How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]

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?

Let’s start with a condensed version of Romans 1:16-32 before reflecting on Paul’s teaching here:

I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful. In it the justice of God is revealed; as it is written, “The one who is just will live by trust.”At the same time, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.

What can be known about God is plain to all people because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s divine nature has been understood and seen through the things God has made. Unjust people are without excuse; for though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God. They become futile in their thinking, and their minds are darkened.Though they claim to be wise, they become fools. They exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Hence, God allows them to follow the lusts of their hearts and degrade their bodies among themselves, because they exchange the truth about God for a lie, and they worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. For this reason, God gives them up to degrading passions and out of control actions. Since they do not see fit to acknowledge God, God allows them to follow their self-selected path leading to debased minds and to things that should not be done. They are filled with every kind of injustice, evil, covetousness, malice. They live lives full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, slander, arrogance, heartlessness, and ruthlessness. They do know God’s just expectations, that those who practice such injustice will suffer consequences—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. [Romans 1:16-32]

Paul begins the argument of his letter with a contrast. God’s justice has been revealed to the world, which is the power of salvation for all who trust in it. But this very same revelation is perceived as “wrath” by those who “suppress the truth.” Paul will make it clear later that the problem is just as likely to be present among professing Christians as any other kind of religious (or non-religious) group. It’s a problem of basic trust: Do we trust in love, or do we trust in some kind of human creation—A national identity? A religious identity? An economic identity? Our own ability to create a sense of security or superiority or specialness? Do we trust in any identity that claims a status that puts us over the particular neighbors we live next to who are different than we are? If we do, we have a problem.

Paul couches his concerns in terms of God. It’s crucial that we try to get a sense of what he means by God, what he means by trusting God. I think one key clue here in this chapter comes at 1:21. Paul says those who experience the revelation of God’s salvation as wrath have no excuse when they do so. This is because the reality of God and of what God wants from human beings have been “understood and seen through the things God has made” (1:20). Paul states the problem like this: “Though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God” (1:21). That is, they do not experience life with a sense of gratitude. They do not realize that life itself is a gift from God, not to mention all the great things we experience as living creatures: love, joy, meaning, community, purpose, pleasure, and so many others.

When, at the center of our hearts we do not experience life with a sense of gratitude, we set ourselves on a path of emptiness and, as Paul goes on to describe here in Romans one, a path of self-destruction. To experience God’s revelation as “wrath” is not to receive direct, angry punishment from God. Rather, it is simply to experience the consequences of how God respects our choices. God steps back, we could say, to allow them to follow the path they choose and to thereby experience negative consequences—God is not a controller.

Paul here echoes Psalm 115. The idols people create end up defining those who trust in them: with mouths that do not speak, eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, noses that do not smell, hands that do not feel, feet that do not walk, and throats that make no sound. The point is not that the ungrateful literally cannot not talk or see or hear, but that they miss the speech, the vision, the sound of life. It’s like seeing children play and not perceiving their joy. It’s like the speech of a sold-out politician that is full of focus-group approved rhetoric and empty of actual meaning. It’s like the character in a Carl Hiassen novel who finds a pristine coastal shore and can only see it as an opportunity to create a golf course.

The dynamic of “wrath,” then, may be understood as the process of people pursuing life without gratitude—and then experiencing life as without joy, solidarity, and love. Then God’s revelation of healing mercy is seen as a revelation of brokenness, “wrath” instead of genuine, restorative justice.

A disposition of thanksgiving

Everything follows from the basic stance: gratitude or ingratitude? When human beings do not give thanks, they enter on a deadly dynamic that Paul presents with an arresting picture of a spiral down—experiencing God’s justice as wrath, being given up to the worship of lifeless idols, culminating in lives of self-destructive lust, injustice, murder, and heartlessness. And at the end, worst of all, the ungrateful actually applaud the injustice and murder. Think of the honor people such as Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney get. This is the story of one empire after another, including our present one.

What does it mean to “give thanks to God”? I think the operative word here is “thanks” much more than “God.” A friend of ours who worked as a hospice nurse talked once about what she saw as she accompanied people on their final journey. She noted major contrasts in how people faced death—some serene, thankful, often surrounded by love. Others fearful, bitter, lonely even with people close at hand. What she perceived, though, was that there was little if any connection between their formal religiosity or stated theology and how their lives ended. More fundamental, it would seem, than formal religiosity is this sense of gratitude.

This fits with the picture of God in the Bible. God is not an autonomous being to be honored as such, as if we love God in isolation. To love God, one must love one’s neighbor. In fact, it seems that to love the neighbor even in ignorance of God is still to love God. That’s what Jesus implies in his famous parable of the sheep and goats. When you cared for the least of these who are members of my family, even without thinking of me, you still did it to me (Mt 25:40).

When Jesus is asked about eternal life his response is the call to love God and neighbor. “On this hang all the law and prophets.” And when he is asked to elaborate, he zeroes in on loving the neighbor, telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The story not only emphasizes how closely connected loving God and loving neighbor are, but it gives an expansive definition of neighbor. “Neighbor” includes even the enemy. Paul, later in Romans, repeats Jesus’s statement. He takes it for granted that love of God is the grounding for the law and prophets, and he only mentions love of neighbor, “the fulfilling of the law” (13:10). And the first letter of John expresses it this way: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4:12).

All this is to say, there is no love of God without love of neighbor. The centrality of honoring God and giving thanks to God actually points to the centrality of loving the neighbor, and this will become clearer as the book of Romans proceeds. Paul’s statement in Romans 13 about the law being summed up in love of neighbor is not an add-on kind of comment but it turns out to be the culmination of his argument in the entire book.

The spiral into idolatry

So, when there is no gratitude there is no honoring of God. And, crucially, neighbor love falls by the wayside. What results, Paul states here, is a spiral into idolatry. Paul defines idolatry as worshiping “the creature rather than the Creator” (1:25). What we will learn, though, is that this worship is ethical more than religious. This worship is not about what formal religion we belong to. Paul will make it clear in chapter two that formal religion is actually itself often an idol and a source of violence.

How do we know we are not worshiping idols? When we love our neighbors. How do we know when idolatry is happening? When we value some cause or some ideology or some institution or some purpose or some mission or some identity more than the actual neighbors in our lives. Think of politicians on the state level in the US who refuse federal money to help poor people gain access to medical care—a political ideology trumps reducing suffering.

Another way to talk about how idolatry works is to evoke Martin Buber’s imagery in his book, I and Thou. Buber talks about two ways of being in the world: the I-It way where people and things are tools or instruments, impersonal and functional. And the I-Thou way that is the way of relationship, connection with meaning and purpose, knowing and being known. However, he does not say we must either live in one world or the other. All of us necessarily do live in the I-It world. We can’t have a meaningful I-Thou relationship with most people we encounter in our workaday lives. Those relationships are strictly functional—though any of them may include an I-Thou element as well. But the tragedy is when all we live in is the I-It world. And this is all too common. Everything is commodified, everything is a means, there is no genuine relationality. This is life under the sway of idolatry. This is life lived without gratitude. This is life where God’s justice is perceived as wrath.

The spiral Paul describes in Romans one could be seen precisely as a spiral toward increasingly commodifying people and nature. In our day, it’s the iron cage that Max Weber, the founder of the discipline of sociology perceived well over 100 years ago. Everything has a price; everything is seen in economic terms. More and more all the time, with disastrous consequences.

Commodifying sex and spiraling injustice

Paul highlights sexual dynamics, a theme we could talk about in our present world as well. The picture Paul paints is one of love reduced to soulless sex, sex as lust and self-gratification, sex as something to buy and sell, without restraint or awareness of one’s partner as a Thou. It’s important to read Paul’s words in the context of the Roman Empire where he lived and which he critiques in this chapter. The idolatry Paul cares most about here demands empire loyalty above all else. It’s the idolatry that leads to the kind of darkness of mind that led Roman governor Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. When Paul alludes to “degrading passions and out of control actions” here, his readers in Rome would have immediately thought of their emperors—Nero, Caligula—famous for orgies and almost infinite sexual violence and exploitation.

The problem with the “degrading passions” is that they deny the call to love the neighbor. These kinds of “passions” are wrong not because they are passionate but because they are degrading. They lead to the dehumanizing attitudes and actions that Paul lists: envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, slander, arrogance, heartlessness, and ruthlessness. That is, political communities go wrong when they deny the centrality of neighbor love. Too often, states are fueled by the myth of scarcity that assumes you must sacrifice some for the welfare of others. Empires are fueled by the myth of redemptive violence that assumes that you must kill and prepare to kill in order to be secure. Empires are allergic to gratitude toward God, for life, for all life, that recognizes God’s decisive revelation as being about healing justice not wrath.

We need to notice, though, that Paul’s rhetoric here, especially at the end of chapter 1, is excessive. If Paul presented this as a sermon, he’d be laying it on really thick and getting his audience riled up by now. He aims for an emotional response as he comes to the end of his indictment of the idolatry of Rome. He brings up things he knows his audience would shout Amen! about. The sexual excesses of the emperors and their entourage are disgusting. But as we Christians read this now, we must take great care. We must understand Paul’s rhetorical strategy.

Paul is not concerned about sex here. Paul is concerned about the failure to practice neighbor love. It’s the injustice and heartlessness that marks the behavior he alludes to as idolatrous—not that it’s about sex. That is, present-day Christians fall into the trap Paul sets for his first audience when we use Romans one as our main biblical reasons to discriminate against LGBTQ people. It’s a terrible tragedy when Paul’s indictment of the failure to love the neighbor becomes instead a justification for failure to love the neighbor.

What to learn from Paul’s agenda in Romans 1

Let me conclude by making two points about Romans one. First, I think Paul’s words here are a challenge to us who live in the United States in the 21st century. Our empire also demands a kind of worship. Perhaps the demand is not as blatant as back then. We don’t literally think of our empire’s leader as a god. But so much happens here—be it foreign policy, criminal justice policy, corporate personhood ideologies, environmental policies, and on and on—that negates love of neighbor and love of creation. Paul gives us a powerful tool for discernment. How do we know when we verge toward idolatry? Don’t be fooled when things are couched in Christian language. When the effect of the policy is to negate neighbor love, those who do live in gratitude toward God should be alerted, even if the negation is done in God’s name.

And the second point. Paul sets a trap in Romans 1 that will only be sprung in the next chapter. As Paul’s readers get enthusiastic about his critiques of the empire and its sexual degradation, he sets them up for a shock. You know, he will say, when you point a finger at someone else, you are, at the same time, pointing three back at yourself. In your judgment toward others, you do the same damn thing they do. You fail to love your neighbor. Paul works his readers up so he can extend his analysis of idolatry: You make an idol of purity, he will state. “You condemn yourself, because you, the judge, do the very same things [you condemn]” (2:1).

However, we will have to wait until our next blog post, on chapter two, to see the terrible irony. Using Romans one to hurt gay people is precisely the opposite of what Paul had in mind with what he wrote. We’ll link “How empires go wrong” with “How faith communities go wrong.” This is the takeaway from Romans one with which I want to finish: In a world full of idols, in a world full of principalities and powers that seek to separate humanity from God, that seek to separate humanity from life, there is a simple antidote: The gospel is the power of God for healing. Its message may be boiled down to one thing: “Love your neighbor.” To love your neighbor is always an act that honors and gives thanks to God. And, any value or commitment that violates that love is an idol.

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

One thought on “How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]

  1. Dear Ted,bA courageous effort on you part to undertake this project. In letters to editor in Anabaptist World News, often see reference by writers in condemnation of LGBTQ, using Romans to undergird their remarks. I for one will follow this carefully and see how you may come out in comparison with N.T. Wright and Paul and the Faithfulness of God. And I know wherefore of what you speak in terms of three fingers pointing back, so witholding all judgment no pointing finger from any text until you make your final analysis of Romans. Thank you for many good insights along similar lines I shared with a Methodist Pastor last week(retired) along those same fracture lines, that Romans is a commentary rather on sexual practices growing out of an idolatrous society and little value on human life. I would say with you in all caps, Don’t condemn our LBGQT community without context of the outlandish orgies of Ancient Roman Society. Context, context and context. Thank you for letting me get this off my chest. Donovan

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