That’s the theme of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, as I see it: peace in an age of brutality. Of course, for Paul, it was most important that we have “peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We ‘ll come back to that later. Paul also believed that those who find peace with God find peace with each other. I’ll have more to say on that later too. Right now, I want to make one point: Paul lived in an age of brutality.
Paul was born in the early days of the Roman Empire; the empire that began with the reign of Augustus, and was followed by the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. It was a time of relative stability and absence of wars, but the Pax Romana was enforced by the use and threat of brutal force. If you saw the HBO special “Rome” you saw plenty examples of that. As Tacitus put it, “the Romans make a desolation and call it peace.”
But in case you are not convinced, I’ll offer two facts in support of the thesis that the first century was an age of brutality. The first fact is the popularity of gladiator contests. Gladiator shows were fights to the death, and no public festival was complete without one. One historian recently undertook a serious study of this problem: what did they do with all those bodies? His conclusion was that they threw them in the Tiber.
The second fact is a statement of Paul’s in Romans chapter one. It is so subtle that it is easy to miss. Paul presents a list of sins and vices, and then says those who do the nasty things in the list agree that “those who do such things are worthy of death.” The vices in the list includes, among others “disobedience to parents” and “slander.”
In our day, we may not like it when children are disobedient or when senators shout out to the president, “You lie!”–but we aren’t in favor of killing the offenders. And yet, Paul evidently expected none of his readers to blink when he said, “those who do such things deserve to die.”
Was life so cheap in the Roman empire that everyone agreed name callers and rebellious children deserved to die?
Or is that what Paul really means?