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.