Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.
The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.
That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).
The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.
The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?