I recently read Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia C. Kessmaat and Brian J. Walsh. Here are my thoughts on the book.
Overall, I was very impressed with it. Modern readers tend to focus on issues of personal salvation and spirituality for a whole host of reasons, and yet that is a distortion of Paul’s concerns. Paul, standing solidly in his Jewish heritage while building on and expanding beyond it, is very concerned about communal salvation, and is focused very much on how to live in this world in anticipation of the coming kingdom. Thus, Paul’s epistles are far more political, socioeconomic, etc. than most people are aware of.
The authors do a good job of explaining Paul’s economic and political concerns that are throughout the epistle. They spend a great deal of time on Romans 1 and 2, verses which have been much abused throughout the centuries, and the book is worth reading for that alone. They also address Romans 13 head-on, and cover the verses on sexuality in Romans in a brief, but well-done manner. The addition of a “conversation partner” to address possible objections is a genius addition, and the way they weave in stories of the Sanctuary community in Toronto, Ontario and their writing of targums makes for a diverse and refreshing literary read. These also have the benefit of not just stopping at interpretation of what Romans meant in the past, but suggesting possible applications in the 21st century.
Where I find some points of personal disagreement is in the possible applications of the 21st century. I specifically find the suggestion of discarding cellphones to be objectionable, and I humbly suggest that some of their suggestions for further ecological improvements betray their position of relative privilege. Cell phones are a technological tool that can be used for good or ill, but the good is well-worth holding onto. The ease of contacting someone over great distances is useful, but so too is the ability to quickly access knowledge. Planned obsolescence and responsible usage are two facets that could definitely be improved on, for ecological and social benefit, but the technology should not be discarded wholesale.
Further suggestions, such as shopping local and healthily are indeed worth pursuing–but economically, they are problematic. While there is indeed a portion of the population that could probably do so by giving up some of their creature comforts, the most economically disadvantaged really don’t have the money to do so. Personally, I would love to shop local and eat healthy all the time—but when over 50 percent of my income goes to housing, the remaining leftover doesn’t give me such freedom–especially when I can’t afford to live on my own, so having a cooking space I can use when and how I want to remains beyond my grasp for the present.
The repeated mention of buying organic and favouring organic agriculture is also problematic. For one thing, conventional agriculture is a rather broad term and while there are certainly those who do conventional agriculture in harmful and unsustainable ways, there are also those who do conventional agriculture in quite sustainable ways. Relatedly, organic agriculture is ill-defined, and there is little evidence that organic agriculture is uniformly better as far as environmental impact goes. There are pros and cons to each–rather than discarding conventional agriculture altogether, the case can be made of using both approaches simultaneously.
While I have specific objections to applications in the 21st century, this does detract from the authors main arguments. They do an excellent job of highlighting the competing worldviews and how the worldview of unlimited growth is going to lose out to the worldviews of compassionate care, ecological justice, etc. if only because the world’s resources are finite. We all must then, ask how we are going to respond to the call for justice and what we are going to give up or change to challenge the narrative of unlimited growth. The authors suggest multiple avenues to do so, and while I disagree with some of their suggestions, in the end it is a question we all must ask, and their suggestions can at least present a starting off point to think of the reader’s own responses.
All in all, I highly recommend this book for a much more justice-related and practical reading of Romans than is traditionally prevalent in the literature.