Friday, February 12, 2010

The Problem with Law (more from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

“There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, hard work, discipline, sacrifice, truthfulness, love of your homeland.” Words to live by. Some might even say, words to die by. The first time I read them, I was struck by the strength of these words, the soundness of these words, the rightness of these words. “Many people might find their life’s purpose in this creed,” I muttered to myself. “You could build a nation on these ideals then teach citizens to defend them at all costs.” Then I thought of how many people died under the banner of these words.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to thousands of people—they died with these words hanging over their heads. That’s because this saying was painted on the roof of the long, narrow maintenance building at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Every sighted prisoner saw it as they entered the building—the beginning of horrors of what we call the holocaust. The maintenance building housed the Schubraum (literally, “shoving room”), where new prisoners were stripped of their clothes and dignity, where humans were treated like animals prepared for torture and slaughter. The victims were Jews, German priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals. The Nazis rounded up these “misfits” and imprisoned them in their concentration camps all over Germany in order to clean up the neighborhood and reorient these prisoners to the “proper” way of life. What happened behind those prison walls is well-known. The atrocities suffered by Jews, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals at the hands of their tormentors were hell on earth. What I couldn’t understand, as I stood there one summer day in front of the maintenance building at this notorious concentration camp, was how the men who did such horrible things could believe they were living up to this creed. Why not be honest, tell the truth? The sign should have read: “Obey or not: we will kill you anyway.” Instead, these murderers acted like they were doing something noble, something virtuous, something lawful—the sign proved it. How could words that sound so right lead men to do so wrong?

It must have seemed like a cruel joke to the prisoners inside. The ultimate “bait-and-switch.” The big lie. “Work hard and you will find freedom.” Instead, what these prisoners were forced to do was not “work,” and the end for most of them was not “freedom.” Even the entrance to the camp—a gate through which every prisoner passed—had iron bars bent to shape the words, “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes freedom”). Such words may have made sense when they entered the prison. Yet, viewed from inside the concentration camp, the words must have appeared completely backwards—figuratively and literally. No matter how hard the prisoners tried, regardless of how much they obeyed their taskmasters, all they got was more slavery, more abuse, more death. Inside the prison, “work makes freedom” makes no sense at all, no matter how many times you read the sign.

How do we explain the atrocities that took place behind these prison walls? The starvation, the torture, the sadistic experiments, the barbaric treatment. How could one human being treat another with such hatred, such heartless cruelty, such hellish intention? Evil. We blame evil. We blame sinister forces. We blame the devil. But, Paul wouldn’t. Paul didn’t blame the horrendous evil of sinful man on Satan—especially when he considered his own horrible past. A onetime persecutor, Paul never said, “The devil made me do it.” He never shifted the blame of his sinful behavior to the evil one. Rather, when dealing with the unrelenting power of sin, Paul blamed two agents. First of all, sin resides in the flesh—the baser appetites of humanity. For Paul the root of the problem of human sin is the flesh. And yet, as pervasive as Paul’s talk is about the flesh, he will not attribute the cause of all sin to human selfishness. The flesh has a partner in crime, a co-conspirator. As a divine agent of such great potential, many have been fooled by its universal appeal. It is a power that was supposed to make things better but actually made things worse. Rather than curb sin, it increases it. Instead of taming the flesh, it provokes it. Paul saw the law as the main instigator, a manipulated tool, the provocateur of human sin. In fact, Paul goes so far as to suggest that “apart from the law sin lies dead” (Rom. 7:8). That which was supposed to be the solution turned out to be the problem.


Darryl Schafer said...


A couple thoughts are running through my head as I read this. The saying painted on the Schubraum was also viewed by the Nazi soldiers -- the law "worked" for them if they followed it. I hear echoes of Sanders in here -- maybe the law functioned as a sort of covenantal nomism for the Reich. It functions as etiological condemnation for those not part of the ingroup (the prisoners) -- ethnocentrism at its worst.

For Paul, the Law only "works" if you're Jewish. I remember you commenting on Paul's christophany one time and saying something like "Paul believed that if you followed the Law that you would run into Jesus." I'm thinking this fits, especially if Paul meant "telos" as both end and goal.

Leon Brown said...

After reading the first few sentences I couldn't help but think of our country. I had thoughts of the USA, "Then I thought of how many people died under the banner of these words." How true! Of course, when you go to the concentration camp I am hit in the face with, ok this was the Nazi's doing this. But aren't these American values also? I begin to think about the Jews, priests, Jehova's Witnesses, and homosexuals. Who are these people today? They definitely aren't the persecuted. If anything I see Christians starting to fill these spots.

During the Nazi era in Germany, I would assume the majority of people were like you and me. I have thought in the past, 'How in the world could the public allow this and actually be a part of it'. As I get older and see things happen in our present world I know exactly how it happens. God told us to choose sides. He also said and I paraphrase, BE HOT OR COLD. I have lived my life being comfortable and warm. Yes, I know exactly how it happens.

You repeat some of the atrocities that happened inside the camps. The second time was different for me, more personal. The first time seemed like a 'group' of people where being tortured. This time the sadistic, barbaric, the torture, and the starvation were done to individuals. Not that the group torture was any less gruesome but this bothered me even more. It was appalling. First, I explained the German peoples actions off with apathy, with ignorance. I can't explain this time; for the people actually committing these acts. Paul tells me where this sin comes from. I agree, from the flesh, but I have a hard time comprehending that sin manifests the same (amount) in all people. I struggle with thinking that anyone could do such things, that we are all capable of this. Could I do such atrocities to another individual. I can't comprehend it. You want me to torture someone? Where would I have to go spiritually for this to happen? Is there not the least bit of satanic influence in malicious intent? It is hard to believe a person would make a 100% free will decision to commit such acts. Wow, that is a lot of sin rooted in our flesh.

I'm left weighing the severity of indifference to sin with that of actual sin and I believe what Paul is saying is that anyone is capable of both. Our flesh is so corrupted with sin and we just need as you said a “provocateur to guide us. I have a suspicion that I don't comprehend the enormity of the smallest sin in God's eyes.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Reeves! I rediscovered your blog today, lost among the browser bookmarks, and am glad to see it's still going. I look forward to learning from you again here! Hope you're well.

Maureen Lunn (Moe Didde/Class of 2004)