Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]

Ted Grimsrud—April 4, 2022

One of the most beautiful road trips my wife Kathleen and I have ever taken had us driving through the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We spent the night in the village of Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. The forest certainly has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, snowy mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

The whole Bible as a peace book

This experience comes to mind as I think about Romans four. A lot of Christians, maybe especially those attracted to peace theology, are suspicious of the Old Testament. And suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy: The Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. Such a spot may redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. However, I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip driving back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise, the whole Bible has great beauty.

Romans four is a text that helps us to see the Bible in this way. I don’t want to deny that the Bible has a few spots that are irreparably foggy scattered around. Basically, though, I believe that the overall message is about mercy all the way down from the very start. The Bible tells an empowering story throughout. We may embrace its message of peace, restorative justice, compassion, and healing. The key figure in Romans four is Abraham, the great patriarch, considered to be the spiritual ancestor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

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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).

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