Wrath and Judgement
Paul leaves what he understands to be “sexual depravity” to speak of depravity in general in the last few verses of Chapter 1. The failure to acknowledge God by the light of natural reason and turning to the worship of idols leads to warped thinking and a long list of painful consequences. Many of the things Paul lists would have been condemned in Greek and Roman cultures as well as in Judaism and among followers of Jesus. That said, the leaders of the Empire were not seen as upholders of these classic virtues, but corrupt, power hungry oppressors.
I read over Robert Jewett’s comments of this passage and yesterday’s in his 1143 page commentary on Romans in the Hermenaia series (2007). Jewett pointed out that Roman society was profoundly hierarchical, and most people were clients or slaves of others. Even free born citizens were obliged to submit to their patrons. It is also clear from Roman and Greek literature of the time that sexual submission was expected. A patron – always a male – could demand sexual satisfaction from his slaves, as well as from his spouse, and any of his clients, whether male of female. It was an exercise of power as much as anything. What we understand as sexual exploitation, sexual assault, and sexual harassment was part and parcel of the way things were; it was only illegal if a slave or a person of lower status sexually assaulted a Roman citizen of higher status. Jewett speculates that part of the disgust Paul expresses about pagan same-sex behaviour may be because it so often was actually rape. Again, Paul was probably not aware of any same-sex relations which functioned on the principle of mutual love, respect, and equality.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
At the beginning of Chapter 2 Paul suddenly unleashes his rhetorical wizardry. After leading his readers (really, listeners) down the garden path of judgement he turns on them to say that they are in no position to judge others. A common theme in the gospels is that Christians should refrian from judgement and be quick to forgive. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says:
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye. (Matthew 7.1-5)
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we might be forgiven our sins as we forgive others. In the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus came into to the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. The story of the woman caught in adultery in which Jesus tells the crowd that those without sin could cast the first stone (and no one can, of course) also emphasises this principle. Judging others was not a good thing in the early Christian communities, and both Paul and the recipients of his letter know this.
Paul has apparently heard that some of the Christians in Rome are quite judgmental. They are showing “a hard and impenitent heart” with their condemnation. Whether one is Jewish in origin or Gentile in origin makes no difference – harsh judging will result in a harsh judgement from God.
How are we to envisage the wrath of God? I think there are two or three ways. First, we can imagine it as an apocalyptic breaking in of God in which those who have suffered (including the righteous dead, who are raised to new life) are raised up and come to live eternal life, in something that might look like the New Jerusalem. Those who caused the suffering – emperors, murderous soldiers, cruel masters of slaves, those who exploited others without regard for their humanity – they are also raised to new life, only in this case they are brought low and punished, perhaps in something that looks like a burning fire of pitch. Or, again, one might see these very graphic descriptions as depictions of that which is strictly speaking beyond words and physical understanding, but contains spiritual truths. Or, once again, one might say that in this life even in oppression we can experience the new life in Christ, and those who are not in Christ are already in a form of hell.
It is hard not to judge. Indeed, many of us have to make judgements about people all the time. Are they good employees? If this person has done something bad how do I bring the consequences of their action to bear upon them, so that they cannot harm again? Is this a good piece of art? Is this food good for me? Am I safe around this person? Am I being manipulated?
Perhaps what Jesus and Paul are getting at is that we can become obsessed by judging others, particularly when we have no need to judge them. Rather than finding a way to live with people who are different from us, or hold different ideas from us, we raise ourselves up by putting them down. We do this with “race”, ethnicity, religion, nationality, education, sex and gender, parentage, social status, economic status, where we live, where we’ve come from, and so forth. It’s the kind of judging that we associate with internet trolls, or hyperbolic politicians. Christians are called to let go of all that and to be at peace. Even if they have suffered mightily they need to forgive, otherwise the trauma of the abuse will continue to have a hold on them; that is not to say that the perpetrator should not face the consequences of their actions, but that the person abused needs to work through their pain regardless of what happens to the perpetrator. It may not always be possible to find justice in this life, but one might find a modicum of peace. This is a foretaste of eternal life, of divine life.