The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

14 Responses to “The wrath of God in America”

  1. Katie Grimes Says:

    this is beautiful. thank you.

  2. Hill Says:

    I love it when you give us that old time religion.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s good enough for me.

  4. Darren Says:

    I appreciate your comments, resonate with what you said, and I am grateful that you articulated it since I would not have. What I worry about is that those turning to Fox News or Democracy Now for their TV/internet News might equally resonate with your statement:
    “I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news.”
    That is to say that those who are reading your blog resonate with the statement in ways that I don’t need to state here, but those on the pro-imperial side in one way could also hear these words (with some hang up on the “American Empire” bit) as condemning the moral free-for all leading to Divine judgement that they see anthropomorphized demonically in Obama and his ilk. As a Democracy Now pastor in a Fox News church I find that my critiques often get unintentional and unfortunate amens.
    I think that our fear is the place where work needs to be done, but that is a delicate dance as well. Do we need to fear the telos of our fears in order to move beyond them? To enter certain Pauline debates, do we need to move to the apocalyptic or an event in order to focus our fears aright to move beyond them as the new humanity? Or can the myth of resurrection, a confident “o death were is your sting,” move us beyond our polarity and terrified paralysis?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The greatest trick the devil (i.e., the emperor) ever pulled was converting to Christianity. The fact that the Fox News crowd, who are literally watching nothing but a torrent of lies, could resonate with that phrasing shows how thoroughly the forces of evil hold the truth captive. Is this fixable? I have no idea. I get scared to call home on the weekend sometimes, much less try to pastor a church.

  6. Alex Wyman Says:

    I’m curious as to why you contrast finagling your immortal soul into heaven with the resurrection. Do contemporary Protestants/evangelicals/whoever else is acting as your foil by and large reject the doctrine of bodily resurrection?

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s a footnote at best.

  8. RJL Says:

    This is what I’ve always struggled to understand about death-of-god type theology: how can you say that the resurrection story opens up a “space for hope” when you already know it’s a fantasy? I can understand how this works from a third person perspective: “looks at those people over there, they believe this thing which I’m quite sure isn’t true but I can see how the belief functions to motivate certain hopeful activities”. Sure, I can get that.

    But the first person perspective totally baffles me: “look at me, I don’t think this thing is true but when I profess it, it opens up a space for hope and transformation”. Like, how does that kind of self-deception work? How can you yourself have hope on the basis of a fantasy? A different way I can make sense of it is someone who says “I have this hope, which is kind vague, so this mythical narrative helps me put words to it and describe it”. Sure, I can get that. But in that case the hope comes first, and the narrative follows to rationalise/verbalise it. In this post, you’re saying that fantasy comes first and “does something”, creates hope, from the first person perspective? I find that even more baffling than the bafflement you feel at the Protestant reading of Romans.

  9. RJL Says:

    The tone here sounds criticial; it’s not meant to be. I’m saying this as someone who tried the route you’re describing, as I exited evangelical christianity, but found it psychologically implausible. I felt like I was lying to myself, and couldn’t identify at all with the beliefs and projects I wanted to. So, I’m actually baffled by people that can make it work.

  10. Rob Saler Says:

    I have the same question as RJL.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Did you skip this sentence? “And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role.”

  12. RJL Says:

    I read it all.

    But that paragraph sounds like you’re saying you want to look for ‘other things’ in addition to, and for different goals from, the resurrection story and its purpose – rather than instead of. If its in addition, that implies you still believe in the resurrection fantasy in the way that I find difficult to understand. But if you want those other things as a replacement for the resurrection fantasy, that would be a helpful clarification.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think it’s clear that I’m saying I like what the resurrection story does, and that I want to look for other things that could achieve similar goals. Nowhere do I say that I believe in the resurrection fantasy or that I want to fake like I do.

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