Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 28, 2020
Romans 7:15-25a – Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
“The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances. We carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us in our minds wherever we go.”
–Martha Washington, 1731-1802, First “First Lady” of the United States of America
One of my favorite scenes from any movie ever made is the end of Casablanca. Remember the story. Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is a cynical former freedom fighter who now runs a highly popular bar in Casablanca, Morocco, before the United States has entered World War II. He walks a careful line between the law and illegality, but has no intention of setting himself against the Nazis. But the crisis comes when Czech resistance leader Viktor Lazlo arrives in Casablanca after escaping Nazi imprisonment, bringing with him his wife, Ilsa. Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, is not just any woman, it turns out: she and Rick were once madly in love with each other in Paris when she thought her husband was dead. The end of their relationship is the cause of Rick’s ennui. She is deeply committed to Viktor Lazlo, but she still loves Rick. Rick tells Captain Renault, the police captain, that he intends to hand Lazlo over to the Nazis and run off with Ilsa. But at the last minute, on the airfield, he turns the tables on the police and the Nazis and helps Lazlo escape. Ilsa turns to Rick as Lazlo ascends the airplane ramp and offers to stay but Rick says, “Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” It’s a great speech. And Ilsa gets on the plane with the noble Viktor Lazlo and Rick and Captain Renault run off to join the resistance.
It’s a great moment in part because we know that this is not what Rick really wants. What he really wants is just to run off with Ilsa and escape all of it. And we’ve been with him as he’s struggled with the moral quandary he has found himself in. In the end, we celebrate because Rick has allowed his better angels to guide him to make a decision that hurts him but is the right thing to do. In many ways that makes him a better hero than the ones we often see on the screen, the ones who are always certain what the right thing to do is, the ones who never have any doubt or uncertainty.
Rick is the better hero because he’s like you and me. He’s torn about what is right and what is wrong; he’s torn between doing something that might truly benefit him and damn the consequences; or doing what’s right even though it rips his heart out. We understand that struggle. We understand being conflicted and uncertain because it’s the human condition.
That’s what Paul is writing about today in our scripture from Romans. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Paul is writing about what my philosophy professor in college called “primary volition and secondary volition.” Primary volition is what we instinctively want to do and often is what we end up doing. Secondary volition is what we might wish we would do, or at least what conscience or training or moral values tell us is the right thing to do. What Paul is writing about is the truth most of us know: That even though we all have higher values and principles we have learned and that we like to think we abide by, the truth is that often those principles get tossed to the wayside when we are making decisions on the ground. If most of us have to choose between Ilsa and Viktor Lazlo, we’ll choose Ilsa every time, and we might not even feel bad about it, even though we know that it’s the wrong choice.
Paul is writing from the perspective of a faithful Jew, who knows that the moral Law, the Torah, is good, but somehow finds himself doing the opposite every time. There’s some debate in scholarship about whether Paul is writing autobiographically or whether he’s playing the preacher’s game of setting up a straw man, an imaginary person, to make a spiritual point. I suspect it’s something that is from his experience though, from the time before he became a Christian. He was philosophically a Pharisee, taught to believe in the importance of moral purity and personal piety. As with any moral code worth its salt, it would often put him at odds with the world around him and there would be times when it was just easier to conform with society, or there were just clearly more pleasures to be found doing the wrong thing than the right thing.
I’m not sure it’s any easier if one is Christian, either. There are times when we genuinely aren’t certain what the right thing is or the wrong thing is, but there are also times when as Christians, if we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, we know what the right thing is but do the wrong thing anyway. Maybe we justify it by saying it doesn’t really matter, or it doesn’t really hurt anybody, or that I really need to do this and God won’t mind, or that God forgives me anyway. A good trick we like to play on ourselves is to say, sure I know this is wrong, I know Christ is against it, but this is an unusual situation; the rule doesn’t apply in this case. Now, I’m not saying that’s never true. I do think that there are all sorts of situations where what might seem an absolute law does not apply. But if we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find within ourselves that in those times we designated as exceptions, our own good was probably served better than the greater good was served.
Paul is trying to make a point about sin. He’s saying that sin is such a powerful force in our lives that even knowing the right thing to do isn’t enough to overcome it. He’s saying that sin is really good at rationalizing our behavior and telling us we’ve done the right thing even when we know we’ve done the wrong thing.
And while he’s using an individual example, his point is that this is a universal problem. “No one is righteous, no not one,” he says in another place, quoting the psalms; “but all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is insidious; sin is ever-present; and sin, he reminds us, is subtle, slick, smooth—it can convince us that bad is good, low is high, evil is good. And the human problem, he tells us, is that we can’t overcome it on our own. We are in desperate need of the grace of God to transcend this problem. And thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, we have that. The grace of God is able to cleanse us fully and make us new people with an orientation to do the right thing, the Godly thing, the Christlike thing.
But we have to at least acknowledge the wrong, and our own inability to correct it. And most of us know that as Christians, we spend our lives discovering new, creative and interesting ways we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that bad is good, low is high, and evil is good.
I have struggled a lot these last few weeks with my own heritage as a Southerner. I grew up in South Carolina where the Civil War began in Charleston harbor. I admired Robert E. Lee and drew pictures of the Army of Northern Virginia in elementary school. They always beat the dastardly Yankees, of course. My great-great grandparents were friends of Lee and Mary Custis Lee, his wife. My dad donated letters from the Lees to the University of Virginia, his alma mater. I went to college in Virginia and seminary in Richmond. Margaret’s family lived a few blocks away from Monument Avenue in Richmond. I knew my heritage, even as I also knew that it was built on a fallacy, on the morally repugnant proposition that white people had the right to enslave black people. Even as I was aware that in the South we were celebrating the values of people who committed treason against this very nation we swear allegiance to every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance. I have black friends throughout the South and throughout my life, and for all my life I have believed in and stood up for Civil rights. My greatest moral hero as a teen was Martin Luther King, Jr., another Southerner. Though I was committed to Civil Rights and repulsed by slavery, I nonetheless found myself somehow able to be of two minds, and to hold Robert E. Lee guiltless and the South as somehow flawed but admirable.
I just can’t see that now. I can’t hold such contradictory values in tension without acknowledging the terrible toll it has taken on black Americans and the way it has made our nation’s soul smaller and pettier and mean. I can’t hold myself guiltless and somehow frame my Southern pride as innocent and naïve anymore. And as a Christian I just can’t see being two-minded about this anymore.
But also, as a Christian, I believe that God’s grace can transcend and transform our flawed and damaged racial heritage. I don’t believe for a minute that we are trapped in this ongoing dynamic. The grace of God can certainly empower us who call ourselves by Christ’s name to overcome barriers, to reach across racial divides, to create a new sense of mutual understanding and community and to do the ongoing work of healing a wounded society so that we can live together as sisters and brothers and not perish together as fools.
But what it takes is the courage to acknowledge that the stories we white people have told ourselves are not true, and that by telling those stories we have continued a shameful heritage that started in 1619, the day the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown.
And it’ll be a challenge for us white southerners, because we love our heritage. But our pride needs to take a serious back seat to the higher good, to what is right, and to the Gospel itself which we all know tells us that we should tear down all our idols and put Christ on the pedestal.
But the Gospel is this: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” If we put our trust in Christ, we will find this path may not be as rocky, difficult, and dangerous as we fear. This is something that in truth we all want, all Americans, all Christians, and know is right, but we fear is difficult. We can’t pretend that it’ll be easy. There are social and economic inequities to address and long-standing policies, beliefs and assumptions that are just baked into who we are as a nation. But all Americans of good will want this, regardless of race, color, creed, or heritage. It is no small thing to find new allies, a new and worthy cause to stand up for, a great and transcendent good to motivate us and build community around.
And best of all, this is the right thing to do, the Christ-like thing to do, and the thing that will leave a real legacy to all of America’s children in the future of a nation that is living into what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”