by Anna Hadfield
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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.19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!Romans 7:15-25a
For me, and maybe for some of you, this weekend’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most cathartic passages in the New Testament, even if I continually struggle with what to do with it. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” It’s not easy, especially in our time and place, to take on Paul’s proclamation of wretchedness without reservation. Certainly, we can increasingly call our systems wretched and sinful, but how we locate ourselves in relation to those systems without getting mired in guilt or resignation is not so obvious. It can seem either too easy to understand oneself as a sinner, or too hard. If it’s too easy, there is a risk of excusing one’s own actions, or perhaps adding to the shame-voice many of us already have in our heads that tells us we aren’t good enough or worthy enough. But it can also feel too hard to sign on to the Christian doctrine of sin: sure, I often don’t understand my own actions, as Paul says. But does calling them sinful really help me to further understand and direct them? Wouldn’t it be better for me to go to therapy, for instance, and do the uncomfortable work of exploring why I do the things I do and want the things I want?
Along with these sorts of tensions, the passage raises another, which is what the confession of sin actually accomplishes. Admitting one’s own complicity is essential for the Christian life, but it still does not make one good. You’re a sinner whether or not you confess as much, and the point of such confession is not to soothe one’s conscience. Is the recognition of one’s own sin meant, then, to do the opposite—to trouble one’s conscience? On the one hand, I think the answer is yes, though this can’t mean we simply try all the harder to do the right thing, because this very ability to see the good and to bring it about is precisely what is called into question. Paul writes, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” So wanting to do good, to bring about good in the world, is in Paul’s hands a desire peculiarly susceptible to corruption. The wanting to do good and be good can place us deeper in the dominion of sin; it intensifies the hold that sin has on us. Paul is not saying, do not therefore will what is right, but rather be aware of what else your will lets in. That moment when you are so sure and satisfied you are doing good, at least in my experience, tends to be the moment to step back and ask what else might be going on.
Given the importance of this insight to Paul’s message in Romans—not to mention the fact that religious self-satisfaction is one of the main targets in the Gospels—it’s ironic that Christianity has for much of its history sanctioned and justified colonial missions to do good and bring others into the light. Paul’s question at the end of our passage, “who will rescue me from this body of death?”, carries an uncanny resonance when we think of the overwhelming death and terror that Christians have brought into the world, the death which white theology has enabled and nurtured. For that reason, this passage in Romans encapsulates for me both what is so compelling about Christian sin-talk, and how it can also ring so unbearably hollow, especially in our country.
Should we be surprised that death casts itself in the language of the morally good and upstanding, the preservation of a beloved way of life, as our president did this past weekend in his speech at Mt Rushmore? Is that not how death always speaks and gains dominion? In our reading from Matthew this week, Jesus says, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” I have no doubt that this weekend, July 4th- themed sermons in churches all over America echoed Trump’s declaration that, as he put it, “we stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.” Or that many Americans openly or secretly agreed with him when he proclaimed that “angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”
Truthfully, I don’t know how much there is to be gained from continuing to marvel at the president’s utter shamelessness and his ability to sanction violence at the same time that he is ostensibly condemning it. After all, that kind of doublespeak is part of what has built up American institutions and made them what they are. Jesus’s words from Matthew highlight this human tendency towards moral opportunism. It tells us that this is what we should learn to expect when people are frightened, or threatened, and we should expect it not only from others but also from ourselves. We read in the Gospel of Luke that when Peter realizes that he has denied Jesus three times, just as he was told he would, he goes out and weeps bitterly. There is tremendous pathos in that moment: Peter’s bitter weeping does carry the sting of self-reckoning, but also, through that very reckoning, a kind of balm for hopelessness and helplessness. The more we come to know “the inner conflict” between our will and the good, as the NRSV translation dubs the Romans passage we read today, the more we can slowly dismantle our delusions and fantasies of who we might be. The more we confront this inner conflict, the more we can seek God in the midst of this body of death.
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