Ted Grimsrud—March 21, 2022
There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t actually happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this post. This big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.
The moral universe and Jesus’s “sacrificial” death
I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe here. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I do want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.
The point for that perspective is that God can’t simply forgive. The moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice. Thus, salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.
Romans 3 has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading. I don’t like the traditional view. There are many problems with it. Maybe most basically, it denies that God is love, it seems to me. It denies that mercy is life’s fundamental truth. It may foster fearfulness and legalism. It may make us vulnerable to giving loyalty to human structures of power and coercion—i.e., empires and other nation-states, not to mention religious institutions.
Continue reading “Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]”
Ted Grimsrud—March 10, 2022
Paul begins the book of Romans with a sharp critique of the Roman Empire and its idolatrous spiral into injustice and violence, as we saw in my previous post. I believe that his critique remains perceptive. However, Paul’s main focus in Romans has more to do with how faith communities go bad than with how empires go bad. He uses his Empire critique (valid and relevant as it is) to set up his faith community critique. His readers would be nodding their heads as they approve of Paul’s initial critique. But then he turns on them: “When you are judgmental toward others, you condemn yourself, because you the judge, tend to do the same things” (2:1).
In critiquing the self-righteous judge who is also unjust and violent, Paul has himself as a death-dealing persecutor of Christians in mind. In a genuine sense, his presentation of the gospel in Romans is about what he personally learned in turning from being violent in God’s name to being committed to peace—all the way down. One thing Paul learned was that faith communities are extremely vulnerable to becoming the sites of injustice and violence—ironically, often as a direct result of their quest to be rigorously faithful.
To help us understand how faith communities go wrong, Paul focuses on one particular ritual that he had seen as central to his pre-Jesus agenda of rigorously holding to the true faith. It is well known that the Bible at times can be pretty “earthy.” One notable case is one of the central rituals in the entire story—one with enormous symbolic power in both the Old and New Testaments—the ritual of circumcision. It seems to me that this ritual, both in the Bible and in contemporary life, is problematic on several levels. But the Bible obviously sees circumcision as extraordinarily meaningful, for better and for worse. And it remains present throughout the story, often on the deeper metaphorical level. Paul uses circumcision as a key example in his critique and then in his presentation in chapter 3 of the core message of the gospel of God.
Circumcision in the midst of Empire
Paul thought about circumcision a great deal. He makes it a key image in his wrestling with the life of faith. It’s in the middle of the discernment work as his community of Jesus followers sought to relate their Jewish tradition to the influx of new believers who weren’t Jews. Paul could be pretty earthy himself on occasion, such as when he wrote about conflicts concerning circumcision and its weighty symbolic legacy. In his letter to the Galatians, he gets salty when he writes about people he believed were disastrous teachers. They legalistically tried to impose circumcision on new, non-Jewish converts to Christianity. This is what Paul wrote: “Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty…. If I were still preaching legalistic circumcision, I would not be persecuted by other Jews like I am…. I wish those who unsettle you, instead of just circumcising, would castrate themselves” (Gal 5:11-12).
Continue reading “How faith communities go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 3; 2:1-29) [Peaceable Romans #10]”
Ted Grimsrud—March 7, 2022
More than a treatise on doctrine or a discussion preoccupied with the Christian religion and the Jewish religion, the book of Romans is a presentation focused on faithful living. And for Paul, faithful living meant embodying the way of Jesus. As I discussed in the first of this long series of posts working through the teaching of Romans, Paul begins Romans by setting up a contrast between the gospel of God as presented by Jesus and what we could call the “gospel” of the Roman Empire.
In the second half of chapter 1 of the book of Romans, Paul provides an analysis of the domination dynamics of the great nations of the world, which are the dynamics of idolatry that refuses to express gratitude to the Creator but instead puts trust in human creations (including empires and emperors). In trusting in creatures rather than the Creator, human societies inevitably ground their priorities in exploitation rather than gratitude and evolve toward injustice and violence. Without stating it explicitly, Paul seems clearly to evoke the awareness his readers in Rome would have of the particular injustices and violence of their city’s leadership class.
The gospel of God vs. the gospel of Caesar
As we continue to the following chapters of Romans, we will see that Paul’s focus in the book as a whole is not on a critique of Empire but on developing his alternative gospel. If the Empire’s gospel is a one of death, what does a gospel of life look like? If the Empire’s way of life leads to injustice, what is an alternative way of life that leads to justice?
Continue reading “How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]”
Ted Grimsrud—March 3, 2022
Times of war fever are always challenging for those who are disposed to oppose most if not all war. Tragically, we are in the midst of such a time now. So, it seems timely to reflect a bit on how an American pacifist might think about our current crises. By “think about,” I mainly have in mind thinking about the underlying core peace-oriented convictions and how they might shape how we see our current situation.
I have in mind a pretty general definition of “pacifism” here. I’m thinking of it as roughly equivalent to, say, being a humane person, a person who supports social and political self-determination for all the people, a person who affirms the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The key points would be a belief that supporting war is antithetical to humane values, to the practice of self-determination, and to an affirmation of universal human rights.
A pacifist, in this sense, would be suspicious of all those who do support the practice of and preparation for warfare. This suspicion is especially strong toward those who profit from such preparation and practice. We would not, for example, assume that those leaders in our society who are positive about preparation for war are to be trusted as truthtellers. That is, we are distrustful toward our most powerful media outlets and the spokespeople for our military policies and military-oriented responses to crises. We also recognize we need to be self-conscious about the impact of the mass media in shaping people in our society to be positive about America’s military policies and practices and preparations. It takes an effort to resist that shaping.
In what follows, I will organize my thoughts in a series of brief reflections.
Continue reading “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion [Pacifism Today #5]”