How empires go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 1

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 16, 2014—Romans 1:16-32

The Apostle Paul was a pretty passionate and opinionated guy. He was also a pretty deep thinker. I have come to conclude that he’s a friend of peacemakers, a friend of justice-seekers. Of course, not everyone agrees….

I argue for a peaceable Paul in these sermons on Romans. Today is the second of maybe sixteen I will do over the next couple of years. A big hurdle in understanding Paul peaceably is today’s passage—the second half of Romans, chapter one.

Before I make my case on Paul’s behalf, I want to read the verses—a bit of a condensed version. As I read, listen and think of a word or two you can share about how Paul’s thoughts here strike you.

I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful. In it the justice of God is revealed; as it is written, “The one who is just will live by trust.” At the same time, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.

What can be known about God is plain to all people, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s divine nature has been understood and seen through the things God has made. Unjust people are without excuse; for though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God. They become futile in their thinking, and their minds are darkened. Though they claim to be wise, they become fools. They exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 

Hence, God allows them follow the lusts of their hearts and degrade their bodies among themselves, because they exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. For this reason God gives them up to degrading passions and out of control actions. Since they do not see fit to acknowledge God, God allows them to follow their self-selected path leading to debased minds and to things that should not be done. They are filled with every kind of injustice, evil, covetousness, malice. They live lives full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, slander, arrogance, heartlessness, and ruthlessness. They do know God’s just expectations, that those who practice such injustice will suffer consequences—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. [Romans 1:16-32]

So, what’s your first response, in a word or two?

Revelation from God: Salvation or wrath?

Paul begins to develop the argument of his letter with a contrast. God’s justice has been revealed to the world, which is the power of salvation for all who trust in it. But this very same revelation is perceived as “wrath” by those who “suppress the truth.”

What does he say here? I think one thing he does not mean to say is that you are either part of the Christian religion or else God is angry at you and will condemn you to hell. It’s not about religion here; it’s about how we see.

Paul will make it clear later that the problem is just as likely to be present among professing Christians as any other kind of religious (or non-religious) group. It’s a problem of basic trust—do we trust in love or do we trust in some kind of human creation—A national identity? A religious identity? A professional identity? Our own ability to create a sense of security or superiority or specialness? Do we trust in any identity that claims a status that puts us over the particular neighbors we live next to who are different than we are? If we do, we have a problem.

Paul couches his concerns in terms of God—but it’s crucial that we try to get a sense of what he means by God, what he means by trusting God. I think one key clue here in this chapter comes at 1:21. Paul says those who experience the revelation of God’s salvation as wrath have no excuse when they do so. This is because the reality of God and of what God wants from human beings have been “understood and seen through the things God has made” (1:20).

The big issue is gratitude

Paul states the problem like this: “Though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God” (1:21). That is, they do not experience life with a sense of gratitude. They do not realize that life itself is a gift from God—not to mention all the great things we experience as living creatures: love, joy, meaning, community, purpose, pleasure, and so many others. When, at the center of our hearts we do not experience life with a sense of gratitude, we set ourselves on a path of emptiness and, as Paul goes on to describe here in Romans one, a path of self-destruction. To experience God’s revelation as “wrath” is not to receive direct, angry punishment from God. Rather, it is simply to experience the consequences of how God respects out choices. God allows them to follow the path they choose—God is not a controller.

Paul here echoes Psalm 115. The idols people create end up defining those who trust in them: with mouths that do not speak, eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, noses that do not smell, hands that do not feel, feet that do not walk, and throats that make no sound. The point is not that the ungrateful literally cannot not talk or see or hear, but that they miss the speech, the vision, the sound of life.

It’s like seeing children play and not perceiving their joy. It’s like the speech of a sold-out politician that is full of focus-group approved rhetoric and empty of actual meaning. It’s like the character in a Carl Hiassen novel who finds a pristine coastal shore and can only see it as an opportunity to create a golf course.

Everything follows from this basic stance—gratitude or ingratitude. When human beings do not give thanks, they enter on a deadly dynamic that Paul presents with an arresting picture of a spiral down—experiencing God’s justice as wrath, being given up to the worship of lifeless idols, culminating in lives of self-destructive lust, injustice, murder, and heartlessness. And at the end, worst of all, the ungrateful actually applaud the injustice and murder—think of the honor people such as Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney get. This is the story of one empire after another, including our present one.

The God that we thank

What does it mean to “give thanks to God”? I think the operative word here is “thanks” much more than “God.” A friend of ours who worked as a hospice nurse talked once about what she saw as she accompanied people on their final journey. Major contrasts in how people faced death—some serene, thankful, often surrounded by love. Others fearful, bitter, lonely even with people close at hand. What she noted, though, was that there was little if any connection that she could see between their formal religiosity or stated theology and how their lives ended. More fundamental, it would seem, than formal religiosity is this sense of gratitude.

This fits with the picture of God in the New Testament. God is not an autonomous being to be honored as such, as if we love God in isolation—no, to love God one must love one’s neighbor. In fact, it seems that to love the neighbor even in ignorance of God is still to love God—that’s what Jesus implies in his famous parable of the sheep and goats. When you cared for the least of these who are members of my family, even without thinking of me, you still did it to me (Mt 25:40).

When Jesus is asked about eternal life his response is the call to love God and neighbor. “On this hangs all the law and prophets.” And when he is asked to elaborate, he zeroes in on loving the neighbor, telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The story not only emphasizes how closely connected loving God and loving neighbor are, but it gives an expansive definition of neighbor—“neighbor” includes even the enemy.

Paul, later in Romans, repeats Jesus’s statement—he takes it for granted that love of God is the grounding for the law and prophets, and he only mentions love of neighbor, “the fulfilling of the law” (13:10).

And the first letter of John expresses it this way: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4:12).

All this is to say, there is no love of God without love of neighbor. The centrality of honoring God and giving thanks to God actually points to the centrality of loving the neighbor—and this will become more clear as the book of Romans proceeds. Paul’s statement in Romans 13 about the law being summed up in love of neighbor is not an add-on kind of comment but it turns out to be the culmination of his argument in the entire book.

So, when there is no gratitude there is no honoring of God. And, crucially, neighbor love falls by the wayside. What results, Paul states here, is a spiral into idolatry. Paul defines idolatry as worshiping “the creature rather than the Creator” (1:25). What we will learn, though, is that this worship is ethical more than religious. This worship is not about what formal religion we belong to. Paul will make it clear in chapter two that formal religion is actually itself often an idol and a source of violence.

The key test for idolatry

How do we know we are not worshiping idols? When we love our neighbors. How do we know when idolatry is happening? When we value some cause or some ideology or some institution or some purpose or some mission or some identity more than the actual neighbors in our lives. Think of state politicians who refuse federal money to help poor people gain access to medical care—a political ideology trumps reducing suffering.

Another way to talk about how idolatry works is to evoke the imagery that Martin Buber uses in his wonderful book, I and Thou. Buber talks about two ways of being in the world: the I-It way where people and things are simply tools or instruments, impersonal and functional. And the I-Thou way that is the way of relationship, connection with meaning and purpose, knowing and being known.

However, he does not say we must either live in one world or the other. All of us necessarily do live in the I-It world. We can’t have a meaningful I-Thou relationship with, say, the toll-taker on the Pennsylvania Turnpike—or most other people we encounter in our workaday lives. But the tragedy is when all we live in is the I-It world. And this is all too common. Everything is commodified, everything is a means, there is no genuine relationality. This is life under the sway of idolatry. This is life lived without gratitude. This is life where God’s justice is perceived as wrath.

The spiral Paul describes in Romans one could be seen precisely as a spiral toward increasingly commodifying people and nature. In our day, it’s the iron cage that Max Weber, the founder of the discipline of sociology perceived well over 100 years ago. Everything has a price; everything is seen in economic terms. More and more all the time—with disastrous consequences.

Paul highlights sexual dynamics—a theme we could talk about in our present world as well. The picture Paul paints is one of love as sex, sex as lust and self-gratification, sex as something to buy and sell, without restraint or awareness of one’s partner as a Thou.

It’s important to read Paul’s words in the context of the Roman Empire where he lived and which he critiques in this chapter. The idolatry Paul cares most about here demands empire loyalty above all else. It’s the idolatry that leads to the kind of darkness of mind that led Roman governor Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. When Paul alludes to “degrading passions and out of control actions” here, his readers in Rome would have immediately thought of their emperors—Nero, Caligula—famous for orgies and almost infinite sexual violence and exploitation.

The problem with the “degrading passions” is that they deny the call to love the neighbor. These kind of “passions” are wrong not because they are passionate but because they are degrading. They lead to dehumanizing and vicious attitudes and actions that Paul then lists: envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, slander, arrogance, heartlessness, and ruthlessness.

That is, finally to get to the title of this sermon—empires go wrong when they deny the centrality of neighbor love. Empires are fueled by the myth of scarcity that assumes you must sacrifice some for the welfare of others. Empires are fueled by the myth of redemptive violence that assumes that you must kill and prepare to kill in order to be secure. Empires are allergic to gratitude toward God, the gratitude for life, for all life, that recognizes God’s decisive revelation as being about healing justice not wrath.

Paul’s “excessive” rhetoric

We need to notice, though, that Paul’s rhetoric here, especially at the end of chapter one, is excessive. If Paul presented this as a sermon or lecture, he’d be laying it on really thick and getting his audience riled up by now. He aims for an emotional response as he comes to the end of his indictment of the idolatry of Rome. He brings up things he knows his audience would shout Amen! about. The sexual excesses of the emperors and their entourage are disgusting. But as we Christians read this now, we must take great care. We must realize what Paul does.

Paul is not concerned about sex here. Paul is concerned about the failure to practice neighbor love. It’s the injustice and heartlessness that marks the behavior he alludes to as idolatrous—not that it’s about sex. That is, present-day Christians fall into the trap Paul sets for his first audience when we use Romans one as our main biblical reasons to discriminate against LGBTQ people. It’s a terrible tragedy when Paul’s indictment of the failure to love the neighbor becomes instead a justification for failure to love the neighbor.

Let me conclude by making two points about Romans one. First, I think Paul’s words here are a challenge to us who live in the United States in the 21st century. Our empire also demands a kind of worship. Perhaps the demand is not as blatant as back then. We don’t literally think of our empire’s leader as a god. But so much happens here—be it foreign policy, criminal justice policy, corporate personhood ideologies, environmental policies, and on and on—that negates love of neighbor and love of creation. Paul gives us a powerful tool for discernment—how do we know when we verge toward idolatry? Don’t be fooled when things are couched in Christian language. When the effect of the policy is to negate neighbor love, those who do live in gratitude toward God should be alerted, even if the negation is done in God’s name.

And the second point. Paul sets a trap in Romans one that will only be sprung in the next chapter. As Paul’s readers get enthusiastic about his critiques of the empire and its sexual degradation, he sets them up for a shock. You know, he will say, when you point a finger at someone else, you are, at the same time, pointing three back at yourself. In your judgment toward others, you do the same damn thing they do. You fail to love your neighbor. Paul works his readers up so he can extend his analysis of idolatry—you make an idol of purity, he will state. “You condemn yourself, because you, the judge, do the very same things [you condemn]” (2:1).

However, we will have to wait until our next sermon, on chapter two, to see the terrible irony. Using Romans one to hurt gay people is precisely the opposite of what Paul had in mind with what he wrote. So please come back for the next sermon. We’ll follow “How empires go wrong” with “How churches go wrong”….

This is the takeaway from Romans one with which I want to finish: In a world full of idols, in a world full of principalities and powers that seek to separate humanity from God, that seek to separate humanity from life, there is a simple antidote: The gospel is the power of God for healing—and its message may be boiled down to one thing—“love your neighbor.” To love your neighbor is always an act that honors and gives thanks to God. And, any value or commitment that violates that love is an idol. Amen.

[This is the second in a series on the book Romans. The other sermons may be read here.]

1 thought on “How empires go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 1

  1. Jub

    Hi Ted,

    As a pacifist myself, I agree with a lot of what you have written and it is helping me deepen my appreciation of the Book of Romans. Thank you for publishing these sermons.

    However, as a Biblical Universalist (disbelieving in Eternal Torment) and a non-believer in Substitutionary Atonement, I wish to share with you and your readers some questions I have about your explanation of Romans so far.

    By way of short preface, I would just explain that I believe God’s anger is His resolve to not put up with our sin forever. (I submit that such a resolution against (perceived) sin is always the root of human anger, which is why the term ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ is fittingly applied to God.) However, I reject the above-named doctrines because they have God taking vengeance in the form of post-mortem punishment and punishment on the Cross of the innocent Christ for the sins of humanity. (I dispute that these are Biblical doctrines at , along with why I believe propitiation refers to Jesus turning away humanity’s wrath toward God, and how the Greek and Hebrew of “vengeance is mine” does not corresponds to our modern English meaning of vengeance, how a Girardian understanding of sacrifice is important and other related theological issues). When God punishes it is always, in my view, disciplinary with zero vengeance component i.e. the doctrine that “God is love” precludes vengeance but requires discipline.

    With this framework, I believe I can avoid mistakes that others make in interpreting the book of Romans. I wish to submit comments to you Ted where I believe you have not been faithful to the text. My unabashed aim in doing so is to try to persuade you and your readers to consider my alternative framework. I think Mennonite Theology generally has not yet been able to be freed sufficiently from effects of the Constantinian Shift – in particular, from the pagan doctrines of Eternal Torment and other-Sacrifice.

    (Do you agree with this Ted? I ask because in your first sermon of this series you mentioned Jesus’ gospel as distinct from “the myth of redemptive violence.” I’m not sure whether you reject Substitutionary Atonement because it conforms to that myth – as I do – or whether you allow God a special privilege to redeem through use of violence.)

    Anyhow, I believe the whole Church has been secularised and the New Testament has been twisted, by incorporating these two pagan doctrines, which allowed secular authorities to get their “myth of redemptive violence” – and their desired functions in secular society – accepted by the populace. I believe Paul in Romans actually contrasts the Gospel which leads to living under grace with living with a pagan or Mosaic-Law view, which both lead to living under law. I feel that a great salvation for Church and World depends on getting the Gospel right and so I feel motivated to comment on your commentary Ted and trust God to shine His light on us all one way or another.

    So then, in this your second sermon on Romans, I’m not sure you are entitled to limit God to just ONE revelation, when you say:

    ‘God’s justice has been revealed to the world, which is the power of salvation for all who trust in it. But this very same revelation is perceived as “wrath” by those who “suppress the truth.”’

    If we jump to Rom 3:21 we see more than one revelation is indicated:

    But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law… (Rom 3:21 LITV)

    Here Paul talks about a second revelation of God’s righteousness – which is revealed “apart from Law”. The first revelation of God’s righteousness was, then, the one revealed through Law. This is what Paul has been talking about from Rom 1:18 through to Rom 3:20. Law has to do with external rules (and/or conscience), with punishments and with the anger against sin. God’s own anger against sin is revealed universally (“from heaven to all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” Rom 1:18). Paul then goes on to explain about what was so wrong with this first revelation that a second, better revelation was needed. Notice all the ‘for’s “because’s, ‘therefore’s, ‘and’s, ‘who’s, and other conjunctions between Rom 1:18 and Rom 3:20 – it is one long point about how humanity is NOT transformed for the better by first revelation (instead Humanity becomes more depraved, more condoning of violence towards others, and more self-righteous).

    At the end of this critique of the first revelation of God’s righteousness through Law, Paul comes back to the Gospel of Christ in Rom 3:21: signified by the words ‘But now’ – “But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law….”. So the text clearly, in my view, indicates not one but two revelations. Each revelation tends to highlight a different view of God. The first revelation highlights an austere, legalistic God who hates sin and punishes sinners. The second revelation highlights a joyful God who loves us and saves us. Each revelation speaks of the righteousness of God, but the second revelation transforms us into God’s likeness from the inside out.

    So, Ted, when you say,

    “I think one key clue here in this chapter comes at 1:21. Paul says those who experience the revelation of God’s SALVATION as wrath have no excuse when they do so.” (emphasis added)

    I reply that the text does not say they experience God’s SALVATION as wrath. The text links God’s wrath not with His salvation but with His righteousness. Clearly the text (Rom 1:17 & 3:21) links God’s salvation to the second revelation of His righteousness (apart from Law).

    Furthermore, why are you implying that it is just SOME people who experience God’s righteousness under the Law as horrid? Isn’t it clear teaching in Romans that EVERY human being experiences God’s righteousness under the Law as horrid (granted, some do ¬more than others)? But Law was, and is, better for human societies than lawlessness. The Law was guardian for us until the time was right for Jesus to come and bring us the possibility of living under Grace.

    A nation’s Laws are predominantly about what citizens are not allowed to do to fellow citizens (“neighbours”). Roman Law likewise was wise and judicious. Any person would intellectually agree with the necessity and goodness of law (Rom 7:16,25). That doesn’t mean we like it. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to get away with breaking it – even flagrantly if we are Roman rulers or otherwise think we can. Importantly, even keeping the Law doesn’t prove, and doesn’t produce, love-of-neighbour in us.

    Even though humanity had a clear revelation of God’s righteousness (through Law) it didn’t help us worship God, give Him thanks, reason aright, be tuned-in to reality, practice true religion, or reign in any ugly desires of our hearts. In my view, Paul is showing how when humanity doesn’t trust God, sin multiplies in all sorts of ways and things get intolerably and bewilderingly dysfunctional. All this is a normal human reaction to not being able to trust God. And the first revelation of God’s righteousness (through Law) is not able to transform humanity. Hence, God and other authorities must use negative consequences to limit the sins of humanity.

    Ted you wrote: “Paul is not concerned about sex here. Paul is concerned about the failure to practice neighbor love.”

    In my view, God is obviously concerned about many things here, including ‘bad’ sex and lack of neighbour love. But the centre of his argument is that the first revelation of God’s righteousness (through Law) is woefully inadequate to heal the sinful tendencies of human beings. (Later Paul will emphasise that the real lack in human beings is a lack of faith – and that the second revelation of God’s righteousness enables us to have faith and be transformed.)

    Lastly, Ted, I must question this:

    ‘The gospel is the power of God for healing—and its message may be boiled down to one thing—“love your neighbor.”’

    I’m sorry to say this Ted, but this strikes me as unbelievabley legalistic from a Christian preacher – and not life-giving at all. You are saying our healing lies in us being good enough to love our neighbour. That is exactly what we can’t do without the Gospel of grace – exactly what Paul demonstrates between Rom 1:18-3:20. Nowhere does Paul say the Gospel is “love your neighbour”! Even God’s law itself doesn’t say “love your neighbour” even though loving neighbour is a fulfilment of Law (Rom 13:10). God’s law is more realistic – it just sets minimum standards of not hurting our neighbours; it doesn’t say we’re to love them. The Law cannot make us good or more loving, not one iota. The Law may impel us to behave better but only out of fear of punishment.

    What is the content of the Gospel? Paul says in Rom 1:17 that the Gospel is the power of God for healing/rescue because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith! The Gospel is the revelation of how good and gracious God really is (no Eternal Misery, no other-sacrifice wanted) and how He transforms us simply as we trust in His goodness/righteousness. Jesus demonstrated it by His faith (even when experiencing unjust execution His faith did not waiver) so that we could also have God’s righteousness revealed in ourselves by faith – hence the Gospel is revealed “from faith for faith”. (Of course, the faith cannot be a mere academic belief but a trust in God’s grace that we take out into the world and act in accordance with, instead of acting in accordance to what secular society tell us is true).

    As we grow in our knowledge of God in His gracious glory (revealed through the Gospel of Jesus) we grow to love God with all our hearts. As we grow to love God with all our hearts, we grow to love all those who bear His image and are His beloved.

    Hopefully, I have misunderstood you at some points Ted, or it’s been a slip of the word processor. I’d certainly be happy to have a reply.


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