A Provocation: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: July 5, 2020: Romans 7:15-25a

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. 
For I do not do what I want, 
but I do the very thing I hate.

7:16 Now if I do what I do not want, 
I agree that the law is good.

7:17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, 
that is, 
in my flesh. 
I can will what is right, 
but I cannot do it.

7:19 For I do not do the good I want, 
but the evil I do not want is what I do.

7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, 
it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, 
evil lies close at hand.

7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,

7:23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, 
making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

7:24 Wretched man that I am! 
Who will rescue me from this body of death?

7:25a Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Lutheran theologians love this passage. We have found it amenable to our basic theology, that God alone can save, since humans need to be delivered from “this body of death” because we “do not do the good [we] want, but the evil [we] do not what is what [we] do.” On this reading, Sin is an ontological force with eschatological impact (I have said that in recents posts, as well), which means that there is a puzzle at the heart of human action. For all our strength, and for all our good intentions, we find ourselves doing damage when we aim to do good.

This is a strong theology, worthy of respect. It produces useful insights.

But it is not the only way of reading Paul’s words in Romans 7.

The key to another way to read comes in Paul’s statement in v. 16:

Now if I do what I do not want, 
I agree that the law is good.

The first thing to consider is that, for all his help to Lutheran theology, Paul was not a Lutheran. He was Jewish. And that means that when he talks about “law” you should translate the word as “Torah,” which is something very different from what Lutherans mean when we talk about Law over against Gospel. In that antagonistic opposition, only the Gospel makes alive, and the Law only kills. As a result, some Lutherans read v. 16, and then imagine that it is a good thing that God gave us Law so that it could kill us.

Jews do not imagine things that way. Lutherans should listen when Jewish theologians notice the danger that comes with imagining that God wants to kill us and that we should see this as good.

Before you fire off a volley of passages from the Bible or regale me with a flurry of stories in which killing might be somehow good, please remember that I read the Bible as vigorously as you do, and that my narrative imagination is probably as strong as anyone’s. I know those passages, too, and I have long reflected on those stories.

From Jewish friends and interpreters I have learned to hear v. 16 differently, and in a way I (as a Lutheran) find illuminating.

For instance:

Now, if I find myself wanting to do something, and still not doing it, I have just agreed that the practice of studying Torah is both good and constructive. Studying Torah, the rabbis teach, forms us so that we have a sense of what is worth doing (and worth avoiding) that goes beyond our natural self-serving ego-centrism. So, the fact that I find myself critiquing my own behavior is evidence that a life devoted to Torah pays off very well indeed. It means that I do not have to wait only for someone else to call me on my mistakes. Learning Torah makes me able to do that, as well. That is good.

Lutherans and Jews might just agree about this, so far.

Verse 18 is where they will part company. Lutherans like the customary English translation that affirms that “nothing good dwells within me.” But that is not really what Paul has said in v. 18. In Greek he says:

οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, ἀγαθόν…

This is better translated as “For I know that it does not dwell in me (that is to say, in my body) ἀγαθόν does not dwell there.” The word in Greek (ἀγαθόν) is common, and complicated. It refers to that which is admirable. It refers to noble behavior. It refers to what an earlier generation might have called “being worthy,” living a life of real worth. Paul is saying that human being is an accomplishment, a work of art, even. He means what we mean when, confronted with people acting like idiots, we say, “Who raised those people, anyway?” He is referring to what we also observe when we notice that nurses act like nurses and pastors act like pastors. He is pointing to the reason that friends of mine who have been in the Marines sometimes have Semper Fi bumper stickers on their cars: once a Marine, always a Marine.

Paul is not saying that nothing good inheres in human nature. Far from it. He is saying that the people we admire are people who, through training or good up-bringing, have gone beyond just doing what is comfortable or easy. That takes training.

I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. We are again realizing how deep racism runs in this country, where human beings were held as slaves until very recently, where the Confederate battle flag was added to state flags in southern states as a protest against desegregation in the 1950s.

I think we are all thinking about this. In differing ways, to be sure, but I think we are all wrestling with how we respond to the call to become anti-racist. That is not a simple matter. A person called in to a radio show and asked: “Am I right? Are we now supposed to say ‘Black’ instead of ‘African-American?'” People talk about the efforts they have devoted to “seeing the person, not the color.” Sometimes they quote Dr. King and talk about the “content of their character.” We will not do well in this present moment if we write off their distress as hypocrisy. If for no other reason than such a dismissal is far too easy and far too lazy.

I was listening this morning to Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being. This is a fascinating on-going discussion about things that matter. (Go find it online at: https://onbeing.org/ ). Today Tippett was talking with Jason Reynolds, an author that my son put me onto. (My son was right: Reynolds is remarkable. Read his work.). They were talking about what it is, and is not, to be anti-racist. They were noticing some of the same things that we all have wrestled with. I will quote Reynolds’ reply at some length.

Reynolds:Not like that, Krista. I know the language is tripping you out. [laughs] What I’m saying is, — there’s no finish line, is what I’m saying. There’s no finish line. So there’s no finish line. There’s this idea that people are gonna read this book, or they’re gonna read all the books, and then, all of a sudden, they’re going to “be” anti-racist. And what I’m saying is — and that’s also a very American thing, this idea that there are winners and losers, that there’s a binary that we live in, a bifurcation when it comes to that which is a failure and that which is victorious. The truth of the matter is, this is about journeymen, journeyfolk. Our job is to constantly be pressing toward a thing. But that thing is ever elusive. And the reason why it is ever elusive is because the world, and humanity, continues to evolve. And because it continues to evolve, the things that complicate our lives evolve with it. And so we have to be vigilant, to continue to figure out what the new versions of these ailments are so that we can continue to tear down that house. But there’s no end goal. There’s no — and I think that’s how humanity and anti-racism connect.

I think Reynolds has, in one swing, hit both what is so unsettling about this moment in our wrestling with racism and what is at stake for Paul in Romans. There is no finish line. There is no stopping point, no place where we can arrive and then just not have to think about it anymore. If we could just get the language right, then we would be not-racist. If we could just have enough Black friends, friends with whom we just laugh and scheme and plan and tell dumb jokes, friends whom we think of just as friends, then we would be demonstrably not-racist. There are many finish lines that we dream up, not usually consciously.

If we imagine that there is a finish line that we can reach and stop, we will say with Paul: ” O wretched man that I am!” And then we will call in to radio shows and ask questions that will sound odd and uncomfortable.

I think we all feel odd and uncomfortable these days. Wrestling with race is that difficult. The language changes. We work legitimately hard at the political task of correcting injustice and improving the functioning of police forces, and then realize that the roll call of young black men killed in police custody continues to grow and that our political efforts have been blunted and turned into a a tacit defense of the status quo. We hear the pain and anger and even rage expressed by our friends and we realize that they have never for a moment had the opportunity (or desire) to be “color-blind.”

Reynolds is especially helpful at this point. He says:

Our job is to constantly be pressing toward a thing. But that thing is ever elusive. And the reason why it is ever elusive is because the world, and humanity, continues to evolve. And because it continues to evolve, the things that complicate our lives evolve with it.

The world, and our life in it, continues to evolve. Wrestling with racism continues to evolve. Paul, as a Jew, understands this. He knows that we are captive to the past and to our own self-serving egotism. He also knows that God has always understood that. So if the question on the table is: “Who will deliver us?”, the response is: God will, because our captivity is not a surprise to God. Likewise, if the question on the table is: “How can we carry on this odd, difficult, unsettling, risky conversation about race?”, the response is related: God will, and we will sustain each other. It will be odd and unsettling, and the risks will be real, but God will sustain us because people like Reynolds will remind us that there is no finish line. And, as we engage each other, we will sustain each other.

And that is the real reason I think Jewish readings of this passage are more helpful than Lutheran readings (as much as I have learned from them). This may be a matter of ontology, the way things really are, but it is not settled by appealing to eschatology, the endpoint or finish line. This is a matter of working out the practice of Torah, which shapes us as human beings.

We will still find our selves doing what we would not choose to do, and saying what we never should have said. And we will engage, again and again, in the daily work of faithfulness. Because, to my ear, that what the work of anti-racism comes down to: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God and each other.

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