans 13 has long been a thorn in my Anabaptist side.  John Howard Yoder of course went a long way in clarifying the distinction between being subject to those in authority and actually obeying those in authority.  That reading however still left me with many unanswered questions as to what Paul is calling the church towards.  In preparation for the Romans readings of this season of Advent I reread Giorgio Agamben's The Time that Remains.  In this reading the notion of messianic time functioning as "the time of bringing time to an end" became more clear and relevant as I was reading through Romans alongside his work.  I interpret the structure of the world's authority as functioning as a sort of limit or boundary to the manner in which humanity lives apart from the Spirit.  As such the kingdom of the world is and will be coming to an end.  This becomes significant for reading Romans 13.  What struck me was the simple Greek structure of verse 7

ἀπόδοτε πᾶσιν τὰς ὀφειλάς,
τῷ τὸν φόρον τὸν φόρον,
τῷ τὸ τέλος τὸ τέλος,
τῷ τὸν φόβον τὸν φόβον,
τῷ τὴν τιμὴν τὴν τιμήν.

Pay back every debt for tax,
tax for revenue, revenue for fear,
fear for respect,

Then Paul adds significantly in verse 8,

Μηδενὶ μηδὲν ὀφείλετε

Be in indebted to no one for nothing (I can't comment on the double-negative in Greek here; I suspect it is common)

The process of relating to earthly authorities is that of closing down their economy, of divesting yourself of its structure (which is different than escaping it).  The work then is not of revolt (necessarily) which is why this passage can be confused for quietism but rather that of rendering the system inoperative an important Pauline term that Agamben stresses.  I read this in light of Kierkegaard's commentary on Paul's And having overcome all, to stand.  Much of our effort exists directly in relationship to opposition.  Opposition in many cases is absolutely necessary for the existence of our work.  I need the machine so that I can rage against it.  This is a reductionist characterization to be sure but I can't help think of how many movements will simply fall down when the powers are removed from their pushing. 

In any event I take Paul to be doing something different than direct revolt.  This does not necessarily clarify what we should then do with this reading but it demands that we not acquiesce to earthly authority but that we are continually in the active process of liberating ourselves and others from indebtedness.


To the extent that you are invested in this world whether tax, debt, fear or honour pay it back in kind so that all that remains in practice is the opening of love and not the foreclosure of debt.  The work of this 'flesh' will continually be present in a humanly inescapable manner (who will rescue me from this body of death).  We become though tools of light which cut through and create a division within the divisions of this world that constantly undermine and deactivate them.  This is all exegetical rhetoric at this point.  I have no idea what sort of tool I should function as.  What it demands though is that no position within world renders spirituaityl impossible.  No system is so dominant that it can, by its force, reclaim the new creation of the Messiah.  This problematizes the typical leftist project as I would see it which continually stress systems as that which binds and liberates (though it does that at a certain level).  I read this text and larger Pauline theology (in light of Agamben) as one which always supposes the freedom of the individual so that she might work within the place of her calling (and in communion with the saints) dividing the divisions and using this time for bringing time to an end.

Author Name: 
David Driedger
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