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).