My sense is that in the emerging globalised world we are seeing more and more urban poverty issues. For example, as I highlighted in the past, there are a lot of elderly people living in poverty in Hong Kong, despite the enormous amount of wealth among the rich in the city. (Click here to see the post.)
In his book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013), David W. Smith insightfully talks about how we may read Romans in our globalised urban world. Here are a few excerpts.
The collapse of Christendom, and the resulting crisis for the churches of the West, the massive growth of Christianity across the Global South, especially . . . in contexts of urban poverty and suffering, and the accelerating expansion of cities, driven by economic and ideological forces which pose similar questions to those we have seen Paul expressing with regard to the Roman imperium, all of these developments in our world presage a new epoch in Christian history. The Hispanic theologian Justo González comments that we are living ‘in time of vast changes in the church’s self-understanding’, and that the consequences of the shifts taking place today ‘will be more drastic than those which took place in the sixteenth century’. The loss of Christendom, González says, should not be lamented since it opens up the possibility that the meaning of Scripture may become clearer to us as truth is seen to consist not in abstract, intellectual concepts, but rather as ‘closely bound with bread and wine, with justice and peace, with a coming Reign of God . . .
González points out that one of the features of the transformation taking place around us is that whole swathes of the human population, taught of their superiors and betters, are today finding their voices. Ethnic minorities, women and children, people who ‘for reasons of class, nationality, sex, . . . , will no longer be silent’. What this suggests is that the most significant insights into Paul’s message are likely to come from below, from people whose socio-economic situations in a globalized world corresponds closely to that of the majority of the original recipients of this letter [that is, Paul’s letter to the Romans] in the slums of the megacity of Rome.
This fact is highlighted by Peter Oakes’ use of archaeological evidence in the ruins of Pompeii to construct an imagined ’house church’ in first-century Rome. Such a group certainly included slaves, including women who were almost routinely subjected to sexual exploitation. How would such followers of Jesus have heard Paul’s letter?
Indeed, in the twenty-first century we must do more than think about this, we must ask our brothers and sisters in the slums of Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Mumbai how they hear this ancient letter and what following Jesus means in practice in their daily lives.
Sources: The references to González above are from Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 48, 50. The excerpts from David Smith’s The Kindness of God are from location 1443–1478 in the Kindle version of the book.