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The purpose of this paper is to compare the interpretations of Romans 3:21-26 by three scholars, as well as my own interpretation, in light of the American foreign policy known as “The War on Terror” or “The Bush Doctrine”. I will begin by summarizing the themes in the book of Romans and my own life context as a starting point for explaining my interpretations of Romans relative to this event. Of the three scholars selected for this exercise, Daniel Patte’s argument about racism and its many offshoots, best suits my argument in this paper.
I will discuss why Patte’s paper suits my interpretation best and I will then discuss the texts of Gaventa, and Johnson as they relate to my own interpretation.
Three main themes command the book of Romans. The first theme is of God’s impartiality. This theme is most apparent when Paul describes how God will judge all men equally in Romans 3:23. In short, God shall judge all men, good and evil.
Second, Paul says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This idea of “the universality of human sin” (Gaventa 406) is found in several places but first appears in Romans 1:18-3:20 where Paul argues that sin is found in every human being regardless of their lifestyle. Lastly, the theme of God’s righteousness (often found concurrently with the important theme of the universal need for salvation) which is most clearly outlined in the story of Abraham’s faith in 4:1-25.
All three of the scholars tend to agree on some level that these three points are the most important. Though the wording and context differs, all of the scholars tend to stress similar ideas about the interpretation of Romans. Therefore, I will not waste time analyzing how the interpretation Gaventa gives of a verse differs from that of Patte or vice versa. Rather, I will stress the context of interpretations as they relate to my topic. In relation to how I have formed my own interpretations, there is nothing more important than my own life context.
I was born on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1985 in Dallas, TX. My family heritage is very humble. It is impossible to explain my life context without first explaining my dad’s story. My father was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1939. His family was dirt poor, his father was an alcoholic, and he had virtually no support at home. Somehow, however, he managed to make it out of Vicksburg and into the army and ultimately, the car business. As the years passed, my father proved to have an uncanny business sense. By 1994, he had amassed a fortune worth 400 million dollars.
It is on religion, which I must now focus. I am a Christian but one who is constantly at odds with his own mind. I believe Jesus was the son of God. I do not know who or what Jesus was in terms of being a man but he was undoubtedly supernatural in a way that is not human, if the gospels are to be trusted as credible historic sources. Jesus as a historical figure was the most influential being, ever. This by itself is the primary contender for his divinity in my opinion. Despite my knowledge of his influence and historical validity, I have been troubled in my attempts to have the faith of Christ.
Late one night, I began thinking about free will and its limits. I realized that there is a great divide in reconciling Jesus’ message, the Christian idea of man’s freedom of choice, and the purity of God. To summarize my line of reasoning; as the ultimate power responsible for the universe, God is the one responsible for sin. By causing the creation of the world, he caused the fall of man. Because of his omnipotence, God would have known what his actions were going to create. It is impossible for humans to have free will as long as there is a God who knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. God’s foreknowledge precludes the possibility of freedom of choice in our universe. As a result, God’s existence would make him responsible for all choices.
I have recently come to identify these thoughts with process theology and to a certain degree, with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. I cannot stress enough to what extent these ideas influence my views. To demonstrate to what degree this influences my thought, I will use an example. Often people refer to the scriptures as being, “divinely inspired”. In my opinion, you cannot believe in God and believe the scriptures are not divinely inspired, or for that matter, that everything is divinely inspired. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Native American Religions, Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, and any other of the thousands of religions would have ultimately been the creation of an omnipotent, omniscient God.
The historical context in which I lived is equally important to my personal context given the topic. I grew up in a time that was thought by scholars at the time to be, “The end of history.” The Soviet Union had fallen, the United States was the supreme military power on the planet, liberal democracy had triumphed as the final form of human government, and the economy of the world was booming. All was well in America. Pop culture and domestic topics filled the headlines. The death of Tupac, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the OJ trial were the biggest stories of the 90’s for my generation; rarely was an international issue on the agenda. There would be the occasional riff raff about some genocide in Africa or Bosnia but for the most part the masses were rarely swayed from their rapid-fire diet of bread and circuses provided by the American media, tabloids, and the pursuit of the American Dream.
President Bush fought a foreign war in 1991 with a broad world consensus on its moral worth and still lost the election. This demonstrates the former unimportance of positive American leadership in the global community to voters. President Clinton participated in several conflicts, some good in outcome (Bosnia, Kosovo, Taiwan Strait Incident,) and some bad in outcome (Somalia, the attack on Sudan). With a booming economy, these events were the last thing on the minds of voters.
Then on a Tuesday morning in September of the year 2001, everything changed. I was 16 years old at the time and I was home sick in bed. My mom called me on the intercom around nine and told me to turn on CNN. I watched as the plane hit the second tower. I knew immediately as I saw the second plane crash into the tower, bending metal and steel with fire, who was responsible for this act. Unlike most 16 year olds, I was obsessed with politics, foreign policy, philosophy, and God. September 11 was, in a way, a very good day for me. Life as an oppressed teenager became more interesting when I had the external affairs of the world within which to immerse myself. This is my life context. These events frame my interpretations of Romans relative to the war on terror.
There are two fundamental problems regarding the war on terror facing American Christians. The first is that their interpretations of the biblical texts tend to be similar to that of their enemy, “literal” and uninformed. The second is that because of these interpretations their worldview is warped through the “uncorrective” lens of their uninformed interpretations. This warped worldview, combined with a fear driven media and a general ignorance about foreign policy is responsible a large degree of complicity and even enthusiasm by Christians for the War on Terror.
The events of 9/11 challenged American Christians. During the 90’s, many Christians had been living out their lives oblivious to exactly what American foreign policy abroad was. Americans did not know that we have installed dictators (Haiti 1990), and armed nations (Iraq during the 80’s) and terrorists (Afghanistan, El Salvador) across the globe (Blum). As this is not a history paper, I will not go into details but believe that some of these atrocities are many times worse than Pearl Harbor and September 11 combined. Actions taken by the United States have left the bloodstains of the innocents of many nations on our hands. For the most part, American Christians, like most Americans, are ignorant of this history.
A few days after September 11, 2001, after George Bush’s call to action, Billy Graham gave an address at the National Cathedral. In it, he spoke words in favor of the ensuing war, “Today we say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes. Someday, those responsible will be brought to justice, as President Bush and our Congress have so forcefully stated.” It is safe to say that Billy Graham is the most broadly popular religious figure in America.
So why does he condone and justify warfare? As Christians, we believe that God punishes evil ones for eternity at. The seeking of revenge for trespasses in this life is unnecessary. Even more than unnecessary, however, it would be against the teachings of Jesus. “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:39) This unwavering devotion to pacifism does not exist amongst American Christians.
The acts of terror committed by the hijackers created a common precursor for sin, anger. As such American Christians responded by supporting actions against terrorists, thereby judging their actions. Paul believes that Jesus would not agree (Romans 2:1) with such a condemnation. Instead of judging the actions of others, we should judge our ow suffering amongst millions through our foreign policy. Yet we do not protest these actions or demand pacifism from our nation despite our religion’s values. How can American Christians deny blame for the actions of their country? Are they not responsible for these actions simply because they cannot control them directly? Even if they are not responsible, why do they not protest them? It is far too easy for Christians to hide behind the banner of “separation of church and state”. I refuse to believe that Jesus would have lobbied for inaction in the face of injustices. He would not set an example that could lead to a future of further injustice.
Not all Christians believe as Billy Graham does, though the vast majority of us have not been saddened by our country’s marches to war. Many non-believers tend to mistake all too often the actions of Christians as representative of what Christianity means. Thankfully, this is not true. As Romans 3:23 clearly illustrates, all have sinned, therefore, Christians are just as far as anyone else from representing what following the example of Jesus means. Thus, the lack of social action by the majority does not truly represent the feelings of all Christianity. There are Christians for whom the war is troublesome. Some have taken action accordingly.
One such Christian, (though I do not know if he is troubled by the war; he is certainly a man concerned with the state of American Society), Daniel Patte, has taken action against social injustices through his writings. In his interpretations of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Daniel Patte illustrates the above point excellently, “To our shame, we often condone and participate in these evils (shown below) even as we self-righteously reject and condemn them” (Romans 2:1-3). Even as we condemn things, like selfishness, ignorance, and hatred, we often partake in them. Our national security policy illustrates this concept excellently. Our government tends to ignore the needs of the world in lieu of it’s obligation to our people. Irrespective of Christian theology, should Americans not be concerned that the richest nation in the world, our nation, is the most selfish?
Daniel Patte’s interpretations on Romans in the life context of a French Huguenot evaluating the scripture as it applies to “anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, and similar victimizations” relates best to my paper of the three essays chosen for this exercise. Throughout his work, he notes that the values expressed in Romans and those common in American society at various periods in history were not in harmony. Most importantly, he notes that most Christians were content with their lives and did little to fight against these grave injustices.
As Patte dutifully notes about life in America, “the problem is that this holy, just, and good American way of life is impregnated with racism”. In the same manner, the attitudes of American Christians towards the foreign policy of our government are ignorant. Patte continues, “the problematic character of our way of life usually remains invisible to us”. Similarly, most American Christians are unaware of the implications of the war on terror and our foreign policy. Why should they be? The media does little to enlighten them of the predicament and the government does much to hide the horrors that are necessary to preserve our freedom. Nonetheless, as has been established, what they do know should be enough to arouse contempt for the war on terror. So why has there been no disapproval from the pulpit or from the congregation?
Patte provides an excellent answer on this question when speaking about Paul’s rhetorical discourse, “What is the root of the problem that Paul’s rhetorical discourse helps his readers to overcome? Most generally arrogance: the arrogance of the strong’ toward the weak”. American evangelicals desire to spread the message of Christ just as Paul did almost 2000 years ago. Many see the War on Terror as the first step in the spread of that message to the Middle East. Even amongst those of a secular nature, some believe that part of the war is to bring “democracy” to a nation that does not know “freedom”. They believe that the war on terror is winnable only by bringing liberal democracy to the Middle East. In the middle of this, however, we never stop to ask the Iraqis what they wanted. They are weak and we are strong, therefore we force our ideology upon them. Perhaps they want an Islamic Republic, like Iran. In our arrogance, we tell them that they must have a democracy with a strong constitution.
The similarities between the inactions of Christians during the holocaust and the current inactions of Christians during the war on terror are striking (though not entirely analogous). Patte describes how his community of French Huguenots were unable to prevent themselves from participating in the Holocaust. “Even as we helped a few of its victims, we ignored most of them. Against our best intentions we participated in this evil.” His next statement perhaps is most representative of the actions to see how we can better live up to the example set by Christ (Romans 3:22 footnote OAB).
Let us try to judge our own actions, collectively as Christians living in America, and see how we can better live according to the example of Christ. As explained, our country causes pain and current national security situation, “The war time sense of emergency twisted all our relations to others.” Indeed, the attack on America on 9/11 frightened and terrified American Christians and all Americans. As a result, our relations to other nations became even more twisted. Our own sins were thrown on the backburner as we began to focus on the crimes of others against us. These arrogant accusations have led only to more terror and more resentment for our nation.
The second scholar of the three that my interpretation most closely aligns with is Beverly Gaventa’s text in the Woman’s Bible Commentary. Gaventa agrees with me on the fundamental themes in Romans. Her text says that the main themes of Romans are the impartiality of God, universality of sin, and God’s universal righteousness. Much Gaventa’s text is prone with the necessary female bias that comes with being a feminist scholar. In reading this text for my purposes, however, I found that in certain places substituting the word “American(s)” for the word “woman or women” yielding some interesting insight into the topic of this paper.
Gaventa’s text stresses how all people are equal under god and that, “humans should view one another in the same way.” When applied to our topic, this remark is paramount. If humans should view one another the same way, then should not American Christians view people of other countries the same way, as human beings have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?
When speaking on the theme of universality of human sin in Romans Gaventa says, “What Romans offers women is an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which they participate in the human condition of rebellion against God.” By substituting Americans, we come up with an interesting question. How do American Christians specifically participate in the human condition of rebelling against God?
In many ways our rebellion is like that of other nations, licentiousness, greed, and pride are certainly characteristic of many American Christians. However, as citizens in the nominal world power that has great influence over the world, we have a duty and responsibility as Christians to attempt to ensure that our government does not affect the world in a sinful way.
The last scholar selected for this task was Luke Johnson and his text, “The Letter to the Romans”. Johnson’s text least relates to my topic. The irrelevance of his text is due primarily to the fact that it is highly forensical in its interpretation and deals primarily with what the message was that Paul was trying to communicate to the Romans. There is no mention of another context anywhere in Johnson’s text. For the sake of fulfilling the assignment, I will briefly summarize Johnson’s text.
Johnson’s work is extremely scholarly. He opens the text with an account of what Paul was writing, the context he was writing it in, and why Johnson thinks he was writing it. Johnson views the letter as Paul attempting to plant a long-term seed that will sprout into a tree trunk he can use to spread branches of his theology into the West. To set up this base of operations successfully he will need financial support. Nevertheless, as Johnson points out, “if Paul’s purpose is so practical, why did he write so long and elaborate a letter?” When a charity worker knocks on someone’s door asking for money, they generally want to know a little about the charity, its beliefs, and its causes. Paul assumes that the Romans will no doubt want to know what they are funding as well.
Johnson then moves on to a verse-by-verse dissection of Romans. The points he highlights as the most important are similar to the other texts, universal sin, God’s righteousness, and His perfect impartiality. It is important to note, however, that Johnson goes into far more detail on far more subjects than the other two scholars do. He does this simply because it is a different type of essay than the other two. Johnson is not framing his interpretation within a context, thus his interpretations stand alone, and we have no interpretation from which to frame our bias. It is far beyond the scope of this paper and irrelevant to analyze all of Johnson’s text.
To conclude I will summarize my argument and its ramifications. American Christians have two responsibilities. The first is to be good Christians. Not judging others and only judging ones own actions against the example set through the faith of Christ accomplish this state. The second duty is it to promote the equality of all men under God in their society. Both of these tasks are simple in word but near impossible in deed. If a Christian(s) were ever able to muster either, the state of man and Christianity would drastically alter. In such a world, the actions of Christians would truly be representative of Christianity. We cannot live up to the example set by Christ and as such, our world and our lives shall remain imperfect. However, as described in Romans 3:22, “the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe” we do not need to achieve perfection in our lives in order to exceed.
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