This list of questions has been compiled for either group or personal reflection on the themes and ideas explored in Romans Disarmed. Questions have been contributed by other readers, the authors, and the editor of this guide.
If you or your group have questions that sparked reflection and discussion for you that you did you’d like to be considered for future iterations of this Guide, email Andrew Stephens-Rennie.
- In the Preface, the authors introduce us to Russet House Farm, the place they call home as a way of grounding the writing of this book and their reading of St. Paul in the minutiae and messiness of daily life. What else do you learn about the authors from reading the Preface?
- Based on what you know so far, why have you decided to read this book? What do you bring to it? What do you hope to gain from its reading?
- What attracts you to Paul’s letter to the Romans? What repels you about this letter?
- What are the questions that you bring to reading this letter and this book?
- What hopes do you have when it comes to engaging with this letter, with scripture, and in Christian community?
- This chapter opens with a vision of a party where joy and sorrow share the stage with Red Rain. How does this tableau resonate with your experience and observation of the world? How do you respond to the words and emotions conveyed in “Iggy’s Song?” (pp. 4-5)?
- The authors suggest that lament is the way into reading Romans. What do you think of this? Does reading from a place of lament resonate with your experience and your community?
- The authors, following Costa Rican theologian Elsa Tamez, suggest rereading Romans by replacing the word justice every time you read righteousness. How does this change your understanding of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome? What new questions does it bring up for you?
- How did you respond to the Targum of Romans 1:1-25 (pp. 24-31)? What made sense to you? What felt like a stretch? This book was written in the country colonially known as Canada: what would you add or change based on your own sociopolitical context?
- The authors intermingle robust scholarship with acts of daring imagination as a way of painting a picture of 1st Century life in Imperial Rome. How do you or your community practice and engage in imagination when it comes to listening to scripture? How do you understand the role of imagination in scripture study and Christian discipleship?
- “Imagination is never neutral or generic. It is rooted in specific stories and metaphors imbued with particular meaning in contrast to, and often in conflict with, other stories and metaphors” (p. 33). What imperial cultural stories and metaphors are you aware of that have shaped your Christian imagination? How has the gospel been enslaved by or liberated from these stories?
- How does your reading of scripture change when it is seen through the eyes of someone like Iggy? Considering Iggy’s point of view as best you can, what becomes important in reading a text like St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that might not have been important to you before? Why?
- What is most striking to you about seeing this story at ground level, through the eyes of Iris and Nereus?
- Throughout this chapter, the authors come back time and again to peoples’ experiences of slavery. What are the ways in which slavery remains characteristic of the culture(s) and country you call home?
- If Paul were to be writing Romans—or any letter—to the 21st century, North American church, what label or identity/position, would he give himself that would parallel the experience of a slave in the Roman Empire?
- What role(s) did women play in these ground level stories in Chapter 2? What new questions does this bring up for you?
- Is it possible for a person of privilege to understand what being a slave for Jesus means? Or is that knowledge only accessible by slaves – like Iris? Did the non-slaves in the Roman church look to the members who were slaves for a way into that knowledge and experience? I’m not sure that we can answer the second part of this question, so let’s drop it.
- What parallels do you see between ancient Rome and the town or city in which you live?
- Is it fair to say that people of privilege need to befriend those who society has decided are not worthy of such privilege? What would it look like to take seriously Paul’s desire for mutual upbuilding (14:13, 19)?
- “How community deals with such different eating habits” is described as being “at the heart of the gospel”. What does it mean to contend with different eating habits in today’s culture and for those who first read Paul’s letter? How do you think this question critiques modern soup kitchens, food banks, and other charitable feeding programs?
- On page 48, the authors reference Paul saying, “with his mind he is a slave to the law of God, but that with his flesh he is a slave to the law of sin.” Iris appears to understand this as the tension between what Christ-followers commit to (in the mind), even while their bodies and behaviours are regulated by an Imperial orthodoxy over which the individual has little control should they wish to avoid violent repercussions. How does this speak to, or differ from your own understanding of Christian discipleship.
- In Iris’ story, we encounter the everyday transactional nature of life in the Roman Empire. Iris exhibits as much agency as she can, but she finds herself coming up against the limits of her power in the loss of her children. Where in your life do you see yourself in Iris’ shoes? Where in your life do you see your self as more akin to her master?
- The authors suggest that Iris’ experience of injustice stands “as an indictment of the Roman ideology of peace, virtue, and justice.” In your own culture, community, country, whose experiences or stories might offer a lived experience or embodied indictment of your culture’s dominant ideology?
- What are the great overarching stories of the culture / country / faith community that you call home? Where do you see them falling short of the images they project?
- On page 72, the authors list five worldview questions as a way of understanding the worldview of the Roman Empire. How would you answer these questions for yourself? What story do these answers tell?
- What is one thing that challenged your acceptance of the worldview / cultural narrative that you inherited (whether from your family of origin, your faith community, culture at large)?
- Nereus, a Judean, fundamentally questions the presuppositions of the Imperial worldview, having seen the destruction it has done to his people. Even so, he feels trapped in the midst of that culture, constantly seeking ways to be faithful to God (not Caesar). Have you ever found yourself at odds with the powers of destruction? How did you respond? Where do you sense the need to be careful about living a life of resistance in your daily life?
- The authors write, “When the values of one culture, which are rooted in a particular narrative and worldview and armed with their own symbols and practices, are taken to be unequivocally universal, then they are assumed to be good news for everyone whether the colonized recipients of this good news recognized it or not” (p.80). Where do you see the clashes of values, symbols, praxis, narrative, and worldview in your own life? How do you choose to respond? What do you need to help you respond more faithfully?
- Is information on the extent of Genocide of Indigenous people in Canada new to you? What surprised you? Why do you think the authors included this story in a book about Paul’s letter to the Romans? What about this resonated with you? What fell short? Why?
- What do you think it looks like for churches (including your own faith community, should you have one) to turn away from or repent of genocide (p.86)? What are areas in which you have seen the church be complicit as agents of assimilation or imperial captivity (p.89)?
- Canada isn’t the only place past or present to contend with and to be in need of repentance of its destructive, assimilationist worldview and praxis. What are some ways in which you see the need for repentance of such practices in your own self / family / town / faith community / country?
- The chapter concludes with an analysis of the contemporary worldview of global capitalism. Did this interpretation of our own socio-cultural and economic context in the terms of empire resonate with you? What rang true? What didn’t seem to fit? Did you recognize the dominant western culture in the answers to the worldview questions (pp. 99-100)
- Is a culture of insatiable consumption and ecological destruction exercising a praxis of child sacrifice (97)?
- The authors leave us with a number of options in answer to the fifth worldview question in our contemporary context: What time is it? What do you think? How do you, perhaps as a study group, discern our present time? And having discerned the time, how would you describe your hope (or lack of hope)?
- The four studies in this chapter (Iris, Nereus, Indigenous North Americans, global capitalism) all lead to the question of home, the loss of home, and the longing for homecoming. Do you also perceive this motif running through the cultural realities described in this chapter? What is your sense of home and/or the crisis of home in our time?
- After this extensive exploration of Empire and Worldview, do you feel better equipped to engage with St. Paul’s letter to the Romans? What would you find helpful in moving forward?
- When you consider the idea of home, what place comes to mind for you? What makes that place and that set of relationships home for you? What do you love about home? What makes it complicated?
- When you read Paul’s letter to the Romans, where do you see themes of home, homelessness, and homecoming? Where else in scripture do you hear such echoes?
- On page 106, the authors write, “Romans has been wielded as a weapon, often in service of theological violence. We know that can’t be right…”
- Where have you seen Romans wielded as a weapon?
- How does the authors’ contention that ‘that can’t be right,” sit with you?
- Do you think it possible that Romans can, in fact, be disarmed? What will it take?
- On page 109, the authors write, “Imperial regimes are always murderers of home, invariably in the name of home.”
- Where do you see this playing out in your own community or the rhetoric of the places you call home?
- Is it possible to make home without displacing others?
- In this chapter, the authors explore what it might mean to be subject to the lordship of Jesus Christ rather than to the lordship of Caesar. What do you find liberating about that contention? Thinking about your own background, the ways in which you’ve heard Romans used before, what do you find difficult or challenging about this reading? What questions does this interpretive approach bring up for you?
- The authors think it important that we notice how many times Paul uses the word ‘gospel’ in the opening verses of the letter. How does it affect your reading of this passage, and the entire letter, to consider that Paul’s words are being intentionally used to undercut the dominant (economic / political / military) announcements of the Romans Empire?
- From pages 110-138, the authors offer their own overview of the Epistle and what they think Paul is up to-that he is “writing an anti-imperial tract, but this time he writes to the centre of empire.” Do you find their overview and argument convincing? What resonates for you? What might you need to hear to be convinced? What might they be missing?
- Reading Romans from the perspective of home-breaking and home-making is a rather novel way to interpret this letter. What did you find compelling about this interpretation? Where did you find problems with such a reading? What does the interpretation help explain? What remains obscure or less convincing?
Chapter 5 (Part I)
- “The gods of empire always promise abundance while they suck the earth dry, grind down the heads of the poor, and destroy the inheritance of the meek.” Is this true? Where do you see the promises of empire in conflict with the reality of the poor in your own culture? Maybe in your own neighbourhood?
- “It is always in the midst of lament that the prophets confess their audacious hope” (144). What is the difference between hope and optimism? How do each of these play out in your expression of Christian faithfulness?
- The authors write, “idolatry is what makes the stones cry out,” and “the creation itself is not mute, but eloquent” (146). Where do you hear the voice of creation? Can you share some experiences of that eloquence? What do you hear creation telling us about the state of the world, of our relationship to God and to one another?
- In a rather disheartening moment in the poem, the authors write, “We know that there are things we can never know about God because we have silenced creation.” Are there aspects of God’s creation that used to speak to you, that are unable to speak anymore because they have been harmed or destroyed?
- The authors contend that “Jesus calls us to give up our safety and security” (151-2). How does this look differently for people whose lives have greater or lesser access to safety and security? Where do you find yourself on this continuum? How do you respond to this statement, based on your sense of place on this continuum?
- In the midst of the poem, we are asked to consider what it would look like for creation were Christians to resist idolatry of all kinds (152-3). Are there systems of oppression (be they cultural, economic, technological, militaristic, religious, etc.) that Christians ought to opt out of for the sake of God’s good creation? How might our Christian communities need to change in order to support the renunciation of idolatry (as individuals, as whole communities) described here?
- The authors contend that “inevitability” and “no choice” is “the language of empire” (154). What does culture tell you is inevitable and cannot be changed? Do you think this is true? Should Christians hope differently? What do you hope for?
- The authors spend some time fixated on cell phones (154). What other aspects of life in the modern world lead to social isolation, environmental despoliation and the clouding of the loving, joyful character of God?
- In one powerful line, the poem reads: “When you first noticed that delight had turned to grief, did you weep?” (154). What about the state of the world causes you deep sadness and grief? Why?
- How does the image of God as a “brokenhearted God of grief” (156) resonate with your inherited or current images for God? How does it affect your sense of God, or of the Christian story to imagine God in this way?
- How might the thought that “living into the Spirit looks like the agony of childbirth” (157) reframe your own embodied approach to Christian faith?
- What stories do you know about the place you currently call home?What do you know about the plants, animals, the lands and the waters of the place you call home?
- Who are the people who have been tending that place since time immemorial?
- If you don’t know the names of the First Peoples on whose land you live, consider visiting https://native-land.ca/ to find out, and to begin the process of learning the story of your place.
- What do you know about those people? How might you start to educate yourself and your community about the people Indigenous to this land?
- How do you respond to the assertion, “If grief is the subtext, then God’s love is the text” (159)? What does this statement say about the relationship between God, land, and the people of the land?
- “If the crisis is communal,” the authors write, “then to community we must return” (160). How might you work with others in your neighbourhood / faith community / watershed to affirm and to build community in light of the observations and interpretation of pages 139-161?
- The poem concludes inviting readers to embrace the lament and sorrows of those who have experienced deep grief. Perhaps you have born such griefs and sorrows. Perhaps you are less acquainted with such pain. Wherever you come from, what do you think it looks like for individuals and communities to “image the suffering servant of creation that you are called to be” (161)?
Chapter 5 (Part II)
- What aspects of the dialogue between the authors and the interlocutor (conversation partner) do you resonate with? What aspects fall flat? If you were talking to the authors, what questions would you ask them?
- The authors state (on page 162): “It is clear that human suffering had a solid, rooted referent for Paul,” and follow this with a question, “Why is that we do not assume the same for his creational references?” Keeping in mind your own church context, how would you answer their question?
- Ellen F. Davis argues, “the condition of the land” is the “single best index of human responsiveness to God” (p.165). What does the state of land in your watershed tell you about peoples’ responsiveness to God in that place?
- Where are the areas of concern? Of hope?
- What might you or your community do to lament, confess, and become more responsive to God?
- In what ways do you and your community of disciples pay attention to and care for the lands on which you gather, worship, and on which your lives depend? How does the injunction that “land degradation is a sure sign that humans have turned away from God” challenge you to pay attention to place?
- How do you see / notice / live the link between spirituality and your daily economic and household practices? What do your daily practices say about the kind of God you worship?
- How have you previously heard or understood the description of suffering in Romans 8:35? How does the contention that this is more than “a theological formulation of the suffering that precedes a new age,” but comes with a specific face on the ground” (p. 170) affect your reading? Where do you see this playing out?
- The authors write (on p.170) “While Rome (like so many empires before it claimed to be the source of creational renewal, descriptions of the creation-destroying character of empire were common.” Where do you see discontinuity between the claims of the powerful and the practices of tending to creation, and responding to the current climate crisis on the ground?
- When you look at the state of the world around you, how do you respond emotionally? Do you feel joy? anger? grief? hope? How would you describe your response, and what leads you to feel that way?
- The authors provocatively suggest, “to read Romans as addressed only to upper-middle-class privileged churchgoers or to well-salaried academics is to strip it not only of its intent but also of its power” (p.175). How ought such folks respond to the challenge presented by Romans and this book’s authors?
- The authors suggest that “we need to read the text ‘for and with’ those who have been marginalized, neglected, and despised” (p.175). How are we to do so if our churches and communities are amongst those who do not find themselves on the margins (or perhaps who push people to the margins)? How might you and your church not just read for but with and amongst those who society and the church have pushed to the edges? Is it possible to do this work without retraumatizing folks?
- The authors offer the following related thoughts: “Genuine grief and repentance is a sign of repentance,” and “Grief is the doorway to repentance” and “It is too easy just to jump into solutions without having realized the depths of our sin” (p.176). Are you ever tempted to skip over the messy bits? What are the advantages and disadvantages of that posture? What would it take to dwell in and confront the mess?
- How do you respond to the authors when they say “maybe we begin by asking not ‘what are the solutions,’ but rather ‘where is the pain?’” Are you the kind of person who likes to seek solutions, or to seek the pain? What do you find challenging or liberating about this proposed approach?
- On page 178, the authors ask the interlocuter “what are some of the idolatries of which we need to repent?” How would you answer this question? How would you answer it as a neighbourhood, community, church, watershed?
- “Ecology, or creation, isn’t the only loser in the war that our economic system wages.” Who are the winners and losers in your local economy? How have you seen economy and ecology at odds in your local context, region, or country? How do you respond? How would you like to respond?
- How might the world look different if we weren’t “addicted to the wealth generated by the exploitational desecration of Indigenous resources?” (179)
- What do you see when you “allow your imagination to be liberated by a vision of creational redemption” (179)? What would the world look like if we lived as thogh we were drawn deeply into God’s story of redemption, and in so doing, repented of our idolatry?
- The authors acknowledge the challenge of acting in face of the overwhelming global spiritual crisis presented by the climate emergency, and then point to the importance of cultivating “small fidelities, skills, and desires” (182) alongside broad systemic change. What shifts can you make, or can be made by your faith community to become more faithful?
- How might you unpack the challenge that “we should not be willing to sacrifice any community anywhere or anyone else’s welfare for our own idolatry” (182)?
- After reflecting on a shift in personal practice, the authors remind us that “community is at the heart of a faithful response” (184). Are there some practices your community (perhaps the group studying this book) is willing to experiment with as a means of testing this out in community?
- How can you see the discernment process laid out on p.186 being used? What are its strengths? Challenges? Where might you, and your community use it first?
- On page 188, the authors write, “The original sin was to eat something out of season.” How does this discussion of food and fidelity in this section cause you to reflect differently on the Genesis creation narrative, or on the practices of growing, preparing, sharing, eating, and composting food?
- What are the native species of plants and trees in your region? What foods do you most anticipate and look forward to at their first harvest?
- “Paul is offering this vision of healing of the earth as an alternative imagination to that of empire” (196) What do you find compelling about Paul’s vision? What doesn’t resonate? Two thousand years and half a world away, how do you imagine these words taking on flesh?
- The interlocutor identifies their challenge: “I live so far from where I was born that I only go back for visits now. And with school and work, I haven’t lived anywhere long enough to feel that it is a place in which I am rooted, a place that is my home” (200). Does this struggle resonate with you? With the stories of people you know? What do you see as a possible remedy to this challenge?
- This entire chapter has been a challenge for communities to take action, summarized in the following passage:
“We can’t say that we want reconciliation with the land and with the people we have dispossessed if we are not willing to engage in the hard work of making repaarations, listeining to what justice would look like, and then in humility standing with those seeking such justice.”
What is your gut response to this statement? Do you feel compelled to take further action? To listen more deeply? What do you and your community need in order to take your next faithful steps?
26. On page 206, the authors describe the practice of watershed discipleship. What intrigues you? What do you want to learn more about?
27. What do you imagine “a new life for our community, for ourselves, and for all creatures on the earth” might look like in your watershed/town/neighbourhood? What might help spark your imagination? Who might you explore it with? Are there others doing this work who inspire you?