The just one will live outside the social bond

I’ve got Romans on my mind, specifically 1:17 — “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (NRSV translation; Greek text: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται). This is the locus classicus of the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith (as opposed to works), an emphasis that has obscured the basic political meaning of the passage, including at the level of translation. Here I’m going to be following the inspiration of Ted Jennings’ reading as found in Outlaw Justice, but I am working through this verse myself.

The very first word of the verse is already obscured by the traditional translation. The meaning of δικαιοσύνη is not primarily “righteousness” as some kind of obscure religiously inflected form of favor with God. It means justice. It is the word Plato and Aristotle and every other Greek would use for justice. The same goes for the adjective form, δίκαιος, the one who is just, not “righteous.”

Paul has proclaimed in 1:16 that he is not ashamed of the gospel, and here he tells us why: in it, the justice of God is revealed. The scriptural quote (Habakkuk 2:4) that has been seized upon by Protestant interpreters is not the thesis statement, but a supplement and a support. The “gospel” in Paul’s version can’t be summarized as “the righteous shall live by faith.” That would be nonsense. The gospel is about Christ crucified and resurrected. The just one (δίκαιος) who “shall live” (ζήσεται) is not initially or primarily the believer, but the resurrected messiah. Paul is calling on this verse as a prediction (future-tense) of the resurrection — and what follows implicitly draws on the first half of the verse from Habakkuk, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them.” The proud, those who presume to rule the world from Rome, do not have the spirit right in them. They lack the justice which God has somehow revealed through the resurrection of Christ.

The Protestant reading makes nonsense of the prepositions within the verse. If you didn’t “know” that this passage was about vindicating justification by faith over works righteousness, you would immediately seize on the unmistakable wordplay of “ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν.” The NRSV has “by faith for faith,” but the straightforward contrast of ἐκ and εἰς is inside and outside. We know that the gospel reveals God’s justice, and the gospel is first and foremost the gospel of Christ crucified. This informs us what is meant by πίστις in this context. It can’t be personal belief in a certain story. Nor indeed can it be individualized trust in God’s power. If this revelation of divine justice takes place initially in the crucifixion, then the πίστις to which this revelation is initially outside is something like the social bond as such, the bond of trust that makes a social order possible.

This justice is revealed outside the social bond into the social bond — what is initially a radical and total exclusion now becomes the basis for a new social bond that is indeed invading the ruins of the realm of injustice. For Paul, Habakkuk knew that this would happen: the just one will live when forced outside the social bond (ἐκ πίστεως), a dying social bond that in its pride has been evacuated of all spirit. The stone the builders (of this world’s institutions and power structures) rejected — the excluded, humiliated, tortured, left-for-dead messiah — has become the cornerstone (of a new world order, a new sociality).

This dying world knows nothing but wrath: the fury of violence, of violation, of law-as-punishment. In 1:18, Paul tells us that alongside God’s justice is revealed (ἀποκαλύπτεται again — same tense, same number, same event) his wrath against an order that has forgotten the bases of its own legitimacy, in which everyone takes whatever they can, casting aside all customary usage and pious aspiration in their lust for domination. They know better than this, know that the path they are going down can lead only to death, but they are so persistent that even God has given up all hope for them, abandoning them to their own self-destruction.

This mockery of the πίστις that underlies all social order — a world of paranoia in which no one can trust anyone — renders it impossible for anyone to be numbered among the just. There is no “just one,” not even one: Οὐκ ἔστιν δίκαιος οὐδὲ εἷς (3:9). We can perhaps dare to hear an echo of the prepositional εἰς (inside) in the numerical εἷς (one) — “there is not a just one, definitely not in that mess.” The only place a just one could be found is outside this nihilistic rejection of all πίστις, outside the world empire that claims to have no outside.

But it is impossible to be just alone, because justice is a fundamentally social virtue. If the messiah is just, he must be just with others. Hence if there is a just one, then a broader renewal of the shared sense of justice must be in the offing, indeed must already be underway. If there is a just one, then that means that there are other just ones, other communities characterized by an authentic justice. And they too must be found on the outside of what claims to have no outside, in that which the inside — in its paranoid nihilistic self-destruction — excludes and seeks to destroy.

The just ones will live outside the empire, but also inside. Excluded, they will come back in — with a vengeance, with the wrath of God on their side.

2 thoughts on “The just one will live outside the social bond

  1. I don’t think the sense of “righteousness” that’s usually found in these verses from Paul predates the interpretations of Paul that Jennings is arguing against. The words themselves are synonyms; “justice and righteousness” is a doublet, like “cease and desist”.

    I find Jennings’s defamiliarization strategy in his translation of Romans in “Outlaw Justice” really helpful, incidentally. “Our Lord Jesus Christ” is a phrase I just glaze over when I read, because it’s a set formula; but of course in Paul it can’t be a set formula, because there hadn’t been any time for formulations to settle yet. So “Our leader Joshua messiah” is much better at communicating what Paul was actually writing. Fairly simple little trick of translation, but sheds a lot of light.

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