In accounts of Christian’s political responsibilities, it is not uncommon to hear appeals to the way Paul used his Roman citizenship and the Roman political system. These range from the fairly modest–“Paul’s appeal showed that the Roman Empire, for all its evils, could still serve a useful purpose and Christians need not completely separate themselves from an unjust political system”–to rather more robust claims that Paul’s actions somehow constitute a ratification of the goodness of the Roman order and proof that Christians should be enthusiastic citizens of earthly polities.
In A Secular Faith, Darryl Hart offers something like the latter approach, using Paul’s example in favour of his thesis that Christians must have “hyphenated identities” as inhabitants of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms. (The real problem with this claim is that in fact he is calling not for hyphenated, but bifurcated identities, not for ‘Christian-American’ but for ‘Christian//American’; but more on that another time).
But what was Paul actually up to? And what lesson does his appeal to Caesar actually offer?
Hart claims that
“Paul’s Christian identity did take precedence over his Roman citizenship. But the nature of his Christian commitment did not keep him from appealing to Roman law to prolong his life. Short of having to forsake his duty to preach, Paul was willing to play by nonreligious rules. In other words, he thought of himself as more than a Christian; his identity was hyphenated–Roman citizen and Christian apostle.”
Hart is suggesting here that, while of course political citizenship should never lead us to go against the duties of our Christian identity, it need not be justified in terms of Christian identity. We can and ought to participate in civic life out of the ordinary concerns of citizens, not out of specifically Christian concerns. We are free to take advantage of political structures to save our lives, for instance. While of course I think both the narrow point (it’s fine to protect yourself using political structures) and the larger point (Christians do not have to have a distinctively Christian justification for every participation in civic activities) are basically valid (though not necessarily in the way Hart wants to use them), Paul’s example, interestingly enough, supports neither point.
This is particularly interesting because Hart himself provides the refuting evidence just a few lines earlier:
“Paul’s appeal to Rome was unusual on several levels. As it turned out, had he not issued it, he would have been freed in Jerusalem….But instead of being emancipated, Paul had to endure a long and precarious trip to Rome which resulted in further imprisonment and ultimately death.”
Now this is curious. In other words, if Paul was really using his Roman citizenship to protect his life, he did a pretty poor job of it. It’s possible, of course, that he just miscalculated seriously. But the narrative of Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Romans, suggest quite otherwise–that Paul in fact was extremely eager to come to Rome, and indeed to preach before Caesar, and that his appeal was a calculated attempt to bring that about. Most likely, he was well aware that he could have been released in Judaea, had he so desired.
This suggests then that what we have is in fact an example of precisely the opposite stance to that Hart wants to encourage–a determination to subordinate political identity to religious identity in such a way that action in the civic sphere becomes a tool in favour of a religious agenda. Paul, it seems, is consciously exploiting the structures of the Roman justice system for evangelistic ends, rather than coolly petitioning for legal protection on his own account. Needless to say, this suggests a rather different political-theological model than anything Hart would want us to consider.