The Law's Fracture Lines (Romans 7:15-25a)
By Christopher T. Holmes
It has been a few weeks since the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) adopted a resolution condemning white supremacy at its annual meeting in Phoenix, AZ. But it wasn't easy.
The basics of the story can be outlined briefly: Dwight McKissic, a black pastor from Texas, wrote a resolution condemning white supremacy and the alt-right to be considered by the SBC during their annual meeting; as with all resolutions considered at the annual meeting, his was reviewed by a committee; the committee decided not to bring McKissic's proposal to the floor of the annual meeting (apparently because some did not like its wording); late in the afternoon oneday during the meeting, McKissic made his way to the mic and asked for additional time for his resolution to be heard; and, there on the floor of the convention hall, his motion failed asthe assembly silenced the resolution once again.
As Emma Green, reporting for the Atlantic put it, that's when "All hell broke loose," especially on social media. Black pastors, congregants, and SBC denominational staff, many still reeling from the fact that over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump whose racially divisive rhetoric has emboldened many within the alt-right, expressed outrage and anguish over the muting of the resolution. Eventually, a modified version of the resolution was adopted.
Jim Wallis, writing for Sojourners applauds this move: "Ultimately, after a tumultuous process, the Southern Baptists unanimously voted for a resolution to 'decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ' and 'denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil.' And that is good news for all of us." Green, however, concludes her analysisless optimistically: "It may have been a procedural snafu, as some attendees would have it, but it revealed deep fracture lines-ones that won't be erased with any resolution."
And that's the problem with sin-whether it's racism or greed, classism or lust, xenophobia or envy: sin won't be erased with a resolution. The alt-right, the SBC's historic origins in relationship to slavery, and the pervasive role of the "Christian imagination" in fueling racism and other forms of cultural imperialism won't be erased with a resolution. The inadequacy of a resolution, much like Paul's reflection on the Law's impotence in our passage from Romans 7 this week, is that it fails to get at the heart of the issue. No matter how strong or softened the language, a resolution itself won't erase the fracture lines; it won't heal the open wounds that still divide this country; it won't resolve America's "original sin." A resolution, like the Law, may tell us what to think or what to believe, but it cannot actually compel our action.
And we should be cautious in applauding this resolution too quickly. After all, it can easily become a condemnation of others (the white supremacy of the alt-right) that leads to a self-justifying smugness. It is easy to condemn the explicit racism of the alt-right and fail to notice, confess, and lament my own complicity in systems that promote and benefit from racial inequality. And it is here that I find the honesty of Rom 7 to be the most appealing.
As a self-identified "white do-gooder" who falters and fumbles with issues of racial justice, poverty, and (most recently) gentrification, I can read myself into the "I" who speaks in Rom 7. Regardless of how one understands the speaker in Rom 7-whether as Luther's anguished conscience (channeling Augustine's earlier spiritual struggle) or as a general human being independent of God's rectification or as a Christian struggling to live rightly-there is something that speaks to our common human experience. There is an honesty to it all: of our desire to do the good and our failure to actually do it, of our best-laid plans and the realities of life, of our genuine longings and our deep disappointment and shame.
Paul speaks to the limits of embodied existence and the limits of our resolutions in verses 21-23: "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 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." Paul speaks of two laws-the Law of the mind and the Law of the body or the Law of God and the Law of sin-that are at odds with one another. The Law of God invites us to a proper ordering of our lives and our priorities, a focus on God and on other people, but the Law of sin works to disorder and deform our views of self, other, and the world.
Perhaps the problem with the Law, like the SBC resolution, is not actually the Law (or resolution) itself, but the power of the Law. Laws, like resolutions made by religious bodies, provide ideals but offer little assistance in the actual cultivation of those ideals. The Law identifies the need to manage the body and its appetites, but the Law cannot make us more self-disciplined. Like the Law in Rom 7, the SBC's resolution can reveal a deep and deadly fracture line, but it can do nothing in itself to address it. Like the speaker in Rom 7, we can look at the SBC resolution positively-we can affirm each and every clause with all of our beings-but if those words remain simply words, without transformed actions, we remain captive to an entirely different resolution.
In the larger argument of Romans, Paul upholds the Law's diagnostic function. It can reveal shortcomings. It can outline righteous living. But it is unable to actually change humanity's course of action. It reveals sin, but it is unable to redeem us from our slavery to sin. Likewise, the events surrounding the SBC's resolution, as McKissic explained in an interview, "showed that maybe, just maybe, [we] aren't where [we're] supposed to be on this."
And, as many have expressed on social media following the SBC's annual meeting, maybe a resolution simply does not go far enough. These responses to the SBC's resolution point to the need for resurrection, not resolutions, in our churches. But all resurrection requires death first. Jesus's resurrection birthed a new reality and a new creation but only after his death. Those who lament the events at the SBC annual meeting, not only at the meeting's reluctance to accept the resolution but also the limited value of the resolution itself, cry out for resurrection. But this anguished longing for new creation, for a transformed churchwill require the death of systems and structures and even theologies that originate in and support the white supremacy the resolution is meant to condemn.
So maybe the SBC's resolution is not in itself good news. But it at least points the way to good work. And, if we can sit with the honesty of Rom 7 and consider our own failure, apathy, and sin in repenting of white supremacy-that we admit that we're not where we're supposed to be on this-we might then find good news. This is not absolving us of responsibility, though. Despite Paul's insistence that the Law is ineffective, this does not clear us of responsibility. The Law demands that we come to confess our continued alignment with a "body of death" (7:24) both collectively and individually. And in identifying this body of death, unearthing and laying bare the fracture lines that exist in our communities and across our country, we may be able to pursue new life in the Spirit and trust in God's rectifying grace.
What are the "fracture lines" that have been revealed in your faith community in the last several months? How have they become evident?
In what ways are you more comfortable with words-resolutions, social media posts, sharing blog posts, and so forth-than with actions? What is one way that God might be calling you to respond in action?
Where do you experience a "body of death" in your life? What new things might come about through God's resurrecting power in those areas?
For Further Reading:
When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul by Beverly Roberts Gaventa
The Christian Imagination: Theology and Race by Willie James Jennings
D.L. Mayfield. "Church Planting and the Gospel of Gentrification." Sojourners. July 2017
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