Monday, July 09, 2012
Last time I discussed how a preacher in the park said that God would send you to hell for stealing a stick of gum. Now what would you say if a person answered,
"Well, I have never stolen anything. In fact, I have perfectly kept all of God's law. I have no problem keeping all of the commandments!"
Perhaps you would then quote Paul where he says, that no one can keep the law. Except that Paul doesn't ever say this. And guess who the person is who makes the above claim of being the perfect law-keeper? Big drum roll please...
It was the Apostle Paul.
That's right, Paul says in Philippians 3:6 that he has kept the Torah "faultlessly." He tells us that he was "Hebrew of Hebrews," and has no problem keeping the law perfectly. Yet Paul tells he considers all of this to be "garbage" compared to Christ. Why?
Because of what it did to him.
Despite this spotless record Paul considered himself to be "the worst of all sinners." Not because he had broken any commandments or laws. Again, he was "faultless" here he tells us. No, the reason Paul tells us is "because I was a blasphemer and a violent man." Paul had participated in the violent persecution of the followers of Jesus, and he did this because he thought he was being faithful to God.
When Paul says he is a "blasphemer" this does not mean he was cussing. It means that because of his hurtful actions, he gave God a bad name. Today we experience the same thing: people who preach hate and hurt in God's name drive people from God. They give God a bad name, they make God seem like monster. When people reject this abusive image of God, that is not the blasphemy. The blasphemy, Paul tells us--his blasphemy that he came to be ashamed of--was misrepresenting who God was. As he writes (speaking to people like his former self) "God's name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you."
Now, the ironic thing is that when people like that preacher tell us that God will send us to hell for some minor infraction, they base this on Romans where Paul says "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." Because of this, we get the idea that God is the one with the problem. So we need to tell people that God is really mad at them for some trivial thing they did. It's a message completely detached from life that paints God as a petty legalist.
The thing is, this is not at all Paul's point in Romans. His focus when he says that above statement in Romans is on violence, and more specifically on religious violence. Paul is addressing a religious audience who want God to judge, who want wrath to be poured out on the hated Gentiles. Paul is telling them--and he knows this firsthand because he had participated in this religiously justified violence himself!--that this way leads to death. He is not addressing irreligious sinners and telling them to repent of law-breaking, he is addressing religious people who believe in divine retribution and telling them to repent of that.
Now that is a sin that matters! If our only problem is that we tell a white lie or cuss when we stub our toe, then that is really pretty trivial. Many people would argue that God ought to be able to just overlook trivial things like that. After all, they would say, why can't God forgive like he tells us to? But what Paul is dealing with here is hatred, murder, and violence. People killing each other in the name of God and justice. Now we are dealing with some really serious heavy stuff that does real damage, devastating families, destroying lives. God cares about this because he cares about us. God cannot just overlook that, because it is really hurting people he loves. Paul is not talking about trivial infractions, he is talking about sin which devastates and destroys. Paul is talking about violence.
Not only is this a very serious thing Paul is addressing, it is also quite subtle: It's pretty easy to recognize that alcoholism is bad (indeed it is a very serious sin that causes real harm). It's also easy to recognize that criminal behavior is bad (and it certainly is). But it's a lot harder to recognize the kind of thing Paul is addressing, because this is violence and hurt done in the name of God and justice. What Paul shows us is that you can be religiously "faultless" and still cause severe harm, still spread hate, still advocate for violence, but do it under the cover of God and country, do so while justifying your actions with the Bible! That was Paul's sin, and that is precisely what Paul is addressing in Romans.
Paul is telling us that the gospel is about breaking out of that way of hurting others in God's name, breaking out of the logic of retributive justice, and entering into God's way of restorative justice demonstrated in Jesus Christ. That's an understanding of the gospel that is not only a much more accurate reading of what Paul is actually saying in Romans, but is also an extremely relevant message for us today.