Pauline tactical ethics: against "them"

Lately, I hear a lot of "them" ethics going on. "Them" ethics is always a top-down approach: I stand at the top, and those with me, and we look down on "them". This is generally the basis for unilateral actions taken upon "them" as a homogeneous class or group. The species no longer exist; the genre is what we have said it is. And once we've done this, the pious next step seems to be to replace "us vs. them" with "God vs. them" because He's our God. And so God hates fags, Muslims, and all sorts of other things we hate. (The link is hilarious, BTW. Fear not.) And so often I hear this sort of thing translated into "law/gospel" terms, which is patent BS. "Law" is condemning the people God hates right along with God, while "Gospel" is refraining from condemning -- nay, even accepting, if you're a total heretic -- the people God hates. Which those crazy antinomians will tell you is "what Jesus would do". We all know they'll wind up in the lake of fire, and then we'll be laughing at them twice as hard as we are now. Us; them. And God as the gold standard of our judgmental currency.

Of course, Paul does it much better in Romans 1:18-32 than I just did -- there's not a first- or second-person pronoun or conjugation to be had in the whole bit. Pure "God vs. them". And what happened in the audience is what happens to every naive reader of the text -- that pure third-person rhetoric is designed to get mapped into the implicit "us vs. them" of the hearing community. The orator is the focus of "us," saying the words "we" think should be said. Condemning what all right-thinking people should condemn.

But the naive reader of the text doesn't have to listen to "chapter 2" once they finish "chapter 1" -- I've had people tell me that there is absolutely no connection between the two! The audience has no such luck -- they have two choices: either to keep listening, or to walk away, and 1:18-32 isn't setting them up to walk away. (I'll decline to discuss the modern innovation of chapter and verse numbering....) No; you could hear 1:18-32 at a Tea Party rally. But you wouldn't hear chapter 2 there, even though it is designed for just such an audience. And so Paul brings back the second person into the discussion:
"So then you have no excuse, every one of you who judges, because you stand condemned by what you use to condemn the other -- because the judge has the same vices! "Indeed we know that God's judgment on those who do such things is just!" You think so, you who do the same sorts of things you judge? You think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you look down on the richness of God's goodness and restraint and patience, ignoring the fact that that goodness of God draws you toward repentance?"

Quite a smack in the face. But Paul still gives them no opening to walk away. You see, these are the same people who heard 1:1-17, who heard Paul's bona fides and then said, "yeah, that's us" when he called them "all those beloved of God in Rome, called and holy." Who felt Paul's eagerness in sympathy for the mission to proclaim the gospel of God in Christ Jesus -- because they are his people, and they trust this God and this messiah. Put more simply, who recognize Paul as one of their own. People who, hearing from him, understand that he and they form an "us".

1:18-32 reinforces this -- it's the way "them" ethics works. You have a choice. You can be one of "us" or you can be one of "them". The audience wants to stay in the "us" so comfortably established in 1:1-17. And if Paul has done his job right, the terms of the "God vs. them" bit are calculated not to alienate the audience. (And it's a beautifully calculated piece!) The terms of the "God vs. them" bit are exactly the terms used in the community, addressing the "problem" that troubles the community. Here, it's Gentile idolatry as the root of all Gentile sin. But the real ground that makes that work is always prevailing cultural morality. Paul can play on the Gentile idolatry bit because he and his audience claim normative Judaism, and are concerned over the boundaries of self|other as Judeans in the Roman capitol. But that grand theme covers the fact that the question of identity comes down to behaviors. They do [X]. We do not. (Even though we do!) We do [Y]. They do not. (Even though they do!) The closer two cultures get, both in terms of proximity and in terms of real behaviors, the harder that line has to be drawn. The other cannot be allowed to be us. We will even other ourselves, gnaw off our own souls, to get out of the trap.

It's not an easy problem to solve -- especially once God has been dressed in the uniform of our side. But Paul means to solve it, because it stands in the way of Christ. No matter how grand the expansion of the gospel on the outside, if this remains on the inside, it is a whitewashed tomb. And here is where it must become clear that 1:18-32 is not part of the "law/gospel" paradigm. Both the law and the gospel stand opposed to this sort of human judgment, to "them" ethics especially on the part of God's own people.

So Paul employs them in exactly that order: law first, then gospel. But not because law has any innate priority! Only because it is the right tool for this job. Paul has raised the question of just or unjust judgment, and the way to clear the path is to bring in perfectly just judgment as the basis for comparison. In classic Lutheran terms, this is the second use of the law: to convict the believing sinner of their sin. What this means is that 1:18-32, standing as condemned behavior, is not an example of the first use of the law, as a curb for behaviors for the protection of the community. Instead, it is an example of sin -- in this case, the attempt to stand in the place of God. It is a nice bit of irony, that an act of condemnation that uses idolatry and vice as pretexts to condemn a whole group of people is itself vicious and idolatrous.

Nor does Paul let his audience continue to think that they are merely not allowed to do God's work here, and that God upholds condemnations for which they got smacked. No matter whether we may find pieces of Torah that match pieces of 1:18-32, that passage does not represent either the form or the content of God's instruction for God's people. It is not the hearer (let alone the speaker or teacher) of Torah that is just, but the one who does what God instructs. And this has nothing to do with the self|other boundary -- in fact, Paul bypasses obvious external cultural markers to point to "the hidden Judean, whose mind is circumcised by the Spirit, ... whose praise comes not from people but from God." The performance of Torah is not judgment or condemnation, but justice which comes through the Spirit because of Christ. And it is this because this is what God does -- it is justice as modeled on God's justice, rather than judgment modeled on God's judgment. The two are not the same -- judgment that is truly reflective of God's judgment is perfect and equitable, and rewards goodness and truth while punishing rivalry, contention and evil, no matter who does it. (Again, not what is modeled in 1:18-32.) And yet justice as God demonstrates it is that God carves out a space next to Torah, next to instruction and its performance, and makes it a gift in Christ, a gift built upon trust just as the gifts of circumcision and Torah were built upon the trust of Abraham and Moses. Perfect justice acknowledges that in perfect judgment, there is nobody left standing as righteous. And yet perfect justice restores Christ to life, and raises us with him, and gives us life in this space, in the Spirit, that we may live to God and not destroy one another. That is the proclamation of the gospel, and just like the law, it stands against human judgment. The Spirit doesn't go there. Christ doesn't go there. The Father doesn't go there. Don't you, either. Don't give in to "them" ethics. Fight for the sake of your brothers and sisters, all of whom are God's redeemed creation in Christ.


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