I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!Romans 7:15, 19, 22-25a
Martin Luther loved this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans – which we’ll be reading in the lectionary coming up in July. Luther was a man tortured by his own shortcomings and failings; fearful that he would never be good enough for God, he would sometimes even leave the confessional booth only to go right back in to confess other sins that he had thought of. He identified deeply with the struggle Paul names here: despite his best intentions and efforts to be a model Christian, Luther kept finding himself giving in to sin and brokenness.
It was in this struggle of feeling like he would never, ever be good enough that Luther experienced the revelation of grace. He would never be good enough to earn his own salvation. Yet he had been redeemed by Christ’s self-giving love, once and for all time. He had been saved by grace through faith, apart from works, for the sake of Christ. And this revelation actually freed Luther to start becoming the better Christian he wanted to be. His focus shifted from being directed inward toward himself to going outward toward the church and the broader world, a change that enabled him to become a powerful voice of reform in the church. This is the legacy that we, as Lutherans, inherit.
These verses from Romans – as well as Luther’s legacy – have been speaking powerfully to me as I contemplate the current state of things in the world. Our Black siblings and other siblings of color are crying out for justice in the wake of terrible violence, and as a white person, I sometimes struggle to know where I can fit into this movement and how I can help. I worry about saying or doing the wrong thing – yet I also worry about not saying or doing anything at all. I am so keenly aware of my own shortcomings and failings, conscious of the internalized biases and prejudices I carry from growing up in a sheltered, completely white community.
I wonder if these fears and worries are what make it so deeply uncomfortable for us to talk about racism. We don’t know what to say or do, and we are afraid that someone else will call us out on it and make us feel bad. Fear and guilt and shame are a terrible burden to carry, and they can be totally paralyzing. They can lead us to react with defensiveness and anger, or to be quick to dismiss what someone says because we don’t like the way it was said (eg. dismissing protests because of rioters and looters), or just to be silent and not do anything at all.
Perhaps we could use a renewed revelation of that grace that Luther experienced. Near the end of June, I tuned in to a Zoom meeting of church leaders wrestling with the question of how to be church in times of crisis, focusing especially on this civil rights moment of history we are living in. The presenter – a professor from Wartburg Seminary – blew my mind when he talked about racism as a kind of original sin. We are born into a world stained by racism, governed by racist structures, imprinted with the prejudices of the generations before us (and the generations before them). We cannot escape being racist – none of us can – it is a pre-existing condition of being human.
Like Luther, and Paul before him, we might cry out in hopeless lament about being “captive to the law of sin that dwells in [our] members.” But this presenter had hopeful words. Rather than knocking ourselves out trying to scourge ourselves of every single trace of racism, he said that what the church really needs is to be anti-racist. Anti-racism acknowledges that, while we will struggle with our own internal prejudices all our lives, that does not have to stop us from being part of the fight to stop racism’s destructive impact on the world in the meanwhile. Like Luther’s revelation of grace, focusing on being anti-racist turns us away from an inward focus toward ourselves and turns us outward toward the world, where we can make a difference.
We will inevitably screw it up. And that’s okay. No one gets it perfect. But through grace we have been freed to keep on trying to do better. And we will keep on trying to do better together. The leaders of our church – including our bishops – are calling on congregations not to grow weary, but to stay strong and to stay in this struggle with and on behalf of our siblings of color. Bishop Brian Maas has challenged each of us to do one thing, right now, “to take one step toward the reconciliation for which Jesus died, and for which humanity continues to wait,” and the Nebraska Synod has put out a list of suggested resources (more here) for this purpose. And if you’re not sure where to start, the best first step is always to listen. There are some wonderful books and articles on the synod’s list; there are also excellent documentaries and films available (search “Black Lives Matter” on Netflix – treasure trove!). I am also here for you, to be a conversation partner/guide/fellow broken human traveling this journey as well.
As Paul writes in the sixth chapter of Romans, we are given the gift of grace – not so that we may keep on sinning “in order that grace may abound”; but rather that by grace we were baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might have the chance to walk in a new way of life. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!