Paul and the Proletariat (Reading Ephesians 6 with George Orwell)

Ephesians 6:10-20 is one of the most stirring speeches in scripture.  On par with the finest oratory, Paul’s concluding words to the Ephesians echo Pericles speaking to the Athenians or Shakespeare’s Henry V addressing the English troops prior to the Battle of Agincourt.  It is as if Paul has become a general.  The battle waits.  The troops must be inspired.  This isn’t a half time speech in the locker room.  Certain questions need to be answered.  Do we have a chance to prevail?  Are we ready?

Paul’s words in these 10 verses remind me of Russell Crowe’s character Maximus in the movie Gladiator.  Riding up and down the line of legionnaires as they prepare to face the German barbarians he says:

“Fratres…, three weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops, imagine where you will be and it will be so. Hold the lines, stay with me. If you find yourself alone riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled, for you are in Elysium and you’re already dead!!!. [The men laugh.] Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

In Ephesians 6, Paul did much the same thing.  Before going into battle, he highlighted comradeship, emphasized superior strength, and showed a disregard for the enemy and their abilities.

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Paul sounds like a General.  He appears to be talking as a Roman soldier.  Doesn’t this seem a little odd?  A man who spent of much of his life arrested, tortured, and eventually executed by the Roman army borrowing their terminology so freely, that’s more than a little strange.  Paul isn’t Russell Crowe but we do know that’s his world.  He comes from the Jewish world, the Greek world, the Christian world, and the Roman world.  Paul’s a Roman citizen.  He’ll die in Rome.  He’ll spend more time in his final years with Roman soldiers than with rabbis or reverends.  Why would this prisoner of God start using the military language of the hated Roman army to describe spiritual resistance to the physical threat imposed by Roman power?

“Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul writes.  If we were going to translate verse 11 into a modern parlance it might read, “Put on the whole body armor of God.”  My first question to both Paul would be, “Why take Roman language defend Christian ideals?”  What’s gone so wrong in the world that Paul’s last words to the Ephesians begin with an exhortation to don spiritual riot gear?

We know the world is off balance.  It doesn’t take much of an observation to gather that things aren’t quite right.  This is both a macro and a micro problem.  The world is a fragile, violent, and unsteady place (that’s the macro).  I think our nation is already in a state of undeclared civil war.  So is the church.  Look at what came out of Pennsylvania last week or Methodism’s ongoing discussions about schism. (This is the micro.)  While the world debates whether or not we can be trusted, we argue whether we can be trusted amongst ourselves.  We are at war; war with ourselves, each other, and the very idea of what it means to be a “Christian”.  In one sense, a call to don the armor of a Roman legionnaire, albeit spiritually, would appear to make sense.  Should we not return to our early 1st century roots to fight for the essence of the idea called Christian? Again, as emotive as this idea seems, it doesn’t answer the underlying question, why would Paul adapt and adopt the language of the oppressor? Why would 21st century Christians do likewise? Doesn’t this make us something we’re not (above and beyond our civil war for denominational identity), something other than Christian?

Ideas and language exist independent of time and space.  Once they take root in the consciousness of one thinker, they are absorbed by new users and passed to succeeding generations.  For example, without Immanuel Kant, there would be no Georg Hegel.  Without Hegel, we lose Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Friedrich Nietzsche, and countless others.  Remove Marx and there is no Vladimir Lenin.  Each man is a reaction to the other, without the other, his own ideas are formless.  While notable differences mark the philosophical and revolutionary projects of these philosophers, many of their revolutionary ideas borrowed from one another.  In the former Soviet Union, the guiding ideology was called Marxist-Leninist.  It was a blending of the two theories, Lenin building on what he thought Marx did right, using the ideas which he thought would work best for the Russian people.  That’s not a surprise.

Paul’s amalgamation of Roman military doctrine, oratory, and terminology with 1st century Christian theology is surprising. The last chapter of Ephesians shouldn’t blend seamlessly with Roman culture, like the evolution of western philosophy; one naturally related idea giving way to another.  Jesus doesn’t adopt the language of the Romans.  In fact, John tells us he debates Pilate’s version of the truth.  According to Jesus, there is only one truth.  Again, why does Paul muddy the waters with Roman shields, breastplates, and swords?  Shouldn’t we offer an alternative to Caesar’s empire of terror, violence, and disparity?

In the winter of 54-55 CE, Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus.  A seventeen-year old Nero was at the helm of the most powerful empire in the world.  The transition from an age of Augustan tranquility to bureaucratic centralization began almost immediately.  Taxes went up, harvests went down, and the cities were flooded with migrants looking for non-existing jobs.  Local administrators in Asia Minor, where Paul’s churches had begun to flourish pressured the poor to pay for their lavish lifestyles.  In local churches, tithes withered away.  The poor in Asia Minor were as poor as any impoverished people in the ancient world. When Paul reminds other congregations to remember the poor, this is not an offhand remark.  If those he has converted are dying of hunger or beaten to death for their inability to pay taxes or inability to find work, the church isn’t a community of the saints.  It’s nothing.

So who is the real enemy?  Who is Paul preparing to fight?  If there is an enemy, it’s not a demon or the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”.  This is not a horror movie.  This one sided interpretation of Paul is wrong.  Ephesians isn’t the game plan for a spiritual battle.  He is fighting against flesh and blood, which are the principalities and powers.    The principalities and powers are manifest in the poverty and oppression of the people of Ephesus, Galatia, and Thessaloniki.  What’s more evil, a ghost story or a child’s lifespan going only to 10?

Paul’s enemy is the dissatisfaction felt by the rural farmers and the economic tensions caused by the pressures of centralization, public works expansion, and systemic corruption.  The tax burden, which tied the extravagant lifestyles of the provincial elites to the burdens of the local workforce, made the enemy facing Paul and the church in Ephesus real, not metaphysical.  Paul is speaking to 97 percent of the population.  There is no middle class.  Nor is there a “Roman Dream” by which one may better oneself by education or pulling yourself up by your sandals.  The great spiritual crisis of Paul’s time is also an economic and political dilemma.  If he, in his letters, does not address the holistic needs of his churches, he is abandoning his communities to death and ruin.

In the face of economic devastation, why borrow the imagery from those who devastate your land, take your jobs, and cripple your ability to worship?

Ephesians must be read in the shadow of empire; whether American or Roman.  Empire clouds our judgment.  Our wealth and privilege are but the hollow filters of empire.  Our faith is defined by power, standing at the top, and telling others what and how to believe.  This is the essence of the colonial missionary enterprise.  We cannot understand our world as lived from the bottom.  I believe this is our challenge when listening to Paul.  In the shadow of empire, the world looks different and the words we think we know are not the same.

In 1937, George Orwell published The Road to Wigan Pier.  This early work looked at the impact of post war change in the mining communities of northwest England.  Despite England’s recovery from the war, Orwell’s intention in writing the book was to show that unemployment, poverty, and the Depression were still prevalent throughout large areas of Britain.  His book came after the important General Strike of 1926 and a growing number accidents and deaths caused by deteriorating work conditions.  Orwell’s question was this:  why didn’t the miners fight back?  Why didn’t they rebel against those who placed them in such squalor and pain?  Eventually Orwell came to the answer that any insurrection would be crushed with the same brutal efficiency the British quash all rebellions, either at home or abroad.    Because they miners were too weak to fight back, they could be bought off with “cheap luxuries”.  Religion was no longer the opiate of the masses; chocolate, radios, and cinema tickets placated the impoverished.

Paul is centuries ahead of Orwell.  He wants the Ephesians to fight back with the resources at hand.  To read Ephesians 6 is to witness Paul give voice to the proletariat, the working class and agrarian laborers who dominated Roman commercial society. In other 1st century Roman sources, historical or literary; we do not hear the proletariat.   Paul, unique among his peers, starts at the bottom and speaks upward.  While I do not believe Paul is arguing for social mobility and advancement (ideas unknown to the typical Roman citizen), I do think his language pushes for a radical upheaval of society as a whole.  However, like Orwell, Paul knows if the people of Ephesus force a head on confrontation with a Roman legion, they will be crushed.  If they are lulled into complicity by the easy wealth of selling idols at the Temple of Artemis, nothing will change.  It is the 1st century Road to Wigan Pier.

Paul’s answer isn’t to adopt the position of the defeated English working class.  Instead, if we stick with Orwell, it’s more Homage to Catalonia.  Fight with what you have, join with like minded people, and use the weapons you have available.  Paul is, to quote Orwell, putting the working class of Ephesus, “In the saddle.”  I think for Paul it sounds like they’re raiding an armory to take all they can (the whole armor of God, girding up with truth, breastplates of righteousness, shoes you can fight in, shields, helmets, and swords) so they can fight the fascists Romans.  It’s all very Spanish Civil War.

Why does Paul borrow the language of the Roman soldier to inspire and motivate the Ephesians?  Paul is using language from the Romans to take back from the Romans something which was never theirs to own or control.  The people of Asia Minor were not Roman subjects.  They were the children of God.  It’s hard to see who we are and whose we are if we accept economic exploitation and worshiping Caesar as normal.  There’s nothing normal about Caesar worship and the corporate military industrial complex he fosters.  Paul knew this.  That’s why Paul closed his letter with a reminder of the mystery we are called to proclaim:  “and also for me, that my utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare in boldly, as I ought to speak.”

Richard Lowell Bryant