The second reading for the Fifth Sunday of Pentecost is Romans 7.15-25a
When I hear people of color today cry out against systemic racism, I want to reply, “I’m not racist.” I want to object that this country has come so far from the days of slavery and the sins of the Confederacy, that surely we are not guilty of systemic racism.
My natural defense is to say I’m not racist because I don’t think of myself as a racist.
So, it alarms me when I hear, with my own ears people say they want to keep statues of Confederate generals up because it gives them pride that their ancestors fought for the right to hold slaves…but they aren’t racist. I hear them say that we all have a right to be afraid of black men because so many of them are thugs and rapists…but they aren’t racist. I watch them on video tape thrust into the faces of others with white hot rage on their faces because someone dares to speak Spanish in public and they should go home to where they belong and not live on the taxes of white folk…and then say they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies.
What is it in us that enables us to speak and act in such racist ways and yet go on thinking that we are not racist?
In Romans 6.1-7.6, the Apostle Paul describes the life of a Christian who has embraced Jesus Christ. This is a person who dies to the old self and is raised by God to live a new life. The baptismal life of daily repentance is a gift God gives us in Christ.
But, in Romans 7 Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Paul is writing here, in chapter 7, from the perspective of a newborn, humble Christian. But he looks back on life before such a change of spirit that faith in Christ grants. He sees that sin is such an overpowering force in ordinary human life, untouched by the freedom of the gospel, that it can fool us. Indeed it had clouded his thinking so much before his conversion that he thought he was doing God’s good will by jailing Christians. He thought he was doing good by doing injustice and by rejecting Christ.
In chapter 6 Paul confesses that being without the life of death and resurrection that faith and humble repentance produces, people are slaves to sin. In our reading from Romans 7.14-25a, he looks back with Christian eyes on that life of slavery.
One way to see that slavery to sin has been pointed out to us by atheistic thinkers such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and others. They taught us that our consciousness not only reveals who we are, but also conceals our true selves. Marx said we don’t realize how the marketplace and capitalism warps our self image. For instance, we can say we love children and family and education above all other things, even while we put them dead last in our governmental and personal budgets. Freud taught us that the battles we have about sexuality in our subconscious warp our self images so much that we can congratulate ourselves for defending sexual purity from gays and lesbians even while we are blind to the ways we use sexuality for our own power over others.
But atheists should not be the only ones to see false consciousness as a malevolent power in this world. Paul sees such self deception as the spiritual working of sin. Many good theologians and the Bible itself have spoken of the prodigious impulse we have to refuse to take responsibility for what we say and what we do. Instead of saying, “I’m wrong. I am at fault. I will try to do better,” we blame others. We pretend it didn’t happen. But, the most sinister of forces in denying responsibility is our capacity to hide who we are to our very selves.
So, today, we white Americans can claim we haven’t a racist bone in our bodies when we fear black men on the sidewalk. We can feel blameless when we protect the police from accountability as long as they defend us from those shady looking thugs out there. We can find any convenient excuse not to be in solidarity with those pleading for justice and fairness by pretending that only a few “bad apples” are left out there with racist ways.
“Don’t look at me. I’m not racist. And the more you suggest it, the more hostile I will get to the very idea of working to dismantle racism.”
There is nothing that can save us from this sinful self-deception other than radical repentance. This is not, “Oh, I’ll try harder. I’ll try to show that I’m “woke,” and perhaps join a protest, or strive to sound more progressive in conversations.
No! Our slavery to our deceptive self-image, and the sin it covers, is a “body of death.” And the only way to be rescued from that body is “through Jesus Christ our Lord!” as Paul says in verse 25. Sin dominates when we deceive ourselves. And deceptive self-image is overcome only when we do not feed it by caring about how we are doing. We have all sorts of mirrors to look into: the Law of God, the Law of Political Correctness, or the Law of Public Opinion. But any of these mirrors distracts us from the necessary work we have to do to clean up this world. All of this obsession with self image just keeps us enslaved in the “body of death.”
But if instead we look toward the cross of Jesus Christ—if we trust that forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness are given to us as gifts, then we can confess even the distorted images of ourselves we have cherished. We can rise to a new self, fixated not on self-image, but on doing justice and loving one another.
In Christ we can stop hiding our racism under our false consciousness, lay it at the foot of the cross, and go out and try to love somebody.
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