Revisiting Paul’s Letter to the Romans: My Journey With Justice Inside and Outside of the Church

I was recently asked why my focus on justice. What do I mean by this word or idea playing a pivotal role in my own journey, something I find myself coming back to at certain intersections of thought and belief (or perhaps hoped for transformation, to give that a more positive angle). One of the reasons I’ve been so intentionally focused on Romans is because I’ve been trying to articulate better, at the very least for myself, where my questions about justice stemmed from and how such questions played into my own formation both as a human and as a Christian. In truth, so much hinged on this question personally and communally, as this small word, and my growing convictions about what it means, has cost me genuine friendships, the freedom to occupy space in the Church, and even the freedom to occupy space in the world. It carries that much weight. What I beileve, or what I can believe about God, humanity and this world seems to hinge on it.

Some context: Once upon a time I decided to move from the evangelical context that had formed my upbrnging (a mix of pentecostal/alliance/non-denominaiton traditions) into being a card carrying member of the mass exodus into Reformed Theology/Practice. The reason for this initially stemmed, for me, from a desire to locate a more intellectually rigorous and bookish Christian faith. The Reformed community held a lot of appeal in thiis regard, being a people “of the book”, having a seemingly endless barage of writing on “the book”, and standing on a general commitment to articulating “right theology”. So I joined, I read (and read some more), and I became a walking, talking apologetic for the “true” Gospel. That this came at the exclusion of others was not immediately apparent to me beyond the ways the community, its writings, and its teachers set me in contest with nearly everything in the name of “protecting” the true Gospel from all the apparent heresies eroding the Church. This was played with an intellectual superiority that blended nicely with those Reformed tenants defining God’s elective purposes in terms that create necessary insiders and outsiders driven by God’s fever pitched intention to give salvation freely through a given faith in Christ rather than by works of the law. This is how my well fostered anxiety over assurance of my salvation; that being how I can I know I am saved from God’s wrath directed at me in my depravity, was allieviated.

But then it all hit a wall when I decided to ask a question from scripture. I put myelf in the shoes of Paul’s interloceter in Romans (an imagined opponent used to ask questions of Paul) and wondered “why does God blame us if we are unable to resist his will (Romans 9:19).” This question comes in response to Paul quoting from the scroll of Exodus saying “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:14).” This of course, in common Reformed interpretations, is heard to speak to the act of divine election and predestination to either salvation or judgment for the sole purpose of declaring God’s glory. This of course informed the respoonse given to me, echoing the sentiments of the interloceter (What shall we say then? Is God unjust?”), Paul’s reponse (Not at all), and the accompanying charge (who are you, o (hu)man, to talk back to God).

In other words, sure, ask the question, but heed the “word” lest you get drawn into heresy.

So then I asked another question. What if I side with where Paul begins this whole debate in 9:3, to say “I wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers…” Or similarly with Moses when he says to God “But now, if you will only forgive their sin- but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (Ex 32:32). In other words, if God chooses some to salvation and others to eternal judgment, and further if God chooses those to eternal judgment for the sake of the saved (so that they can be saved), where then does that leave me in light of my own faith, especially when i try to pair that with scripture that calls me to love without condition? The further response that I got was- this is why its all about God’s glory and our total depravity. God does what God does for no other reason than to glorify Himself, and we are all simply the means to that end. Worthless worms declared worthy on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness, God’s glory manifested in human form.

Turns out that there is a fine line in Reformed Theology between the questioning and the heresy. It wasn’t long before I was being accused of Ephesians 5:10, being the one who sows division and throwing others into confusion regarding the plain and true Gospel and therefore counted among those who are judged to eternal damnation (a judgement that was made of me and at the same time not made, even to the point where I was called the literal Devil; all judgment is after all given to God alone for His good purposes. Its surpsing though how these judgments were, in my experience, used to make very clear distinctions about who or what is in and who or what is out. If its not about assurance of my salvation then it turns out such judgments and views of justice are left to be quite troublesome ideologies). Even then I still believed in God, and if God did exist then I still felt compelled to begin where Paul and Moses begin. And yet I was haunted by the question of how, if my life was more destructive than good, as others were saying at the time, I can truly justify (using the Reformed sense of the word) my existence?

Fast forward and this view of justice, or perhaps the inability to freely question it more so, has led me away from the church and the faith. And yet here I found myself faced with a conundrum. What I found in a world where God did not exist was something slightly different and yet frighteningly similar. Where God does not exist moral systems must be created in its (or His or Her) absence. And in truth, these moral systems tended to be built using the same kind of problematic terms of justice to create insiders and outsiders. Only instead of proclaiming total depravity it proclaimed a version of the sin-necessary punishment paradigm that upheld an evolutionary narrative of the righteous and unrighteous (again, using Reformed defintions of these terms). Salvation was the survival and “progress” (morally and technically) of the human race, and no matter how “good” these sytems were proclaimed to be dig a little and you uncover the same basic message- if you are not beneficial to the end game then you need to be cast out. It is, after all, the name of the game. At least in Christianity my depravity and ultimate worthlessness appeared to serve God’s glory, although I’m not sure that was entirely comforting. And this was my experience living in a world where God did not exist. Justice was measured using the same judicial terms (just like Reformed theology) where due punishment is somehow seen as satisfying a wrong doing in our efforts to create a world that we see as good. Only it does so purely in what Reformed theology would call a “works” based moral system (ironically so).

The problem is this way of thinking translates into all facets of life determining who is in and who is out in social and moral terms. And this is a problem because the judicial system is not a moral one. All kinds of problematic things happen though when we translate that into actual systems of morality, or actual moral concern. When I challenged friends (questioned) within this worldview about how we square this with our elemental nature (as in, how can you hold me responsible if nature defines my sense of the will and determines my actions) I faced the same response that I got from the Reformed community, only without the aid of Paul’s beginning sentiment to fall back on. To challenge judgments of others was tantamount to binding myself to the devil, and that made me an unjust person in the eyes of the world. And what was more ineresting at the time was that the most rational positions I could find in a world where God did not exist led me to believe that if I cause more destruction than good in the endgame of humanities survival, then it was not only better off that I ceased to exist, it was better off that I never existed at all. Any argumements that attempted to appeal to something otherwise were bringing in irrational claims that operated contrary to the nature that we can observe in non-human and human activity. They appealed to illusions as a means of meaning-making within this construct of justice that strips us of meaning if we don’t belong or measure up (and even the best meaning-making exercises reveal this to be true when set to the fire of our questions; meaning making in the world depends and operates on insiders and outsiders whether we see it or not; we are good based on there being someone worse than us that we can hold up as the measure of our assurance). Even more so, something my firends refused to admit, such means of circumventing this basic reality more often than not appealed to religious terms and ideas in order to create this meaning. Thus my conundrum was, I could not beieve in God because of this justice question, and this is where justice in the world leads me. Thus my only conclusion was that, rationally speaking, it was best if I did not exist.

Fast foward again: I have found my way back into faith based on this same question of jusice. I’ll leave this to another post, but let me simply say here that it was in engaging the ways in which Christ challenges our notions and definitions of justice that allowed me to really see how Christ challenges our assumptions about how justice must work. One of the things that had bothered me about Reformed Theology is that I always assumed, becuase I was always taught, that its view of God’s justice was what set it apart from the world. And yet by definition it looked no different. Thus I could read scripture on those terms and simply be inserting God where otherwise it would be nature and come away with the same story. Only now God is implicated by the questions that arise from this view of justice, which is why I walked away from faith (and subsequently the world). What I encountered in coming back to faith was a definition of justice that was able to speak something different into the mix. To challenge the narrative in the church and in the world with a better one. Which is what I’m reengaging with my current journey through Romans. What if we have read Romans foward with the wrong narrative in mind? What if by reading it backwards the central concern for collapsing these insider/outsider boundaries that we have reinstated based on defintions of moral “righteousness” can come to light? What if we rush to hear the words of 9:14 (I will have mercy on who I will have mercy) in light of God’s judgment of the outsiders rather than as the call of the faithful to heed God’s desire for all? What if we fail to hear the stories of Jacob and Esau/Sarai and Hagar mentioned in Romans 9 in light of God’s challenging of exclusive claims to to salvation at the exclusion of others based on God’s circumventing such human appeals to justice in those very stories? What if the whole point of chapter 9 is wrapped up in the phrase “all the earth” (9:17) not as an appeal to God’s divine plan of election to salvation but election for the salvation of the world by way of a different definition of justice?

What if our tendency to spiritualize, individualize, and internalize all of these terms in Romans as all of the Reformed writings I read did has missed the narrative Paul is writing in his Gospel as a movement from the community to the cosmic to the renewed cosmos/community in the here and now, with an emphasis on what it means to live as an individual within this new reality as a collective people. What if that is the concern for the divided community Paul is speaking to, not of a ‘believing faith” concerned with knowledge of the facts about the true gospel, but a way of obedient faith to the way of Christ in a world operating according to a particular view of justice? What if our efforts to see in Romans a seperation of justification and sanctification as two different activities and notions based on the gift of a believing faith and moral righteousness has caused us to miss how Paul sees the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant promise as the measure of the way. What if this is the same faithfulness that we are called to follow in based on justification and righteousness as terms belonging to covenant renewal (vocation and imaging terms) in the here and now? I know learning to see this changed my own perspective of God, humanity and this world. I know this commitment to a different kind of justice still deems me a heretic in the church and outside of it, but I also know where appeals to this other form of justice that we find in and outside of the church leaves me. However I grow in my understanding of justice from here I know what my experience was in those terms.

I needed a better narrative. I thank God every day that I was given one, even as I know God is constantly reshaping that within me at the same time. At least thats my prayer.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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