How faith communities go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 3; 2:1-29) [Peaceable Romans #10]

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).

Circumcision also plays a major role in Romans 2. Let’s read a condensed version of that passage. What associations does circumcision have for you?

When you are judgmental toward others, you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, tend to do the very same things. Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do unjust things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?God will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing justice seek for shalom, God will give eternal life; while for those who obey not the truth but injustice, there will be wrath.

It is not the hearers of the law who are just in God’s sight, but the doers of the law. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do naturally what the law requires, they show that the law’s expectations are written on their hearts. But if you call yourself a Jewish Christian and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God,and if you are sure that you are a light to those who are in darkness, having in the law all knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against violence, do you act violently? You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are physically uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Such law-keepers will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not physical. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:1-29)

In my view, circumcision is at best an ambivalent act and an ambivalent metaphor. It conveys important truths about faith and witness and identity, and it serves as a symbol for much that is problematic in religious communities. On the one hand, the ritual itself seems exclusive and patriarchal. It leaves out an entire gender. It is also violent toward children. Because it is an obvious, external marker, it works well as a basis for boundary maintenance, for determining who is in and who is out. As such, circumcision can become an occasion for what Paul calls “boasting,” taking pride in one’s insider status that is enhanced by having “outsiders” to look down upon. On the other hand, though, more positively, the ritual of circumcision plays a crucial role in the sustenance of the biblical faith community. It can help the community maintain its identity and sustain its call to bless all the families of the earth.

I am interested, in these posts, in thinking about the book of Romans as a radically peace-oriented text. Paul’s theological reflections center on a concern that followers of Jesus at the heart of the Roman Empire must stand for genuine justice, for genuine peace, for genuine salvation, for genuine security. Paul poses Jesus and Caesar as two opposing sources for these things. As I think about Romans in this light, I am struck with the sense that the history of circumcision—at least, the history of circumcision when it works as it is intended by God—is a history of resisting empire. Circumcision was a clear way for believers to say, to remember, we are different. We are not simply a citizen of empire. We have a different calling, different loyalty, different identity. Circumcision could help the faith community focus on blessing and shalom and healing justice.

The basic idea, and we see this in Paul’s words in Romans 2, is that “circumcision is of value if you obey the law.” Paul makes clear later in Romans that he agrees with Jesus. He defines what it means to “obey the law”—love your neighbor as yourself (13:8-10). So, circumcision (or, I want to suggest, any religious ritual or practice or doctrine or expectation) is of value if it helps us to love our neighbors. When authentic, these practices symbolize this call.

The dark side of circumcision

At the same time, circumcision also symbolizes how faith communities go bad. They go bad when they make the practices legalistic and make the practices boundary markers that separate them from outsiders in ways that become rigid and lead to violence when those boundaries must be defended. So, circumcision can be something life giving or not. It can symbolize why faith communities have such a positive role to play in the world. It can show how important sustaining a sense of identity and vocation are for empowering people of faith to be agents for healing in the world. Or it can symbolize how faith communities can practice sacred violence, “boasting,” and hurtful Othering.

Maybe we could see some parallels between circumcision and the American flag. I have a close friend who was teaching at a peace church college when the September 11, 2001, attacks happened. To the chagrin of many of his colleagues, my friend put a picture of the American flag on his office door in the immediate aftermath. He wanted to express solidarity with those who lost their lives, especially the first response emergency workers. He also wanted to evoke the best in the American tradition—democratic values, generosity toward those in need, providing a welcome for the world’s “tired, hungry, and poor.” The American flag can be an inspiration to seek peace and pursue justice. Within a few days, though, my friend took his flag picture down. The sense of the symbol changed. President Bush ordered immediate war on Afghanistan. The flag became a call to arms. The flag became a symbol for violent revenge to be visited on a poverty-stricken, defenseless people halfway across the world.

Likewise, circumcision can symbolize a kind of sacred violence against those who threaten the purity of the community. Circumcision can symbolize a sense of superiority and arrogance about being part of the one people of God who will stand victorious over all the heathen and unbelievers. All too often, maybe not evoking circumcision but some other practice or doctrine, Christians hypocritically condemn another faith. Just the other day on Facebook, a friend wrote about how different Christianity is from Islam. Islam is violent and terrorist; Christianity is peaceable, he wrote. As if our “Christian” empire is not profoundly violent! Still, circumcision can symbolize the call to bless instead of curse, the call to welcome instead of judge, the call to serve rather than lord it over.

The anti-Empire story in the Bible

The Bible as a whole can be seen as a story about resisting Empire. In the exodus, when the Egyptian Empire under the God-king Pharaoh sought to crush the enslaved Hebrews, God liberated the slaves. God gave the liberated slaves the law codes, including an emphasis on circumcision, to empower a way of life that would be a witness against Empire. Circumcision meant: We are different from those that enslave and oppress. Circumcision helps us remember that; it helps us remember, as the law code stated: “You shall love the aliens, the strangers, the immigrants, in your midst; they shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love them as yourselves, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34).

Israel’s prophets also gave this kind of call. Live as a counterculture that critiques Empire and offer a positive alternative to the ways of Empire. And the same call stands at the center of Jesus’s message: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:42-43).

In Romans 1 Paul critiques the ways of empire, the lust and injustice, the spiral of violence that follows from refusing to live in gratitude and from trusting in human creations (such as nation states) instead of God. Partly, though, Paul, along with his heartfelt critique and warning—do not trust in Rome or any other empire, also sets his readers up. Yes, his critique is genuine. But also, he uses such strong language in describing Rome, and evokes such disgust at the out-of-control lust of the Roman elite, in order to get his readers to nod their heads in emphatic agreement.

A critique of the injustice of faith communities

However, Paul then drops the other shoe at the beginning of chapter 2: “You too, insofar as you are judgmental toward others while engaged in your own forms of injustice and idolatry, are just as bad.” Talk about taking the wind out of the sails of the emphatic nodding! Paul has in mind his own past life where he resisted Empire by enforcing strict purity in his own religious community. But he did so through violence toward the new community of followers of Jesus. In the name of obeying God, and in the name of resisting Empire—resisting Jewish acculturation to Roman culture—Paul had himself been filled with every kind of injustice, malice and ruthlessness (just like the Roman elite).

Faith communities can (and do) indeed go bad by not resisting Empire. They can believe too uncritically in the ultimate rightness and indispensability of their own nation-states. But Paul now says, they also can go wrong in the opposite direction, in how they try to resist Empire. They can mirror the Empire they hate and become just like it. Paul despised Rome and feared his Jewish community being absorbed into that culture. So, he fought, hard, zealously, using death-dealing violence, to protect the boundaries. His words at the beginning of Romans 2 describe himself in his zealot days: “In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.”

So, faith communities should resist Empire. As we resist, our rituals, doctrines, and other practices can be crucial. They can help the community retain a sense of identity that is different from the Empire, different from our surrounding society insofar as it is not committed to genuine shalom for all people. The practices, often expressed when the community gathers to worship and when the community articulates its expectations of its members, can remind us of what matters most. As Paul writes here in Romans 2, circumcision is of value when it helps one obey the law (of love the neighbor). Likewise—to mention only Christian rituals—with communion, with baptism, with sermons, with confessions of faith, with communal singing, with potlucks.

Where faith communities go bad, though, is when the practices, the distinctives, the rituals do not serve the ultimate calling—to bless, to love, to welcome, to heal all the families of the earth. It is too easy for these practices to be ends in themselves. Communion and baptism can become self-contained ways for the individual to get right with God, regardless of the life that accompanies them. Confessions of faith become ways to enforce conformity and exclude dissent. Even worship music can become simply a performance or an exercise of the elite that reinforces a sense of separation not a sense of participation.

Circumcision—a curse or a blessing?

Paul’s comments about circumcision get right to the heart of the matter. Circumcision (or any other religious practice) can become a curse if you think it in itself is what connects you with God. “If you break the law, if you practice injustice, if you refuse to love your neighbor, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision,” Paul insists. He evokes the sharp words of the prophet Amos—when you go to your worship services while you practice injustice, you sin, that worship becomes blasphemy. Take communion while distaining your sister or brother and it’s an act of rebellion against God, not an act of obedience.

Note, too, the other side. There are those who are not physically circumcised but who follow the law, who do love their neighbors, who do resist Empire in healing ways. These actually are circumcised in the way that matters. They have circumcised hearts. Praise God for such people. We probably all know people such as my friend from years ago named Bob. Bob was an agnostic, religiously unaffiliated. We had a great study group together, reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Bob was a humanist—not a theist. But he gave his life to serving the poor in our community through the local free clinic. Talk about a circumcised heart!

Still, the faith communities are important. That is what I think Paul teaches in Romans. Empire must be resisted, and the faith community is a crucial place where this can happen. Rituals. Worship. Teaching. Encouragement. Friendship. Communal prayer. All these practices are meant to be powerful tools for resisting Empire. They can be a constant reminder of where our loyalty lies. In the imagery of Revelation, our loyalty belongs to New Jerusalem, not to Babylon. Even more, to focus on the positive, these practices are meant to be powerful tools that manifest on earth here and now something of New Jerusalem, something of the fullness of human life as it is meant to be. These practices are meant to remind us of the greatest commandment—love the Lord your God with all your heart—and the second commandment that links inextricably with the first—love your neighbor as yourself.

Faith communities go bad when their special practices echo what Paul says can happen with circumcision: “If you break the law, if you don’t love your neighbor, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (2:26). Keep the priorities straight, and the faith communities’ practices will serve life.

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s