According to The Dictionary of Human Geography, imperial power is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states...based on domination and subordination." The key words, there, I think, are domination and subordination. To achieve their goals, empires demand unwavering conformity to their laws, norms, and values. They suppress dissent and debate; so you tend to see a lot of bumper stickers that say things like: “my country, right or wrong!”
So when St. Paul appeals to those Christians living in first-century Rome and says to them: “do not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” he isn’t making an abstract theological statement. He is saying something very radical and counter-cultural as he makes his appeal to these brothers and sisters who are living in the “belly of the beast,” as it were. He reminds them that even though they live in Rome, they are still “in Christ” and therefore answer to a higher authority. As they seek to live their faith, they need to resist the dominating and subordinating power of conformity and open themselves up to the liberating and freeing transformational power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Paul appeals to them to keep Christ, not Caesar, at the center of their lives and he implores them to remember when they say that “Jesus is Lord” that they are making a political statement. All of the dominant cultural messages of the imperial Roman world insisted that Caesar was lord. If you wanted to get ahead and to fit in, you needed to play by Caesar’s rules. You could do what you wanted on the weekends, say your prayers to whatever god you wanted to, if it turned out that you had a little bit left over at the end of the week—just be sure to keep it private and spiritual and compartmentalized.
What exactly is it that Paul hopes these Christians in Rome will be transformed into?
Into people who can discern the will of God. Into people who know the truth, and that truth sets them free. Into people who can figure out to whom they really belong and for what purpose; and then to live into that reality, not just on Sunday mornings but 24:7, 365 days a year, one day at a time.
In July, I read a novel called The Help, which has just been made into a film. I’ve not seen the film but I’ve seen the political criticism it’s been getting. Even so, I have to say I enjoyed the book. For those who don’t know, the story takes place in the south in the 1960s Mississippi, at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. In many ways the Jim Crow south functioned in the same way that imperial power does: domination and subordination of black people required white people to conform to the status quo. The whole system depended upon being “conformed to that world” and when that happens, you get locked into a closed-system. The only way to break out of such a closed-system is for some kind of internal transformation to happen, which then allows you to see what in fact would seem obvious to any sane person. Only then can one truly “discern the will of God.”
How could any preacher ever have ever stood up, in the name of Christ, and preached a sermon purportedly based on the authority of Scripture, and concluded that segregation was a good thing and more than that, that it was “the will of God?” And yet, as you know, there were countless sermons preached with passion and vehemence and certitude that did just that, defending Jim Crow as divinely mandated. When we are conformed to this world, we begin to use the Gospel to affirm what already is, what everybody “knows” to be true. We make the gospel fit into the culture’s norms, rather than allowing the gospel to open our eyes and ears and hearts…so that Christ can make all things new.
No Christian is ever immune from that danger. Each new generation of Christians must ask the very same hard questions that Paul is raising in Romans 12: Where does your allegiance really lie? Where do you put your trust—not when you are sitting in church, but as you live your life? In money? Family? Nation? The Democratic Party or the Republican Party? Tea Party or Teacher’s Union? Fox News or MSNBC? Who shapes your values? Who wants you to conform and fit in?
“I appeal to you brothers and sisters…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”