A good hortatory reading of Romans 5

A quick Google will get you some points of view on indicative versus subjunctive for ἔχωμεν and καυχώμεθα in Romans 5. (A good research database will get you better ones, obviously.) From translating it to preach it the first time, to translating Romans 5 in rhetorical and sociological context, I'm obliged to lean to the subjunctive.

Why? What difference does this point of grammar make?

A big one! It was fine for Reformation dogmatics to take Romans as a theological treatise, and therefore to rely on the indicative sense, but Romans isn't a lecture. It is an impassioned position plea intervening in an ethnic dispute. The indicative is fine if you believe Paul is just rehashing common ground for eight chapters, but would you listen to someone recite, or even perform, that much material you already knew? And that's only halfway! Would you listen to her when she got to the point of exhorting you to action at almost twice that length? Would it make any difference who her patron's contacts were in Rome, all the way at the end, if you tuned out before the middle?

If it's persuasive, if the material is innovative and controversial, if Paul is taking a side and making a pitch for his position in the middle of a divided community, there's every reason to see hortatory logic behind chapter 5. Hear this:

"Since we have been made just by faith, let us have peace before God because of our Lord Jesus Christ -- through whom we have access by faith to that grace in which we stand. And let us boast about our hope in the glory of God! More than that -- let us even boast during oppression, seeing that oppression causes patience, and patience, proof, and proof, hope. And hope does not shame us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts and minds by the spirit of holiness that God gave to us.

For while we were weak -- while it was the right season -- Christ died for the impious. Indeed, it's rare that someone will die for a righteous person. It's conceivable that someone might dare to die for a good person. But God confirms his love for us because while we were sinners, Christ died for us. How much more will we be saved from wrath because of him, since we've been made just right now by his blood? If we were reconciled to God because of the death of his son while we were enemies, how much more will we be saved by his life now that we've been reconciled?

More than that, let us boast in God because of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received reconciliation right now!"

The key here in most discussions is "let us have peace pros ton theon" If Paul has been sufficiently convincing in chapter 4 about how the divided population is at one in father Abraham because of faith, they therefore have peace with God -- God isn't angry at them. So why would he exhort this? Ah, but what they do not have, as a divided Judean community in Rome, is peace in the sight of God, peace with respect to what is of God, peace because of God, peace in the presence of God. All perfectly good "pros ton theon" translations. And here we have classic cultic language, about access to stand before God, and the Kavod/Shekinah which is God's glory. Nothing but God's presence makes the Judean people special; nothing else is worthy ground for boasting. Circumcision, Kashrut, Sabbath observance, none of it means anything without God's dwelling in the community. If these things, under the slogan of observing the rules, have become destructive of that community, have become grounds for injustice within the community -- then Paul must oppose them while upholding a higher standard. If they are now reconciled with God, they must yet become reconciled with their neighbors.

Thlipsis. Oppression. Here we must understand context. The diaspora Judean community in Rome is under terrible pressure. Those who could be identified as Judeans were expelled under Claudius, an edict which has only just been lifted by Nero. Those who could pass for citizens were able to continue to be the faithful in Rome, but only by careful conformity with Roman culture. Do you conform? Do you support your brothers and sisters in secret? Do you make lifestyle choices in solidarity and receive the penalty with them? How black do you dare to be? How white do you dare to be? You're all poor, under the heel of the Roman patronage system. It keeps you down. While the authorities respect your existence as an ancient people with a law and a god, they're not interested in you being anything but Roman. You have peace, at the cost of your ethnicity. For Rome, it's easy: exert pressure, and watch the population split into "good Judeans" and "bad Judeans". The good ones get to keep their god and their law, and gain civilization.

And so the community becomes self-oppressing in both directions. The line imposed from outside combines with the `am/goy line that converts are in the process of crossing, that selectively permeable differentiation of self from other that is supposed to keep the community safe. It twists it. And the community commits hysteron-proteron, and starts boasting about the effects as though they were causes. Sacraments as though they commanded God's action. Works as though they achieved God's favor. The law and its commandments as though they constituted the covenant. A people that belongs to God because it is marked, not that is marked because it belongs to God. The distinctiveness becomes a thing in itself, the thing that constitutes faithfulness. And the other side, if it cannot have the marks, has holiness against the marks, holiness without marks, a piety which gets harder and harder to differentiate from that other culture. And where has the community's community gone, when both sides can be convinced to boast in divisiveness?

I see every reason, on this view, to read Romans as a position piece, an exhortation of self-motivated community in the midst of externally-imposed division. A call for unity, but not the unity imposed upon them from above, a unity which weeds out the faithful. A call for unity from below, unity from within, a lifestyle just as self-marking and self-evident as circumcision and kashrut, but expressed in ethical actions as God's community. A counter-culture that accommodates difference and therefore takes away Rome's ability to divide-and-conquer.

(Yeah, that's awfully positive, but I do things like this when I'm assimilating a position.)


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