This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture. While the focus is on weekly preaching passages, we also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature as well as artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to Tim Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The lectionary has been following Paul’s letter to the Romans for five weeks now and will continue to do so for several weeks to come. This week’s text comes at the climactic end of what many consider to be the first division in the epistle. Following a long discussion of the function of God’s law (in Greek, nomos – which can mean law, tradition, or commandment), Paul encourages his audience that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The rest of this chapter, among other things, serves as an elongated expansion on this theme.
In this context when Paul writes, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”(Rom 8:31) the accent most naturally falls on the word “for.” To the reality of fleshly corruption and crippling concern about righteousness under the law, Paul speaks a word of grace. Even though we have sinned, God is not against us (cf. Rom 8:3-9). God has freed us through Christ Jesus. However we understand Paul’s atonement theology from there, the point is clear – God is on the side of sinners, even the likes of us. This is why this passage, particularly the assurances of vv. 38-39, is so frequently read at funeral services as a word of comfort and hope
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Unfortunately, American popular culture too frequently places the accent on the word “us” instead: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Roman 8:31, emphasis added). And so it becomes easy to accept the prosperity gospel of John Winthrop’s sermon, “City Upon a Hill,” assuming that our every success in this world is from God and that might makes right. It becomes easy to get caught up in a patriotic performance of “God Bless America,” hearing in between the actual lyrics an implicit prayer that God’s blessing come at the expense of our political foes.
The first flaw with this assumption is that it assumes that the United States of America is a Christian nation; and, perhaps, the Christian nation – that the nations we may be in conflict with are somehow less deserving of God’s blessing through Christ. The second, and in my opinion, greater flaw is that it assumes God blesses nations. In the Hebrew Bible, God blesses people and promises to make of them great nations (Gen 12:2; 15:14); however, even the nation of Israel remains vulnerable to critique and, indeed, punishment when they turn away from God, abuse their power, or live outside the covenant. What’s more, in Romans, Paul is not addressing only the people of Israel, but rather, a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles. Many scholars even suggest that Paul’s Gentile audience would have been in the majority. In any case, Paul was writing long before any official recognition of Christianity by the Roman government, let alone its adoption as a state religion.
- Who, then, is the “us” for whom Christ has taken up the cross?
- Can God bless a nation? If so, what does this mean?
- What does it mean that no power or principality can separate us from God’s love?
- And, perhaps most importantly, if God is for “us” what does that mean about God’s position toward everyone else?
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.