...the argument of Romans revolves around the question of which rule is truly righteous and which gospel has the power to make the world truly peaceful.
Robert Jewett, Romans (2007)
The Apostle Paul writes this letter to a network of house churches pledging allegiance to Jesus in the capital city of the Roman Empire sometime in the 50s, two decades after the death and resurrection of their Leader. This small chunk from the 8th chapter is embedded right in the middle of the lengthy letter that has been cherished by Protestant Christians for the past 500 years. For all of us who first came to view Jesus through an Evangelical lens, Romans is focused on sinners becoming "justified," which surely must mean "just if I never sinned" so that we can go to heaven when we die. At least, this was how the sincere leaders at Campus Crusade for Christ broke it all down to me using their 4 Spiritual Laws two decades ago.
Over the course of the past 50 years, many scholars have been questioning the accuracy of this interpretation. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century, the world has learned much about the ancient world. As N.T. Wright consistently says, "We have learned more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism in the last 50 years than we knew in the first 1950 years combined."
Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran pastor and Harvard professor, wrote a legendary article in the 1960s entitled "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" that proposed that every time Paul uses "justification" or "righteousness" (it's the same Greek word: dikaiosyne) in Romans and Galatians he is referring to how it is that Gentiles can become part of God's People (as opposed to how an individual can be made righteous before an angry and/or perfect God). Stendahl, who had the original Greek text of the entire book of Romans memorized, courageously offered a reading of Paul that means far more than relieving my guilt, a clean slate to save my soul.
Perhaps, then, the main point of Romans was really about how God was determined to save the population of Caesar's Empire by calling them to pledge allegiance to a different kind of citizenship altogether. God was putting the world to rights through a People committed to an alternative lifestyle, energized and inspired and guided by the spirit of Jesus, who lived out the Way of life and peace so radically that those power hungry leaders with a god-complex ("hostile to God") had to kill him.
This Divine Conspiracy is what salvation is all about. God came to this world incognito, hiding in the body of a Jewish peasant who taught a complete re-pattering of our lives. Paul bluntly universalizes the diagnosis: we are naturally patterned into the "flesh" (Greek sarkos) throughout our early lives because we must somehow cope with the lack of love, trust & safety all around us. This takes many, many forms, whether fight or flight, controlling or chaotic. This leads us down various roads of addiction, projection, obsessing & catastrophizing. It can also lead us to cling to in-group identity in the form of nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, celebrity worship & the scapegoating of the poor.
A ripe manifestation of "the flesh" was recently detailed by Pope Francis who caught many comfortable North Americans off-guard with his courageous critique of capitalist consumption:
To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.The thrill of the marketplace ultimately leads to a deadening of the deepest parts of us. Only an intense focus on our pain & copings will free us from the bonds of indifference. In an earlier letter to another community living trying to live counter-culturally in the Roman Empire, Paul adamantly prescribed the most drastic of measures:
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24)We must kill these patterns (90 times in a row!) in order for the Way of the Spirit to be myelinated into our heads and hearts. This will take a lot of time & effort. Only a rigorous discipline of both personal inventory and prophetic imagination will do. As the late Edwin Friedman proclaimed in the first line of his book Failure Of Nerve:
The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.As we work to bear the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control--in our lives and in our world, may we be reminded of the challenge that the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has given his Christian brothers and sisters:
If you do not really look at Jesus' life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus...The living Christ is the Christ of Love who is always generating love, moment after moment. When the church manifests understanding, tolerance, and loving-kindness, Jesus is there. Christians have to help Jesus Christ be manifested by their way of life, showing those around them that love, understanding, and tolerance are possible.Indeed, the spirit of Jesus comes alive in communities that strategically re-pattern themselves into clusters who have the audacity to actually attempt to live the radical way that Jesus did. We do this imperfectly. We fall and fail. By God's grace and mercy, we get up and try again. Let's stop living with any vision of Christian faith that justifies (by either spiritualizing or futurizing) the dehumanizing copings so typical of life in Empire.