A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: June 28, 2020: Romans 6:12-23

6:12 Therefore, 
do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, 
to make you obey their passions.

6:13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, 
but present yourselves to God 
as those who have been brought from death to life, 
and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.

6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, 
since you are not under law but under grace.

6:15 What then? 
Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? 
By no means!

6:16 Do you not know that 
if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, 
you are slaves of the one whom you obey, 
either of sin, 
which leads to death, 
or of obedience, 
which leads to righteousness?

6:17 But thanks be to God that you, 
having once been slaves of sin, 
have become obedient 
from the heart 
to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted,

6:18 and that you, 
having been set free from sin, 
have become slaves of righteousness.

6:19 I am speaking in human terms 
because of your natural limitations. 
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity 
and to greater and greater iniquity, 
so now present your members as slaves to righteousness 
for sanctification.

6:20 When you were slaves of sin, 
you were free in regard to righteousness.

6:21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? 
The end of those things is death.

6:22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, 
the advantage you get is sanctification. 
The end is eternal life.

6:23 For the wages of sin is death, 
but the free gift of God is eternal life 
in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Two things catch my eye immediately. The first is that this passage from Romans uses enslavement as a metaphor. This is, of course, a letter than knows nothing of the race-based enslavement that was still practiced in the United States a couple of decades before my grandfather was born. The difference does matter. Slaves were numerous in the ancient Mediterranean world, some were prisoners taken in war, some were debtors, some were just born into it. Slaves made up a significant percentage of the population (perhaps even as high as 40%), and people with power saw that economic structure as both normal and advantageous. Even people who did not own other people understood that that was just the way society was organized.

Once an evil and unjust social structure is transformed into something based on race, the evil is compounded, and the injustice screams for redress.

And it is worth noting that enslavement provides, in this passage, an image of an evil that has been escaped. Paul assumes that holding people as slaves is common and normal, but also assumes that freedom from enslavement is a positive good.

Of course, once this “common and normal” injustice is linked to race, the matter of achieving freedom is complicated. Those with power, in fact, invent race as a way of justifying their privilege and preserving it. In such a system, anyone whose skin is black is created (by the people with power and privilege) as a person who OUGHT to be held as a slave.

The difference between then and now does indeed matter. But we only live now (just as Paul only lived in his “now.” And in our present moment, enslavement is not a metaphor. It is a memory just barely out of the reach of people born when my grandfather was a child. It is a reality that still hunts people in our present world. This morning I learned on the news that Bubba Wallace, a Black man who is a NASCAR driver, found a noose hanging in his garage. Lynching is a crime that seeks to preserve the “right” of white people to perform violence, torture, and murder on people who are Black.

“Perform” is an important word in this sentence. It is a perverse kind of theatre: the performance creates a reality that seeks to impose itself on the world in which we live. This perverse kind of theatre seeks to recreate race-based enslavement by allowing “masters” to “lay it on well” (to quote Robert E. Lee) when flogging Black people. (Wesley Norris, “Testimony of Wesley Norris”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 14, 1866.)

The fact that lynching is still performed means that this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans cannot be read casually, especially by white people.

The second thing that caught my eye was the way enslavement is used metaphorically in this passage.

This passage is one of the foundations for the way Lutheran theology reads its understanding of sin: sin (or, Sin) is not a matter of specific errors that can (and must) be corrected. Sin, for Lutheran theology, is an ontological reality with eschatological consequences. It is understood to fatally infect each and every human being and to be unaffected by our efforts to eradicate it.

This powerful understanding of Sin shapes the way Lutheran theologians talk about the place of racism in American society. A few weeks ago I shared on Facebook a meme I had run across: It’s Not Black Against White; It’s Us Against Racists.” I approve of that sentiment.

A friend, a highly skilled Lutheran theologian, disagreed with me. He pointed out that racism infects all of us and needs to be addressed by each of us through careful self-examination.

He, of course, is right. The way a Lutheran theologian would be right about this.

But I think that he is also wrong.

I do not care at all about NASCAR races. I’ve never seen one, even on television, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I have friends who love racing. Good for them. I do not care about NASCAR, but I care deeply about catching and punishing the racist who hung the noose in Bubba Wallace’s garage. I care deeply about blocking the racist schemes that rig voting procedures so that Black voters are disadvantaged. And I care deeply about calling out anyone (president or not) who makes racist tropes acceptable in public. When such things go on, my ethical conclusion is that all of us have to act together to oppose the racists who want to normalize their aggressive bias.

My friend is right, and he is wrong, I think. I think there are two separate issues at stake here. Racism runs deep and it infects all of us whose lives and advantages are shaped by the institution of race-based enslavement of people, now just 150 years out of public practice and full “legality” in the United States. The invention of “race” needed to maintain that system of power and privilege runs as deep as our DNA and we each and all have a responsibility to root it out. But as we do that long, painstaking work, we also have to confront, as a society, the acts of overt violence committed by actual active racists. I am sure that final elimination of such acts will require that we all engage in that long, painstaking work, but I am not going to hold my breath until racists with nooses can be brought to see the light. For now, while we listen and work and vote and examine ourselves, we also just have to block the racists. I will worry about their hearts and minds later.

And I will worry about how my own heart and mind gives them liberty to hang a noose in a driver’s garage.

And so I read Paul’s letter. And it seems to me that he also sees that there are two tasks in front of his readers, who are the non-Jewish apprentices to messianic faithfulness who live in and amongst the larger Jewish community (which is a mixture of non-messianist and messianist people). Paul says to them: You once served a system of power that leads only to death. He calls that system of power by a strong theological name: Sin.

He is, of course, speaking of the system, not the individual sins. He is speaking of the Roman order, that enforced its power and privilege through the use of violence, an example of which was shown when Rome lynched the messiah. Another example of this enforced system was the holding of slaves, whose forced obedience cemented the power and privilege of the Roman elite.

Which means, by the way, that Paul’s argument is that his audience has been set free from having privilege and power. Think about that slowly.

You have been changed, Paul says. You have been made free. Your nature has been altered by the free gift of God. So far, so Lutheran.

But Paul also tells these Roman changelings that this change of nature is not some mystical, invisible change that allows you to live the way you formerly did. He notes that they “have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” The phrase “from the heart” indicates that Paul thinks that the miracle promised by Jeremiah has come to pass, but the rest of v.17 is simpler, and more important. The “form of teaching” that he talks about is plain everyday Torah observance. Jewish thought has never been too impressed with mystical invisibility. Jewish life focuses on the nuts and bolts of doing Torah, and expects that these simple acts will shape you into a person who lives a life that points to the God who loves all of Creation.

Paul says: a miracle has happened here, and appears to believe that a change so basic could only be accomplished through a miracle. He was not going to hold his breath until Roman privilege surrendered. But Paul is also saying that, in the messy aftermath of that miracle, the way forward follows Torah. Do the good that Torah teaches: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. But also, block the bad that Torah also blocks.

And so the takeaway from Romans 6? Don’t be a racist. Put more biblically: No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness. And block racists and their vicious acts. Such acts lead to greater and greater iniquity, and finally result in death. We have had enough death.

Maybe we will succeed in rooting out racism. Maybe there will be a miracle. But until it is clear that such a miracle has happened, do Torah. Do Torah. Do Torah.

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