Bible: No better than the Romans?
June 26 — Romans 1:16-23, 28-32; July 3 — Romans 2:13, 17-29
The impact of Paul’s letter to the Romans on Christian theology cannot be overstated — though different Christian traditions disagree profoundly on how to interpret and apply Romans. It is always worth wrestling with both the letter itself and its influence. Each of us probably has some story about an encounter with Romans, for better or for worse.
The first thing to note is that Paul addressed this letter to Christians in the capital of the world’s great superpower. What difference does it make for how we read Romans to think of it in reference to the might of the Roman Empire?
Right away, we encounter language that takes on a different shade of meaning if we consider it in light of Rome. Paul begins his argument in this letter asserting his lack of shame in the gospel. This gospel is the power of God for salvation for all people and the revelation of God’s justice (1:16-17).
“Gospel,” “power of God,” “salvation” and “justice” were terms used in Rome of the god-emperor. The empire claimed to be the necessary force for salvation for all people. Paul poses the God of Israel and Jesus as rivals to the “divine” empire, whose center was Rome.
What follows in Romans 1 describes the idolatry that characterized Rome — trusting in human images (1:23) rather than the merciful creator of all that is. As a consequence, minds “were darkened.” This darkening of mind led to a spiral of self-destructive behavior, injustice and violence. Paul presents this spiral toward profound injustice not as God’s direct punitive intervention but simply as an expression of God’s respect for human choices.
As we read this text today in the context of our modern-day American empire, we can’t help but wonder about the same dynamics. What expressions do we see now of darkened minds leading to a spiral of self-destructive behavior, injustice and violence?
The words that are translated as “righteousness” and “wickedness” in this passage may also be translated as “justice” and “injustice.” What difference might these translations make in how we interpret Paul’s thoughts?
In Romans 2, we encounter a remarkable rhetorical strategy. After Paul’s sharp and heartfelt critique of the idolatries of the “Greeks” (i.e., “Romans”) that his pious readers would surely affirm, he turns to an indictment of them: “You, the judge, are doing the very same things”!
The second kind of idolatry in Romans is the idolatry of the law, best understood as the idolatry of an identity as religious insiders. Make no mistake, Paul does not here offer a Christian critique of Judaism. He offers a prophetic critique of self-satisfied religiosity.
We best read the critique of the religious people who “dishonor God by breaking the law” (2:23) as aimed at we Christians — not as aimed at others, such as first-century Jews. Paul himself was a Jew, as were most of the “Christians” in his audience. And it is Paul himself who is mindful during much of this critique of the second kind of idolatry — the Paul who violently persecuted Jesus’s own followers (Gal. 2:13-14).
The terrible tragedy Paul addresses here is that the people who do know the mercy of God have not faithfully witnessed for that mercy in the Roman Empire. Idolizing their own religiosity has made them just as unjust and violent as the Romans. As we will see, Paul’s critique ultimately sets him up for a powerful affirmation of the true gospel. But first, we must have a sense of the problem he believes this gospel addresses.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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