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The Politics of Individual Responsibility and the Structures of Sin—Romans 7:15-25a (Richard Davis)

14-07-05 - Valentin de Boulogne - Saint Paul Writing His Epistles

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!

Have you ever replied to criticism of your work with the excuse, “I’m just doing my job,” knowing that saying what you really thought would land you in trouble, as your actions were illogical and perhaps even immoral. Perhaps you’ve heard it said more than you’ve said it yourself. It’s a common expression in workplaces where office holders and workers of all types deny responsibility altogether, or claim that it lies elsewhere. One only needs to phone the call center of a utility company or government office to experience a Kafkaesque search for someone who is responsible for the problem you have. In fact, in an age dominated by both public and private bureaucracies, you might find that in fact no-one is responsible at all.

Written well before our bureaucratic age, the Bible surprisingly speaks directly into this situation. Consider St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the following reflection: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, NRSV). One way of reading this text is to claim that humans are faced with moral dilemmas and alternative courses of action and mistakenly choose the wrong things. In short, we cannot understand how we can be so stupid as to make the wrong choices. If we tried harder, or were smarter, our lives and our common political and social life would be so much better.

Even if we understand that sin has corrupted us, we can develop a theologized version of this secular analysis. This power of sin over the individual can lead directly to a politics of individualized purity: “If only our leaders were better than others at overcoming their propensity for sin, then we’d have a chance of better life for all.” Or, like Kant, we might think that the law and political systems can be shaped around human nature to force good outcomes out of people with evil wills.

In any such search for a liberator from our wrong acts and oppression of all kinds, we can become susceptible to politicians’ rhetoric for a better world to come. Just as we can be seduced by the gain of easy money, we can equally be attracted to the promises of political quick fixes. Such political redemption has been offered by all types of politicians. But having read Paul, we ought to know that what they will may not be what they can achieve. Paul gives us reason to be skeptical about all politicians who even will the good.

Nevertheless, it is right that humans long for the redemption of themselves and their society. Anyone can see societal ills that need to be cured, people healed, and systems and structures which corral people into situations for which true responsibility seems at times difficult to pinpoint. We find ourselves doing things which we know are wrong, but that seem unavoidable given the systems we appear to have little choice but to live under.

Paul speaks to this self-conscious understanding of our tragic fatedness in Romans 7. Like him we long to be released from such an apparent fate, where we are not free to live as we know we could and should. This is more than an individual bondage to sin. It recognizes that sometimes we are prevented from living as we feel we ought by more than our own will; sometimes we are oppressed by the wills of others or even a system which seems to have a will of its own that is impermeable to reason. In this vein, the Psalmist wrote: “Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts” (Psalm 119:134, NRSV).

Human oppression is not simply the rule of a tyrant’s will, but any law or system which can fall into bondage by sin. This is Paul’s hard-learned lesson: the law was not sin (Romans 7:7), but beholden to sin. The same can be said of bureaucratic structures and the state—they too can fall under the bondage of sin. If one believes that sin can grip the state, then one wants the least strong state that can fall under its control in order to lessen the harm that it could do. This reminds me of the debate between the statist and the anarchist. The statist says, “People are evil so we need a state to restrain them.” To which the anarchist replies, “If people are evil then why give them a state with which to do evil.”

Romans 7 recognizes the power of sin over the individual, but it also points to how sin affects the structures around us, such as the law and the state. Perhaps the best exponent of this view was Reinhold Niebuhr, who reminded us that groups and states are also subject to sin. Given that many of our actions and work takes place in families, workplaces, educational institutions, states, churches, and other associations there is reason to think that the sin that infects them makes our own contributions to their life confused and subject to forces that we cannot always understand.

In some ways this is a very modern problem that Paul faces. Doing actions that we do not understand has become an everyday occurrence within contemporary bureaucratic societies. Run by no-one and where no-one is in charge, or ultimately responsible for anything, we find ourselves locked into processes that have no explanation and no rationale, or a forgotten one. We go along doing things we do not understand and actions we hate even though they conflict with how we think things should be.

This is not a hopeful passage, but all is not lost. In recognizing that we do not do the good we would like to do, we see that we have enough goodness in us to see the problem of the bad we do. The law of God is in us too (Romans 7:22) and we know as Christians that through Jesus Christ this will ultimately triumph over the law of sin. As Paul concludes (Romans 7:22, NRSV): “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Richard A. Davis, a New Zealander, earned a PhD in political theology from the University of Edinburgh with a dissertation entitled “The Political Church and the Profane State in John Milbank and William Cavanaugh”. He currently works as Clerk of the Presbytery of Wellington in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Recently he has researched child poverty and church social action and is currently working on a book on Christian anarchism.

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