Justice, Law, and the Counter-Cultural Nature of Jesus: Reading Romans

Speaking of the relationship of justice to the Christian story and Gospel, author Douglas Harink in his book Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World addresses the role of the Law in Paul’s mind. He writes,

“IN ALMOST EVERYONE’S MIND, justice and law, if not the same thing, are very closely related concepts. We expect law to define the meaning of justice across many spheres of society and aspects of public life.”

He goes on to address the Jewish notion of Law, which he suggests is a universal expression, over and against common perceptions born from the grace/faith versus works debate which continues to run rampant within Protestant/Reformed circles, binding the Gospel to misapplied legal language and metaphors:

“The identity of a people or nation and its members is constituted by a people’s law, if we take law not only in the narrower legal sense but also in the sense of the constitution, customs, and culture of a people—their collective “wisdom…

To think of living according to Torah as legalism is to miss the point. Torah for the premessianic Paul was the coherent bond holding all things together. Through Torah God created the world, and by it God governs the whole of the cosmos. We might paraphrase Colossians 1:17 with respect to Torah: “Torah is before all things; in Torah all things hold together.” God revealed this cosmic Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai as their concrete form of life: their founding history, traditions, polity and legal practices; their social, family, and sexual relationships; their worship, customs, habits, and practices of everyday life. In this comprehensive sense law was Judean reality, life, and culture. For a rabbi such as Paul, to be a Judean apart from Torah was inconceivable.”

The crucial point of Paul then comes down the apparent tension that exists between the Gospel arriving apart from the Law, again in an identity shaping sense (circumcision, sabbath) and the question that follows- what about the story of Israel then? A question that Paul shifts to ask rather the question behind the question: “what about Christ’s faithfulness in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness”:

“In Romans 3:9-19 Paul went on to invoke those very “words of God” (that is, the law) to silence the claim that the Judean people are better than the Gentile nations. The law itself speaks against the claim that the law produces justice; rather, it shows (as Paul reads it) that Judean society, like the Gentile nations, is “under Sin” (Rom 3:9)… Paul’s conclusion that justice comes apart from law is based on the fact that God’s justice was apocalypsed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Messiah (Rom 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 5:12-20). If both divine and human justice are revealed and enacted in Messiah, then justice does not happen through law. Paul’s logic runs this way: because Jesus Messiah is God’s justice, the law is not.”

This is crucial for understanding how Paul distinguishes between Law (Torah, Circumcision) and Gospel (Christ):
“For Paul, law does not produce justice… the law is not working on the side of justice but on the side of Sin. Somehow law is co-opted by Sin into Sin’s sphere of sovereignty, and therefore also serves Death; law becomes “Law” as a power working against the good news. By stark contrast, the good news declares that the sovereign power of Grace (“under Grace,” thus uppercase G) delivers us from the sovereign grip of Law (“under Law” [Rom 6:14], thus L).”

In the marriage analogy Paul moves away from the anology of slavery and begins working towards the positve expression of justice formed by Christ. Here the Law is described as the husband and those under the Law the wife, evoking ancient household codes of the Roman world. Paul’s point is to point to the Laws inevitable end on both sides of the equation: death. Death releases the wife from being bound to the husband (and vice versa), or on the flipside breaking the covenant can only ultimatley lead to death unde the Law where reperation and repayment for sin is demanded. This is the cycles ultimate end because the Law can never be satisfied as justice. The form of the Law can only point out sin, and more sin, which is precisely why, with the Law funcitoning as a way of life for the Judeans of Christs day, the small letter laws had grown expansive in their addtions. That’s all it can do. Paul then says that justice can only be enacted through death- the death of Christ in faithfulness to the covenant, and the death of self which ultimatley frees us to be bound to a second spouse, that of Jesus’ shaped justice.

The important note here being that Jesus justice looks different, expresses itself different, makes different demands shaped as it by the cross.

“The good news (of the gospel) is that Judeans, Greeks, and Romans are all alike “put to death to the Law through the body of Messiah” in order that they might “belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead,” and thereby “bear fruit to God” (Rom 7:4). The Messiah’s own death under Law (both Judean and Roman law) put an end to Law’s sovereignty over life. A particular people’s law or culture or way of life is no longer the determining factor for the meaning of life and justice…

In the moment that law ceases to be the implicit and subliminal structure and form of a life well-lived (nomos) and instead becomes distilled into a commandment (entolē), in that moment desire is awakened and Law is experienced as a restraining limit. (But) Law in the “weak” sense is easily co-opted to destructive ends… In demanding our obedience and in exposing and judging transgressions and injustices, Law starts to look less like an implicit form of life and more like lording it over in the way that Sin and Death do. Far from tackling Sin in its fundamental character as a destructive power, Law becomes fixated on sins. It seeks to identify and classify sins, and curb and manage them with threats of punishment enforced by power, including in some cases the threat of death.”

This Law, Paul says, is strong in condemnation but weak in producing the good. This is what we find in Paul’s own testimony as a good Jewish man seaking justice for his people:

“Good intentions (zeal for God), a just end (the security of God’s people, the eradication of a real threat), and the legal means to achieve it, authorized by the leaders in Jerusalem: What could be wrong about that? Nothing! Nothing, except the truth about justice: God’s justice was in fact enacted when God raised up the dead body of the Crucified One by the powerful Holy Spirit. When Paul met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, all of his certainties about the justice of what he was doing were shattered: “I do not know what I do” (Rom 7:15). Suddenly justice looked fundamentally otherwise than his championing of Law. If Paul loved justice as “God’s law” had taught him to do (Rom 7:25), then he must now hate the justice he had wanted to do for the sake of that law, because it was revealed to be the very form of injustice. The good he intended ended up working evil through his own violent actions to exterminate the witnesses of justice, those who really were just because they were “in Messiah Jesus.”

A personal note here. I am still fleshing out what this means in my own relating to the world, especially in the aftermath of tragedies like the violent school shootings. I don’t have this all figured out, but where Romans challenges me is in understanding that Jesus’ formed justice necessarily pushes back against my own tendencies to desire justice in ways that I feel must be just. This is meant to unsettle me and to force me to think bigger than my weak minded forms can reach.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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