By Tommy Airey
But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of δικαιοσύνην. If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his spirit that dwells in you.
The Apostle Paul wrote his Romans epistle to a network of house churches pledging allegiance to Jesus in the Empire’s capital city sometime in the 50s, two decades after the death and resurrection of their Leader. The eighth chapter is embedded right in the middle of the lengthy letter that has been cherished by Protestant Christians for the past 500 years. For all of us who first came to view Jesus through a conservative Evangelical lens, Romans has been interpreted through a magnifying glass, focusing on sinners becoming “justified,” neatly explained as “just if I never sinned” so that we can go to heaven when we die. At least, this was how the sincere leaders at Campus Crusade for Christ broke it all down to me using their 4 Spiritual Laws two decades ago.
Over the course of the past 50 years, however, many scholars have been questioning the accuracy of this interpretation. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century, the world has learned much about the ancient world. As N.T. Wright has written on multiple occasions,
We have learned more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism in the last 50 years than we knew in the first 1950 years combined.
Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran pastor and Harvard professor, wrote a legendary article in the 1960s entitled “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” that proposed that every time Paul uses “justification” or “righteousness” (it’s the same Greek word: δικαιοσύνην) in Romans and Galatians he is referring to how it is that Gentiles can become part of God’s People (as opposed to how an individual can be made righteous before an angry and/or perfect God). Stendahl, who had the original Greek text of the entire book of Romans memorized, courageously offered a reading of Paul that means far more than relieving my guilt, a clean slate to save my soul.
Perhaps, then, the main point of Romans was really about how God was determined to save the population of Caesar’s Empire by calling them to pledge allegiance to a different kind of citizenship altogether. God was making the world right again, working through a People committed to an alternative lifestyle. They were energized and inspired and guided by the spirit of Jesus, who lived out the Way of life and peace so radically that those power hungry leaders with a god-complex (in Romans: “hostile to God”) had to kill him.
This Divine Conspiracy is what salvation is all about. God came to this world incognito, hiding in the body of a Jewish peasant who taught a complete re-patterning of our lives. Paul bluntly universalizes the diagnosis: we are naturally patterned into the “flesh” (Greek σαρκὶ) throughout our early lives because we must somehow cope with the lack of love, trust & safety all around us. This takes many, many forms, whether fight or flight, controlling or chaotic, leading us down various roads of addiction, projection, obsessing codependency and catastrophizing.
It can also lead us to cling to in-group identity in the form of nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, celebrity worship and scapegoating the poor. Only an intense focus on our pain & copings will begin to free us from these. In an earlier letter to another community living trying to live counter-culturally in the Roman Empire, Paul adamantly prescribed the most drastic of measures:
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24)
Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, in Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Volume I, define “the flesh” as “the deeply rooted socially conditioned worldview we inherit from our upbringing.” We must confront these patterns, developed and hardened in our family systems, in order for the Way of the Spirit to be re-wired into our heads and hearts. This will take a lot of time & effort. Only a rigorous discipline of both personal inventory and prophetic imagination will do. As the late Edwin Friedman proclaimed in the first line of his book Failure Of Nerve:
The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.
The spirit of Jesus comes alive in communities that strategically re-pattern themselves into clusters who have the audacity to actually attempt to live the radical way that Jesus did. We do this imperfectly. We fall and fail. By God’s grace and mercy, we get up and try again. One of the tasks of “radial discipleship” is to reject any vision of Christian faith that justifies the dehumanizing copings so typical of life in Empire.