Reflections on sin: Brokenness in the world [Romans 1:18-23]

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Eugene (OR) Mennonite Church—February 24, 1991—Romans 1:18-23—Psalm 115—Amos 1—John 1

This week, as I was identifying the Bible texts for our service this morning, I have to confess that I found a kind of grim comfort in what they were saying as I thought about the war our nation is fighting right now. I think they do address us, they are words of reproof on where our society is going right now. Psalm 115 has long been one of my favorite anti-militarism texts. The weapons, the idols which those who trust in military-might worship are, as the Psalmist puts it, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear. They really have no life at all, and those who trust in them become like them. The words of Amos promise judgment on Edom, and, perhaps, on all nations who do the same. “He pursued his brother with the sword, and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually” (1:11). God promises a fire to rain down on Edom in the same manner as Edom destroyed others. And John’s statement regarding Jesus also rings true. “The true light that enlightens all people was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not” (1: 9-10). What greater evidence is there of the world not knowing the way of Jesus than warfare, than human being striving to destroy human being.

Paul’s words from Romans one fit right in. “For although people knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (1: 21-23).

Weapons of war as idols

Now, maybe our weapons of war are not idols in the sense of ancient golden calves or the like, but they are the images in which our nation at present is trusting. And the result of this trust is pure and utter futility and foolishness. I happened to turn on the TV just in time the other day to catch the Soviet announcement of the agreement reached on the peace plan formulated by the Soviet Union and Iraq. I felt a glimmer of hope, but immediately the news analysts were saying that the US would never go for it. And, of course, they were correct. We’d rather continue to spend billions of dollars, kill thousands and maybe millions of Iraqis and Kuwaitis, utterly destroy the fragile environment around the gulf where the war’s being fought, possibly irrevocably poison the political structure of the Middle East, and very likely greatly traumatize our own economy. All this so America can sltand tall, so we can finally win a war, so we can put to rest the anti-military feelings left from the Vietnam era. And supposedly more than 80% of the American people are behind our president.

The paper yesterday carried a political cartoon, which I put on our bulletin board, that I think cut through all the jingoism and antiseptic propaganda about “surgical strikes” and the like to show what is really going on in this war. A grieving mother stands in some bombed-out rubble holding a tiny form—”This collateral damage was only four years old!” she says [cartoon by Don Wright of the Palm Beach POST]….

Americans sit in our safe, comfortable world and debate this exciting “Nintendo war.” We watch the news–totally managed by the military–which completely keeps us removed from the true effects of our war-planes and our smart bombs which, after all, hit their targets at least 60% of the time. No one asks what happens to the other 40% of the bombs. No one asks what we are going to gain which could possibly be worth killing all those four-year-olds.

Paul’s harsh words don’t help that much

In Romans one, Paul says that people who refuse to acknowledge God as God, people who trust in false idols, “become futile in their thinking and [have] their senseless minds darkened. Claiming to be wise, they become fools….Since they do not see fit to acknowledge God, God gives them up to a base mind” (1: 21-22, 28). I believe that these words directly apply to the leaders of our nation, they directly apply to people who believe that warfare can serve the cause of peace and justice.

I talked a few weeks back about how the more I try to learn about major societal issues–certainly such as this war–the more I try to learn, the more impotent I feel, the more frustrated I feel as I realize how far the world is from how I think it should be. So I haven’t really been following the war real closely. To do so I’m sure would render me even more paralyzed by depression than I already am.

Yet I know enough to feel very upset, very discouraged, very frightened at where our nation is headed. And I read these biblical texts, I look at Paul’s very harsh words regarding the brokenness, the fallenness, the sinfulness of the world in its idolatry, and I think, yeah he’s right, God hates this, God is ticked off about this too.

But, somehow, all this doesn’t help much. After reading these texts, I still feel angry and frustrated, I still feel judgmental and condemnatory. And such feelings don’t really seem to be particularly useful. They create added pain for me. Certainly anyone with a sensitive conscience should and must feel pain when their nation’s fighting a war. But to be really angry and judgmental makes it worse. It’s kind of like when you’re playing basketball and some guy is driving full-speed at the basket and you’re in his way. You want to stay there, take a charge and get a foul called on him. Do you tense up in fear, making your body more rigid and apt to be hurt? Or do you relax as much as you can and absorb the blow with much less risk of injury? Either way you’re going to get hit and feel some pain, but the more you can relax the easier the confrontation will be on you. In like manner, anger and frustration make the pain of what’s going on with the war only increase.

Certainly, striving to out-yell and out-argue the pro-warrior forces in our world won’t convince very many of them to turn to the ways of peace. In many cases, it would only alienate them further and in some sense only add to the war spirit.

Part of what I’m trying to say is that I think Paul’s critique of the consequences of people trusting in things other than God is insightful. This insight is well illustrated by what we see in our country right now as we hurtle ahead with our blind and self-destructive trust in weapons of war as instruments of what we are calling peace and justice. But the insight only does us so much good. We are left with our anger and frustration. Knowing that our society is crazy, even sinful and rebellious against God, doesn’t really help us a whole lot.

Thinking of the critique as also aimed at us

Here, I think a look at the wider context and fuller meaning of Paul’s critique, and also of Amos’ words against Edom, looking at the use made of these judgments, can help us. What we see are social critiques, even harsh judgments, against the wider world being used with rhetorical effect to help make a point aimed at the faith community itself.

I’m going to talk mostly about Paul, but both Paul and Amos are, in part at least, setting their readers up for a critique of the readers themselves. Amos recites the injustices of the nations in order then to turn on Israel and challenge them with their injustices. And Paul does the same kind of thing.

His point is to challenge his readers’ smugness and certainty regarding their own righteousness and security as God’s people. See how bad those pagans are, he starts out in the passage we’ve just looked at. Yeah, yeah, his readers would have replied. They worship idols (or, we might say, they are fighting a war, they are doing violence). And Paul does think that that kind of self-destructive idol-worship is bad. But his point is not reinforcing pious finger-pointing and feelings of hostility and judgmentalism toward the sins of the world.

Paul goes on in chapter two, and I’ll talk about this more next week, Paul goes on to say to his readers that you are just as bad in your judgmentalism. In trusting in your piety, in your ability to stay pure, in your ethnic or religious pedigree, in pointing fingers at those obvious sinners in order to buttress your own good feelings about yourself–you are also worshiping an idol. You are as guilty as they are. You are just as far from knowing God’s totally free mercy.

Paul’s point not our badness but God’s goodness

Of course, what Paul is getting at ultimately is not how bad we all are but how good God is. Paul’s strongest emphasis is that God is merciful. The problem with all idols, be they golden calves, weapons of war, or piety, is that they are constructed out of fear that maybe God is not merciful. They are human attempts to protect ourselves. But all they serve to do is blind us, mess up our minds, and keep us from receiving God’s love.

So, Paul’s critique of the ways of the world in chapter one is not an end in itself. It is a means of drawing his readers in, of causing them to nod their heads, yes, idolatry abounds out there. Then Paul challenges them directly–in your religiosity, in your struggle to construct a blameless life through all your good works, in your self-righteous condemnation of “worldliness,” you show that you don’t really know God’s mercy either, you aren’t really trusting in God, you’re trusting in your own ability to make yourself holy and pure. The critique of things out there serves the critique of things in here–all for the purpose of moving people in the community of faith truly to encounter the totality of God’s mercy, and to encounter it as something freely given, not something earned, to encounter it as something we can’t control or restrict.

Critique and compassion

Should people actually get a handle on what Paul is saying, I can imagine at least two consequences. One would be a sense of recognition, a confession, an awareness of how, indeed, we do try to construct ways of life which protect us, which buttress our sense that we are better than others, that we do seek to appease God and gain God’s favor by our good deeds, by our moral purity, by our accomplishments, by pointing fingers at the sins of others. That is, we do trust in things other than God’s mercy and love alone. Perhaps through such a recognition, which we might call repentance, we will indeed experience a freeing from this misplaced trust, a deeper awareness of God’s mercy, a sense that we can live positively, out of uncoerced love, free from fear and self-protectiveness.

And the second consequence, then, might be more respect and compassion for those Paul critiques in chapter one, those who Amos starts out his book critiquing, those who are caught up in the world’s more obvious practices of idolatry, who are to us the obvious and blatant sinners. We know now too how easy it is to erect idols and false items in which to trust. Their golden calves, their materialism, their promiscuous sex, their various narcotics–these aren’t really all that different from our piety and good works insofar as they all can be things we trust in out of fear which actually keep us from knowing God’s mercy. If we realize this, knowing too that usually we are wanting to do our best even as we avoid trusting in God; chances are that we’ll be more sympathetic, more compassionate toward others. Certainly, we will no longer need to point fingers, we will no longer need to find others we can look down upon.

I can remember in high school PE, I always did great when we played ball games or ran races. But when we did things which required upper body strength–climbing the rope or peg board, doing hand stands or pull ups, I was simply terrible. I hated those things, and I hated being ridiculed for my ineptness. But I derived some comfort from there being other kids, the really fat kids, the kids who had no athletic ability at all, these kids were even worse than I was. Sometimes I laughed loudly at them too, hoping to deflect attention aimed at me. But at times I did feel some empathy with them, a sense that I actually had the same problems myself.

When we feel vulnerable or inadequate, that’s when we ourselves try to find people to look down upon. Living by God’s mercy frees us from doing this, it frees us to be compassionate, to realize that, actually, we’re all equally needy, and that God indeed is merciful to all of us. So, Paul’s critique then does not call condemnation from us for those terrible sinners out there. The overall message should lead us to compassion and respect and empathy. We all are prone to fear, we all need God’s mercy.

The value of introspection

I wonder, then, about how this applies to our situation of frustration and anger regarding our war. I would think we might receive from this a challenge to channel a little of our distress into introspection. We’re so upset about the violence out there–how are we violent ourselves? how do we treat those we disagree with? how do we respond to those who hurt us? how do we resolve our differences? how many “lines in the sand” do we draw? how much do we withhold an openness to compromise, to forgive? How much of our sense of hopefulness, our sense of empowerment, our ability to be positive–how much of this comes from a genuine awareness of God’s mercy no matter what and how much is determined by external events? Does our frustration about the war turn us into judgmental people ourselves? An awareness of these huge problems out there might challenge us not only to point fingers but also to face our problems in here.

An understanding of Paul’s call to trust in God more than blame others might also help move us to desire mercy for all people, even those we don’t like, even those who are calling the shots in this war. George Bush, Saddam Hussein, their generals, their propagandists, are all also living in fear. They are also constructing devices to protect themselves, they’re also avoiding God’s mercy. I don’t want to downplay our need to critique what they are doing, even to hate what they are doing. Yet, they too are human beings. Maybe an awareness of our own fearfulness, of our own proclivity to trust in idols, maybe these can help us to mix our frustration and anger with a little compassion and certainly to desire that they find God’s mercy too.

And, I believe, a very important response for all of us is to resolve to live positively, to live freely and for the truth we know, to live for love and not to live primarily in reaction against what we hate.

I think our peace procession and vigil last Sunday evening captured at least a little of this flavor and had some power because of that. One of my friends who was there, who is a strong Christian pacifist, had his wife with him. He told me later that she’s a strong political activist but is actually pretty anti-religion. She had agreed to come to his event on Sunday of he would go with her to a more political anti-war meeting on Saturday. However, even she found the Saturday meeting pretty frustrating. People yelled and sang and made speeches, expressing much anger and frustration about how bad things are. But the meeting ended with the anger and frustration still intact and people actually feeling rather powerless.

On Sunday, we simply gathered, lit our candles, followed our one simple banner which said “seek peace and pursue it,” walked a ways, and then stopped and stood together for awhile, mostly in silence. I’m sure each of us brought our own meaning, to some extent. My friend’s wife, and I know many of the rest of us, did feel a sense of empowerment from this. She came away feeling some hope and calmness, a feeling lacking the day before. We had our small, little lights in the darkness. Together, quietly, we witnessed to something positive, to peace, to an alternative to trusting in weapons of war.

This witness is a very small thing. But it is something we can do which is positive, and I think it reflects a bit of the spirit of Paul’s message that living in light of God’s mercy frees us from always reacting, always pointing fingers, being frustrated and angry and fearful. It frees us to live for love.

Thank you, God, for your mercy. Thank you for the challenge to end our trusting in things, our trusting in our good deeds, our trusting in our moral superiority. Help us to trust in you alone for life, for hope, for empowerment.

[Ted Grimsrud’s collected sermons]

1 thought on “Reflections on sin: Brokenness in the world [Romans 1:18-23]

  1. Pingback: The Peace Position During a Time of War | Peace Theology

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