Romans 5: 1-11

In his book, St. Paul Returns to the Movies, among other examples, Robert Jewett sets the film Edge of the City alongside this passage from Romans.

He asserts that: “while our traditional theologies and understandings of Jesus’ death focus attention on individual forgiveness of sins, this passage – like most of Paul’s letters – focuses on the deeper and broader dimensions of the human dilemma: the problems of weakness, alienation, and suffering. We see this in the references to ‘peace with God’, to ‘reconciliation’ with God, to ‘boasting’, and to ‘affliction’. Paul’s approach is grounded in the effectiveness of Christ’s death in behalf of the vulnerable and undeserving.”[1]

The Edge of the City is “a low budget film, made for television under the title A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. It appeared for a short time in 1957. It has been shown sporadically since that time. The film features Sidney Poitier has the friend who gives his life for Axel Nordmann, a neurotic army deserter on the lam played by John Cassavetes. In Arthur S. Barron’s summary of the plot, Axel “gets a job in a New York freight yard by ‘kicking back’ part of his pay to a brutal boss. The deserter is befriended by a warm and sympathetic Negro foreman. Under the impact of this friendship he thaws out and moves toward maturity In a vicious freight-hook fight, however, the Negro is killed by the bully. After a period of cowardly indecision, the deserter finally goes after the murderer and drags him to the police.””[2]

“This film has been cited as the first instance in American cinematic history for a black person to appear simply as a friend of a white protagonist.[3] However, this feature of the story eliminated the possibility of national distribution in the pre-civil-rights period of the 1950s. Thus a film that presents one of the most compelling Christ figures in American cinema, elaborating the profound theme of redemption through self-sacrificial blood, remains an unrecognized and largely unavailable classic.”[4] It is Jewett’s opinion that this is the only film he knows that rises to the level of a potential dialogue partner with the proclamation of the blood of Christ in Romans 5.

Jewett asks: “What is so wrong with humans that Christ had to die? The usual answer to this question makes little sense: he had to die to provide forgiveness for the sinful deeds that humans commit. One difficulty is that there is no reference to forgiveness in this passage in Romans, and very few such references in the rest of Paul’s letters. In addition, since the God of Israel’s faith was forgiving, and since there were institutions of forgiveness in temple and synagogue prior to Jesus’ time, one can hardly make a case that the Jewish religion was lacking in this regard.”[5] So, Jewett points us to expressions Paul uses in verses 6-10 to describe the human dilemma, “to build the case on this evidence rather than on the traditional viewpoint.”[6]

The first expression is in Rom 5:6: “While we were still weak,” Christ died for us. “Weakness is not used here in the sense of being unable to do the law and thus being inclined to mistakes and sins, as the traditional teaching has suggested. Commentators have been puzzled by Paul’s seemingly un-theological[7] and overly “mild”[8] choice of the term weak in this sentence, but it would have resonated powerfully within the honour-shame framework of the audience in Rome. Weakness relates to human vulnerability and affliction, which Paul elaborates in Rom 5:3-4.”[9] Jewett goes on to explain that Paul’s argument  in Romans 5 correlates with what psychologists say about human development –  “that humans feel vulnerable at a very early age, when already as infants they discover they are outside the womb and unable to cope for themselves. The terror and pain are heightened if loving care is not provided in a reliable manner. The feeling of not being loved at this basic level evokes primal shame.”[10]

This becomes a springboard for our later attempts to cover up shame and to escape its pain. “Some of us boast to cover up our vulnerability; some of us, to show we are more worthy than others. But most of the members of the early church in Rome were labourers, slaves, and homeless immigrants from the most marginal social circumstances.[11] Their weakness consisted in having little to boast about, and thus facing a chronic, collective shortfall in group self-esteem. In a basic sense, most boasting derives from weakness in one form or another: some seek to cover up painful circumstances, and others feel they are losers with nothing to boast about to bring them honour. The annals of group conflict from the beginning of recorded history reveal an infinite variety of strategies to overcome shameful weakness.”[12]

In Edge of the City, John Cassavetes plays the role of Axel Nordmann from Gary Indiana, a man on the run because of his shame and weakness. “He had joined the army in the hope of finding something to boast about so his family would love him. “I figured I could do something good” by joining the army he says, “… if I made sergeant, I could come home. The thing is … a guy’s gotta something before someone can love him.” But after being bullied as a nobody, Axel deserted. He gets a job on, a railway loading dock where his weakness is exploited by a foreman who demands a kickback from his salary. He is befriended by Tommy Tyler, played by Sidney Poitier. TT is another foreman on the dock, one who does not take kickbacks or bully his gang.”[13]  Tyler plays a kind of is playing a kind of Christ role in the film, struggling for the dignity of his young friend and ultimately dying in an effort to protect him from the murderous bully Charlie Malek.

The matter of human weakness in Paul’s thought is directly related to Jesus’ death. His ministry to the weak and dishonourable members of society was bitterly controversial (Matt 9:10-11; 12:9-14). He ate with tax collectors and sinners. “He was friendly to women of ill repute (Luke 7:36-50), to rough fishermen as well as to hated government agents (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 19:1-10). He opposed the contempt with which the weak and vulnerable members of society were treated (Mark 9:42; Matt 5:22; 18:10-14). His effort to overcome hostility toward outsiders culminated in the cleansing of the Gentile court of the temple, which led directly to his death (Mark 11:17-18).[14] He conveyed the boundless love of God to the weak and the lost (Matt 18: 14), and he challenged the presumptions of the strong (23:1-36), ending up by being crucified between two thieves.”[15]

“The second term used to describe the human dilemma is in the reference to Christ dying ‘for the ungodly” or “impious” (Rom. 5:6). … The word “impiety” should be interpreted in the light of Rom. 1:18-25, which shows that humans tend to be so obsessed with their own honour and the status of their groups that they make gods of and for themselves…. Impiety for Paul is not a matter of lacking religion. Rather, impiety follows a religion – whether secular or traditional – that is self-serving and thus idolatrous. Paul has in mind the aggressive ungodliness of those who “suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18) about their own shame while seeking honourable status that competes with the status of God. In fact… ,  only God is finally worthy of honour. … When we seek this for ourselves or our group, we are usurping the position of God. As Paul writes in Rom 1:25, people tend to “worship and serve the creature rather than the creator.””[16]

Only after Paul understood the gospel could he begin to understand that his own piety had been an assault on the honour of God, that he had in fact been impious, despite his extraordinary adherence to the law.

The third reference to the human situation in our passage comes in the statement “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Jewett says that “in a basic sense, the status of sinner has a double connotation: it refers to the strategy of covering up shame through seeking godly honours and lying about our true situation; and it refers to the evil actions that flow from such a deception. But note that it is the actions of humans in a collective sense that are in view here: Paul refers to “sinners” in the plural and includes himself among the “us,” which should lead interpreters to think of the behaviour of groups rather than isolated individuals. Romans 1:18 refers to sin as “suppression of the truth” about who we are and who God is. Since human weaknesses and the vulnerability of our groups are too painful to bear, we try to cover them up.”[17] So people who have been shamed seek to shame others (see later in Romans 1) and the injured try to injure others, so that by doing so they might show that they are better, and gain self-respect. Thus “guilty deeds arise from shameful status, making all groups of humans sinners, a status which each group desperately seeks to disguise.”[18]

In the film, Axel Nordmann is covering up who he is and this is the second time he has used a false name. He did so to get into the army. His youthful indiscretions led to the death of his brother and alienation from his family. The alienation gets worse when he deserts the army and begins running. “The opening of the film shows him running through the loading dock area, barely making it through a closing gate. He is a kind of prodigal son, unable even to communicate with his family. But in this case, his crime, desertion from the army clearly derives from his shame. In contrast to the usual Christian paradigm of individual sin and forgiveness, in which evil deeds lead to shame, this is a story of original shame resulting in evil actions. The crime is an acting out of much deeper pain of shameful status that is unavoidable. This story resonates at a profound level with the honour-shame paradigms of the ancient world out of which our biblical texts arose.”[19]

Jesus had a particular affinity for the outcasts that ‘holy’ people kept at arms length. “But it was not until the crucifixion that the full dimensions of his campaign to overcome shameful status became clear. On Calvary human running and covering up and boasting and shaming led to the death of this man who took the side of the shamed. This death demonstrated the final measure of redemptive love that is capable of curing the shameful void from which evil actions spring.”[20]

“Like Tommy Tyler [TT] in the film, Jesus dealt with outcasts simply by accepting them. TT shares his food with Axel, and then takes him to the neighborhood where he lives and begins to share his life with him. Later, when the evil supervisor finds out who Axel really is, threatening to expose him to the authorities if he does not return to the kickback scheme, he is inclined to begin running again. TT convinces him to stay and face the consequences. … It was this kind of friendship to outsiders that got Jesus crucified, just as it gets Tommy Tyler killed at the conclusion of this powerful film.”[21]

The fourth description of the human dilemma is this: “As enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son” (Rom 5:10).  “The cross reveals all humans as God’s enemies, as those who crucify the Christ to avoid the exposure of their own shame, to retain their status of honour in religion and politics.”[22] Jewett says: This is the opposite of one of the traditional doctrines of the atonement, which supposed that God was the one who needed to be reconciled, paid off by the blood of an innocent victim in order to overlook the sins of the guilty. Although widely believed, this explanation of Christ’s death gets things completely backward, if our text is to be taken seriously. Instead, the cross exposes the enmity of the human race against God while at the same time offering unconditional reconciliation. The blood of Christ says, ‘The fight is over, so you can come home again.’”[23]

“The story of the redemption of Axel Nordmann by the death of his friend and protector Tommy Tyler also ties in with the theme of boasting, which runs through the text of Romans 5. Paul urges that we should “boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). The glory is what was lost in the garden of Eden and in every person’s replication of the fall, as we deal with our vulnerability and seek glory for ourselves. We either want to boast in the glory we have achieved, or we want to run away because no glory seems possible.”[24]

“But now, in Christ, we boast in the hope given to us through the death of Christ, a hope that by grace we shall all participate in glory that we shall find our proper task that God intends for us to do. For Paul, this is a “hope” rather than an accomplishment, because he is convinced that none of us can ever achieve enough to boast.”[25]

“At the end of the passage, Paul returns to this theme of a new form of boasting, not in our own accomplishments but in Christ, who sets us free from our escapist tendencies ‘Let us boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ’, … (Rom. 5:11). … We now [can] boast in the God who triumphed through weakness, who uncovers and overcomes our enmity by the blood of the cross. And so our salvation takes the form of reconciliation. It produces a new identity leading to peace with God”[26]

Jewett’s summary of the message of the film and Romans 5 is that “Some of us have been running away from our true selves, and others of us are fleeing from afflictions; all of us remain uncomfortable with our vulnerability and weakness; we try to accomplish something in life so people will love us, not realizing that this motivation just leads us into forms of boasting and hiding that make our situation more dishonest and more difficult to bear. We take refuge in our group identity as members of an allegedly superior nation, or an allegedly righteous church, but our uneasy feeling of vulnerability remains. The Spirit is inviting us shameful deserters to come home again and to face mature responsibilities as we hear the admonition with ears made sensitive by Edge of the City: ‘Let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ!’”[27]

[1]  Robert Jewett; “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame;” Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999: p124.

[2] Ibid., p125 quoting Arthur S. Barron, “Murder on the Waterfront,” New Republic 136, 4th March 1957, p22.

[3] See Robert Hatch, “Films,” The Nation 184 (February 9, 1957): p125; Barron, “Murder on the Waterfront,” p22: “Here…, an entirely new pattern has been introduced. In this picture Negro and White appear as full equals, as close friends …. all without a shred of self-consciousness. The relationship is entirely spontaneous and open. For the first time, Hollywood has given the Negro the role of a warm, uncomplicated and natural human being.” Bosley Crowther in New York Times, 30 January 1957, p33 agrees that this film comes “close to some sort of fair articulation of the complexities of racial brotherhood.”

[4] Robert Jewett: p125.

[5] Ibid., p125-126.

[6] Ibid., p126.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary 38a (Dallas: Word, 1988), p254.

[8] John C. O’Neill, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p93.

[9] Robert Jewett: p126.

[10] Ibid., p126.

[11] See Jewett, “Ecumenical Theology for the Sake of Mission: Rom. 1:1-17 + 15:14-16:24,” in D. M. Hay and E. E. Johnson, eds., Pauline Theology, Vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), p93-97 and chapters 5-6 of Jewett, ‘Paul the Apostle to America: Cultural Trends and Pauline Scholarship’ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994).

[12] Jewett, “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies;” p126.

[13] Ibid., p126-127.

[14] See Marcus J. Borg, Jesus A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p175-84; idem, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 1 p12-16. For a discussion of the role of the cleansing of the temple in the sequence of events leading to Jesus’ execution, see E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Allen Lane: Penguin, 1993), p254-62, p272-73.

[15] Robert Jewett, op.cit., p127.

[16] Ibid., p128.

[17] Ibid., p128-129.

[18] Ibid., p129.

[19] Ibid., p129.

[20] Ibid., p130.

[21] Ibid., p130.

[22] Ibid., p130.

[23] Ibid., p130.

[24] Ibid., p131.

[25] Ibid., p132.

[26] Ibid., p133-134.

[27] Ibid., p135.

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