Just How Revolutionary Was Paul?

The Apostle, the Composer, and the Tyrants They Suffered.

Todd Brewer / 11.17.22

In spring of 1937, Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich stood outside of his apartment each night waiting for his executioners to arrive. Fully clothed and his suitcase packed, he determined that Power would not also strip him of his dignity in those final moments. His family asleep, the composer helplessly stood watch each night while his friends and family disappeared during what would become known as Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge. But for reasons Shostakovich would never fully ascertain, he somehow survived. He would escape death, only to be condemned to spend the rest of his life composing music under the fickle scrutiny of Power.

As his fame grew in the decades that followed, Shostakovich would find himself cast as a pawn in geopolitical struggles, caught between Power and Power’s detractors. The regime and those westerner sympathizers who wished he be more critical of Russia’s leadership. He could understand the former, but the latter was inexplicable. In a fictional book by Julian Barnes on the Soviet composer, the twentieth century composer voices his frustrations with those sympathizers disappointed by his pragmatism in the face of Joseph Stalin’s murderous purges.

There were those … who supported you, and yet at the same time were disappointed in you. Who did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live. Who imagined they knew how Power operated and wanted you to fight it as they believed they would do in your position. In other words, they wanted your blood. They wanted martyrs to prove the regime’s wickedness. But you were to be the martyr, not them. And how many martyrs would it take to prove that the regime was truly, monstrously, carnivorously evil? More, always more. […] What they didn’t understand, these self-nominated friends, was how similar they were to Power itself: however much you gave, they always wanted more (p. 115).

Displeased with his silence, his supposed friends always thought there was more he could do. He could write his music in secret and then smuggle it out of the country. He could simply refuse to play the part of Power’s trophy composer. Or he could defect. From the safe distance of the west, his supposed friends concocted ill-fated schemes of resistance and liberation.

This fictional monologue, I think, doubles well for how the apostle Paul might have responded to those scholars today who wish him to have been more explicitly revolutionary. More directly challenging to the Power of Rome and its oppression. The crimes of the Emperor were too great for Paul to have simply ignored them. Not when so much of what he says elsewhere seems to run counter to the imperial propaganda, to say nothing of its brutality. Not when Paul himself was imprisoned by Power on several occasions.

Perhaps, it is said, Paul had to write in a secret code because his letters were routinely searched by the authorities for treasonous threats. Paul could not write as plainly as he wished, so one must read between the lines to discern the “hidden transcript” of what he might have openly said to his faithful supporters. Maybe he opposed the circumcision of gentiles in Galatia because doing so was a way of avoiding persecution? Surely the apostle’s assertion that “Jesus is Lord” is meant to be a denial of the emperor’s own lordship, with Paul muttering under his breath “Caesar is not.” Paul’s radicalism is supposedly everywhere, and yet nowhere to be found. Because in sharp contrast to the clamorous and urgent political discourse today, Paul scarcely wrote of Caesar or uttered a single word of the empire’s excesses or abuses. Paul’s anti-imperial supporters will always be frustrated by a perceived reticence on the part of Paul to take a stand. They would rather he have died in the coliseum than be disappointed by his silence.

Paul wrote of the foolishness of the cross to the gentiles and of the rulers of this age who failed to understand the wisdom of God. His gospel stands in contrast to the claims of Roman culture and ideology — yet without direct confrontation. Honor is bestowed, not cultivated. There is no distinction between slave and free, male and female. It is Christ who gives life from death. But as countercultural as Paul’s ideas might have been, the scope of their ideals was distinctly insular. Paul was a preacher who sought to cultivate Christ-like communities of faith. He did not send his letters to Roman magistrates, but fellow Christians. When it came to Power, Paul commended paying taxes — no matter how greedy Caesar might be — and dutifully submitting to those in authority, aspiring to live quietly and mind one’s own affairs.[1] He did not do so to stifle his more revolutionary followers or to strategically mollify suspicious executioners, but because Paul genuinely believed it.

The frustration of Barnes’ Shostakovich with his self-nominated friends poses, I think, an instructive question when it comes to anti-imperial readings of Paul. The composer’s self-nominated friends desired the overthrow of Stalin, holding the delusion that Shostakovich himself could orchestrate such an upheaval by the stroke of his pen on the free sheets of music paper they gave him. Or that his head on a pike could somehow spark the revolution they earnestly desired. But Shostakovich knew the futility of their aspirations.

Were Paul to have been as revolutionary as some claim him to be, what would have been his endgame? Did Paul deign to suggest in private that life would be better for everyone if a senator were to don the laurel wreathed crown? Or maybe he prayed in secret for the burning of Rome altogether? As if Paul sought to wield the same instruments power used by Caesar. How, precisely, did this revolutionary Paul imagine this political apocalypse to take place? Aside from the untraversable chasm between these machinations and anything found in Paul’s letters (or the rest of the early church, for that matter), their impracticality would have been clear to anyone. How many martyrs would it take to prove that the regime was truly, monstrously, carnivorously evil? More, always more. Paul may have desired martyrdom, but he did not seek to provoke the outrage of the gentiles.

It is precisely this unanswered question of “to what end” that enables Paul’s disappointed interpreters to utilize him for whatever modern political ends they deem necessary. Furnished by the manifold differences between first century Roman politics and our own, Paul can become a modern political activist, imagining him not to be an evangelist and planter of churches, but the community organizer or the partisan YouTuber. Here, Paul’s first century, political gospel ironically becomes the impetus for twenty-first century civic participation.

For his time, Paul was indeed a revolutionary; he just wasn’t the kind of revolutionary who took up arms or spoke on behalf of the people. Paul was radical because he recognized that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the hinge upon which all of human history turned, the pebble thrown into the ocean of time that created a tsunami. The present evil age was ending and new creation sprouted in its place, upending all human wisdom and valuations of worth by the foolishness of the cross. In the symphony of redemption, the Roman Empire was neither the melody nor the melody’s counterpoint. It was but the momentary flourish of a bassoon that disappears as quickly as it is heard. Consigning Rome to such a small role would have been shocking to his audience. Subversive even. How could the emperor count for so little? Because the trials of the present were nothing compared to the symphony’s grand finale, when every minor chord resolves to a gloriously major fortissimo.

Paul did not see life as a battle between opposing political ideologies vying for votes and influence. He was perhaps an interested observer of the news of the day, but he was not consumed by the headlines or felt it his moral duty to weigh in on every political controversy. His agenda was manifestly not set by the fickle schemes of Power — even as Power exerted itself in his life. Paul’s agenda was determined by the One who knocked him off his horse. The One who gave life to unworthy sinners: to Paul, to the world, and even to Caesar himself.

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3 responses to “Just How Revolutionary Was Paul?”

  1. Kevin Scott Wrege says:

    Wow. A really wonderful and thought-provoking piece, especially give the contentious, politicized spirit of the age. Bravo!

  2. Kile says:

    I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but reminds me a bit of the ideology that Chris Haw & Shane Claiborne put forward in “Jesus for President.” A bit of exploration on the “alternative” practice of politics in Christianity, if you will.

    I am not affiliated with the links below, I just thought they’d be helpful 🙂



  3. […] if the loneliness that drives one to moral war cannot healed by fisticuffs, then perhaps the revolutionary message of Christianity can still be found by the walking wounded of the […]

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