At War with Ourselves (Romans 7:15-25a)

By Greg Carey.

Frustrated with the gun violence epidemic, Shane Claiborne transforms modern weapons into tools of life.

“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)

Paul’s examination of the conflicted self stands as one of the classic statements in Western culture. Borrowing from Jesus, we often say something similar: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38; Matthew 26:41). From our frustrations with diets and New Year’s resolutions to the deepest insights of Buddhist spirituality and modern psychology, we grieve the clash between what we wish we’d do and what we actually find ourselves doing. Why do we find it so difficult to live up to our highest aspirations?

The train has long left the station, but just the same, biblical scholars try to intervene. We complain that the passage has been taken out of context. The Revised Common Lectionary rips verses 15-25a out from a larger argument.  Paul isn’t performing a deep analysis of the human psyche. Rather, he’s making a point about God and God’s law, the Torah. Paul has just rejected the idea that God’s law causes sin: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (7:14).

In other passages Paul comes off as a lot less frustrated. As far as the law is concerned, he says, I was “blameless” (Philippians 3:6). He asks other believers to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1) since he provides a worthy example (Philippians 3:17). He denies that he says one thing and then does another (2 Corinthians 2:17-22). Admittedly I’ve taken these examples out of context. Nevertheless, apart from Romans 7, Paul does not appear to lack confidence concerning his own behavior.

But the train has left the station. Regardless of what Paul may or may not have meant to say, this passage has long led us to examine our own divided motives and disappointing behaviors. Pondering those trapped in the super-violent cocaine trade of the late 1980s, the Living Colour song “New Jack Theme” begins with a voice saying, “And when they would do good, evil is present.” This slight variation on Romans 7:21 invites us to expand our vision. It’s not only individuals who find themselves trapped. Groups and societies do as well.

And so it goes with gun violence and gun control in the United States. In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings, Americans regarded gun control as more important than the right to own guns by a 49-42 margin. Just five months later (May 2013), things had evened out: 50 percent of Pew Research Center participants emphasized gun control over gun rights, but 48 percent saw things the opposite way. Most Americans believed gun control would reduce both mass shootings and accidental deaths, but most also believed gun control would make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to defend themselves from attack and vulnerable to a too powerful government. As of June 2014, public opinion remains about the same.

We just can’t decide. We can’t decide whether we’re fed up with one mass shooting after another or whether it’s not that big a deal, because gun violence incidents have been dropping sharply for about twenty years. (Despite the evidence, most Americans still believe gun violence is on the increase.) We can’t decide whether we’re disgusted that the United States has the highest incidence of gun violence among the world’s developed nations—nearly three times the rate of second place Switzerland—or whether we’re willing to sacrifice a measure of safety for a measure of freedom.

Most Americans believe gun laws should be stricter than they currently are, with a vast majority favoring background checks for gun buyers. But while those who favor such legislation outnumber those who don’t, gun rights advocates appear to hold more passion for their position. At the same time, people continue to die. Philadelphia averages four homicides a week, Chicago over one a day and we do not act.

So we find ourselves divided, dissatisfied with the way things are but unwilling to change the way we structure our lives. It feels as if some maleficent power holds sway over us, preventing us from moving forward. “It is no long I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:20).

“Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul asks. His response is to exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

If you’re like me, you get a bit suspicious when someone proposes a spiritual response to a political problem. Hopefully you’re less cynical. But when it comes to an issue like gun violence, perhaps a spiritual response offers our only true hope. The political forces are so aligned that it seems they will never cooperate with one another. But even more importantly, the question of guns and violence separates us from one another at a deep, even visceral level. On social media, I observe that my friends cannot sustain rational conversation about this issue—and these are smart, well-intentioned people.

What would it mean if communities of faith turned our divided consciences over to Jesus Christ? We have divided opinions, but we live a common reality. We all grieve death and destruction. Most of us value our neighbors’ ability to own guns they can use for hunting and other forms of recreation. We all aspire to live in safe, loving communities.

I propose that we take this on at a local level, inviting people from all political persuasions not to argue but to pray. We can all pray for peace and security. We can all grieve our common losses. We can all ask for God’s protection of our freedoms and our lives. When our minds are divided, the path of freedom lies in giving up control and turning to the spirit.

Study Questions

  1. Has your church or denomination taken a public stance on gun control or gun violence? You can often find public statements, resolutions, and the like on denominational web sites.
  2. Read Romans 7:7-25. Some interpreters believe Paul is talking about his current experience, others claim he is talking about his experience prior to his conversion, and still others say he is describing the general human condition apart from God’s help. In your opinion, who is the “I” in this passage?
  3. Read Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Some interpreters reject this assessment of the human condition as too pessimistic. What do you think? Is it insightful, interesting, unhelpful?

For Further Reading

Atwood, James E. America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012.

Cosgrove, Charles H. “Paul and American Individualism.” Pp. 68-103 in Cross-Cultural Paul: Journeys to Others, Journeys to Ourselves. Ed. Charles H. Cosgrove, Herold Weiss, and K. K. (Khiok-Khng) Yeo. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. Letter to Members of Congress. January 15, 2013. http://036e423.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/FUPGV-Generic-011513.pdf.

 

Greg Carey, is the Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA. His most recent book, Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, pursues the role of transgression in early Christian identity. His research interests include apocalyptic literature, the Gospel of Luke, and literary and rhetorical interpretation of the New Testament, and he has appeared on the BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic Channel. Greg lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his two daughters, where he actively volunteers in the local United Way. He is a native Alabamian and a graduate of Rhodes College, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Vanderbilt University (PhD, 1996). He enjoys golf, tennis, hiking, and crying over the Atlanta Braves. A layperson, Greg serves as Scholar in Residence at Lancaster’s Evangelical Church of the Holy Trinity.

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