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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of God’s Reconciliation—Romans 5:1-11 (Richard Davis)

In Romans, Paul speaks of a God of reconciliation, who makes friends of enemies. Principles of reconciliation and of the love of enemies have often been quarantined from the political realm in systems of political thought that prioritize the enemy-friend polarity. However, a politics of love for enemies and of reconciliation with a creation from which we have become alienated may never have been more urgent.

1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul opens our text with a long and unusually rich sentence, packed with heart-warming theological keywords: justified, peace, grace, and hope. The impression made is a sweet image of God’s peace. If we stopped there, we could be content. However, in verse three we realize that peace with God does not guarantee peace with the world. Christians are at peace with God, yet they will suffer in the world.

Paul does not tell us about the source of our suffering, he simply connects our peace with God with suffering. Nevertheless, we can boast about our suffering, knowing that through endurance and hope we are recipients of the reward of God’s gift of love through the Holy Spirit. We can boast in both our suffering and our sharing the glory of God.

The remainder of our reading, verses 6-11, contrasts with verses 1-5. The contrast lies between our peace with God, and our former state of weakness, sin, and as enemies of God. But even in this state of sin and opposition to God, God saves us and Christ dies for us.

The strongest language here is that we are ‘enemies’ of God, as in verse 10: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…” What does it mean to be an enemy of God? Can we fight God? Is being an enemy of God’s friends enough to qualify as an enemy? What about being an enemy of God’s creation?

Paul, who wrote this letter to the Romans, was once Saul, the persecutor of Christians and enemy of their Christ. Yet God reconciled himself to Saul and converted him to the way of Christ. Saul was reconciled, transformed from being an enemy to a friend and disciple of Jesus. Paul clearly wrote this passage from a very personal perspective of being reconciled to God despite his enmity with God.

God’s love for his enemies, as demonstrated to Saul, is foolishness to the Greeks. Why would God love his enemies and bestow the blessing of his Son on them? It is the way of the world to hate one’s enemies and attack them.

It is madness to the world that God and Christians should love their enemies. But this is the archetypal Christian love based on Christ’s work for our salvation. It is not only a way of life for Christians, but should also inform the way that we interpret other verses, such as the much-abused verse John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is a verse perhaps too heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought (cf. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 1169a), and one used to justify death in war against the enemies of the state.

It is worldly wisdom to distinguish between friend and enemy, a distinction Romans 5 dissolves. Here God reconciles his enemies to himself. Even as enemies of God, we are reconciled by God to God. This is a direct challenge to those, like Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political, who see the heart of politics in this distinction between enemy and friend.

For Schmitt, the state cannot live by any Christian ethics of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27), which urges loving one’s enemies. To him such verses do not talk about the “political enemy”, and cannot “mean that one should love and support the enemies of one’s own people.”

Schmitt is not alone in suggesting that love is solely a personal and not a political virtue. We find the same approach in Martin Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr. Whether or not this distinction holds up is the core issue in the political interpretation of Romans 5.

In real politics today, individuals and even whole countries are categorized as either friend or foe. Sometimes these categories are set into law, as in immigration laws, which often entrench enemy status on whole peoples and in the process make enemies of friends. It is unlikely that such an approach to human and international relations makes friends of enemies.

The rationale for such politics is typically the safety of the community. But this peace is based on the protection from the enemy and their defeat. It does not work for transforming the enemy into a friend. Ultimately, this strategy will not work, as the War against Terror, now into its sixteenth year, shows.

We live in a broken world, an unreconciled world full of violence and wars. Can God’s reconciliation of us, his enemy, be a model for the reconciliation needed in the world today? Can we approach our political enemies, and those who wish to abuse, suppress, or seek to kill us, and do what it takes to reconcile them to us.

It might sound arrogant that we could be God to them and reconcile them to us. This, however, is the first step of reconciliation: for the most powerful to divest themselves of power and reach down to the oppressed or violated. Such an act of descent is what God does in his reconciliation.

God reaches down to us, as God came down to Saul. Saul, who was fighting God, could not have climbed up to God through his own efforts. God had to come down and reconcile Paul (and all people) to Christ.

The other dimension of reconciliation hinted at above, was the reconciliation of humans with the earth, based on the idea that when we are violent toward God’s Creation we make God our enemy. When the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, visited Fiji, he proposed that the world needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the broken relationship between humanity and Creation. In the context of the South Pacific, which is facing the effects of climate change in rising sea levels and more intense cyclones, Sentamu’s proposal was warmly welcomed.

How can we reconcile ourselves to Creation? First of all, we must acknowledge the hurt we have done to Creation. In doing so we must recognize that the human technology in the service of capitalist extractive industries and its associated pollution has enslaved Creation to serve the wicked. In overcoming this, we must reach down, not to dig, cut, drill, or pluck, but to look and see what harm we have to Creation, which still serves us with its bounty and ongoing productivity in spite of our exploitation.

Second, we must not treat creation an enemy to be subdued and made subservient to our will. Creation must be allowed to be itself in praising God and fulfilling his will, which includes serving us with our daily needs.

To do these things in politics and Creation is to fulfill in part the “ministry of reconciliation” given to humanity by God (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). God’s reconciliation in Romans 5 implies, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, that we must take up this “ministry of reconciliation”:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Christians are called to carry forward this ministry and message of reconciliation. In a world of division, hurt, and violence, every reconciling act is a hopeful, counter-cultural, eschatological act. It signals a new reality in the world, and says a loud no to war and violence. It says that we can take the first step toward turning our enemies into friends, quite apart from the politics of the state.

This might sound individualistic. Rather than individuals being reconciled to each other, wouldn’t it be better to reconcile peoples or groups, men to women, homosexuals to heterosexuals, black to white, Christians to Jews to Muslims? No, this is a temptation of reconciliation: that individuals do not matter and we just need to unite groups. But as Paul perhaps recognized from personal experience, enmity and hatred lives in individual hearts and is seen in the acts of individuals.

The reconciliation of God makes the church a political community of reconciliation and love toward its enemies. The church can do what the state cannot do. The state keeps its friends safe and enemies threatened. By contrast, the church is that body which testifies to a God who loves enemies. The church is a body of people who have in common their former status of enemies of God, who offer the invitation to the current enemies of God to join them on the other side of love of God and to share in God’s everlasting peace.

Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

Photo: Mark Ahsmann

One thought on “The Politics of God’s Reconciliation—Romans 5:1-11 (Richard Davis)

  1. Was Carl Schmitt a Nazit? Was he talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ?
    If so how can he have a sense of any moral authority. With my limited understanding of this man, I wonder which side of the fence he’s on, I would have used another example. A Nazi has no moral code.

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