Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Romans 2

I'm currently involved in a debate on the First Things website as a result of an article that I wrote dealing with the distinction between the pastoral and theological aspects of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, particularly the infamous verses 1:26-27 of turn-or-burn fame. You can find it here.

When I was writing the article, I only gave a superficial glance to Romans chapter 2, but I've been rereading it now with considerable interest. The psychological thrust of this letter is really interesting. What St. Paul basically does is gets his audience all riled up about the sins of those godless pagans, and then hits them hard between the eyes with a diatribe against Pharisaical self-righteousness. Look at the transition here:

“In other words, since they refused to see it was rational to acknowledge God, God has left them to their own irrational ideas and to their monstrous behaviour.”

(Paul is referring here to the “Greeks,” i.e. the Hellenic world in general, who he's been castigating for idolatry, homosexuality and various other abuses for the last 10 verses.)

“And so they are steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice, and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite. Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God, rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents, without brains, honour, love or pity. They know what God's verdict is: that those who behave like this deserve to die – and yet they do it; and what is worse, encourage others to do the same.” (Rom 1:28-32)

And here's the tipping point: “So no matter who you are, if you pass judgement you have no excuse. In judging others you condemn yourself, since you behave no differently from those you judge.” (Rom 2:1) Paul's point, which he develops more fully in the rest of the letter, is that everyone is a sinner, everyone in need of repentance and salvation. The moral indignation that his readers are inclined to pour out on others ought to be turned inward, so that it can lead to a scouring of the heart.

Oddly, Romans 1:28-32 have been interpreted historically to refer to the homosexuals described in vs. 26-27, not to the Greeks referred to in vs. 18-25. This interpretation was used at various times to justify applying the death penalty to people caught engaging in “sodomy,” and the idea that these verses are primarily applicable to homosexuals is one that I've encountered in anti-gay Christian sources of more recent date. It's an argument, however, that makes very little sense, unless you want to go verse camping. The paragraphs that precede 1:26-27 make it fairly clear that Paul is talking about the Greeks in general, and particularly about the effects of Greek philosophy and paganism. Homosexuality is merely the most forceful of his examples of the depravity of the Greeks: not only are they idolaters, but they're also committing unnatural acts with one another. To assume that Paul is saying that homosexuals, specifically, are “steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice, and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite. Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God, rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents, without brains, honour, love or pity,” is a stretch. But even if we were willing to make that stretch, it would make total nonsense of Romans 2:1. Presumably, if Paul's readers were willing to accept that homosexual acts were shameful and depraved, they weren't hanging around the bathhouses chatting up the catamites.

The more coherent interpretation is to assume that Paul is writing a comparative analysis of sinfulness amongst the Greeks, and sinfulness amongst the Jews, an interpretation that seems to streamline with the rest of the letter. His point is that every single adult human being has, at least at some point in his life, been depraved, rotten, greedy, envious, treacherous, spiteful, rude, arrogant, boastful, or rebellious. All of these sins render people deserving of death. No one is exempt, and anyone who thinks that he is, is deluded. The letter is a call to repentance, not for the Greeks, or the Jews, or the homosexuals, but for each and every reader, personally.

4 comments:

  1. Melinda, I believe you have missed the whole point of the arguement concerning Romans Chapter 2. I think you should know that it is a given that St. Paul is calling all to REPENTANCE! All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.
    The Catechism of The Catholic Church under article 2333 says: Everyone, man and women, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented towards the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.
    The attack of the enemy is aganist the FAMILY unit!
    I don't think it is about passing judgement... but about what is happening in our culture today with the laws being biased against the marriage of one women and one man! I think you ought to think along these lines. Their is a shift in the culture with the excepting of homosexual lifestyle in the movies, T.V. etc. This is what our children are seeing and accepting as normal. Our attention should focus on the building of our families. I am a mother of six grown adults and fourteen grandchildren! I hope you can understand that I am not negating the minstry to those who consider them selfs homosexual, but I would hope you can see the bigger picture. Thanks, Tricia Hammer

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  2. "Oddly, Romans 1:28-32 have been interpreted historically to refer to the homosexuals described in vs. 26-27, not to the Greeks referred to in vs. 18-25. This interpretation was used at various times to justify applying the death penalty to people caught engaging in 'sodomy,' and the idea that these verses are primarily applicable to homosexuals is one that I've encountered in anti-gay Christian sources of more recent date."

    Yeah, that kind of thing happens when you go cherry-picking for proof texts — you lose the proper interpretive context. I've used Chapter 2 in discussing the doctrine Extra Ecclesia nulla salus, but it's also applicable to discussions of homosexuality. I've seen advocates of SSM who have thrown divorce (and Catholic annulments) in our face; while it's a kind of tu quoque fallacy, they do have a point — we're as much obliged to respect the institution of marriage as they are.

    Thanks for all you do, Melinda!

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  3. I think Romans 1 is a pretty clear warning to cultures that turn away from God. We see it clearly in our present age. We haven't made any progress in human affairs. Sin is sin. The description in Romans 1 is a world where the church and the culture gets wrapped up in sin and turns away from God. The cultural acceptance of homosexual sex as a norm has happened several times throughout human history when the main culture is depraved. You see it in the western culture of today. A week doesn't go by where teens in my YM program want to talk about homosexuality. Why? Because they are being bombarded with messages that we have to accept Homosexual unions as a norm. We are coming to a day where Catholics will be jailed and Catholic institutions will be closed down by the government. The danger is to react by treating homosexuals as sinners just because they believe they are one. We can't. We are all sinners. We all have sin in our lives. It is the sin not the sinner. We all need to stop and pray and pray and pray and pray. We need to seek God with our whole heart. Then, we can truly treat others in love.

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  4. Yes. THIS. When I first read this infamous passage - as someone from a liberal Christian background - I was expecting it to be THE essential anti-homosexuality homily I'd been brought up to see it as. In fact, I came away from the passage with the same impression that you did (indeed, it's only recently I've come to positively understand traditional Christian teaching concerning homosexual intercourse as being more to do with concepts of ritual holiness rather than nature per se. Of course, I'm probably wrong, but my exploration in this particular direction has really just begun so that's to be expected) and found it very strange that anyone would quote it the way they often would in discussions about the bible and homosexuality. They weren't wrong exactly, but they just seemed to be missing the point.

    Indeed, there's an additional irony when one considers the role of pederasty in the intellectual culture of Ancient Greece and Paul's focusing on the false philosophies this very culture produced.

    It must also be said that there wasn't an 'acceptance' of homosexuality as we know it - a cursory look at the issues surrounding class and masculinity should put paid to that idea.

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