What curses doth the law denounce

Discussed in this essay:
  • Philippians 3:4b–14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.’

Sisters and brothers,1 who among you has deliberately killed someone? When did you last set fire to a car? How many of you steal bottles of wine from the supermarket?

Why not, exactly?

I’m sure you can think of many reasons that you’ve never done such a thing and never would. And the strongest ones come easily: that’s against the law. Only a criminal would do such a thing. I’m not an arsonist or a thief. It is easy to consider things in these categories: criminal, law-abiding citizen; illegal equals wrong, convicted equals evil. It is harder to consider them critically.

I

We think of ourselves as law-abiding citizens, people who live according to the democratically legitimated rules of society and who derive from that a demand of others that they do the same. I abide by the traffic laws, and all the drivers around me had better do the same. I don’t steal from the supermarket, always buy a ticket before I get in the U-Bahn, I don’t piss in people’s doorways. And that’s what I expect from the people around me. And if I manage to fill out my tax return every year and get it in complete and on time, Uli Hoeneß2 ought to be able to do the same. And if I don’t appreciate someone’s behaviour, I complain respectfully and matter-of-factly according to the established procedure, instead of just punching him in the face. This mutual self-restraint sows peace, makes society possible. Not for nothing to they speak at graduation from Harvard Law School of the law as being the ‘wise restraints that make men free.’

The law makes possible many of the things that are fundamental to our peaceful and prosperous lifestyle. It is the origin of ownership and property. It legitimizes our enforcement of these rights against others. It balances the imbalance of power: ‘I have been called to give justice a status in the country’, wrote Hammurabi in the first code of laws in human history, ‘that the strong should not overcome the weak’. Our rules and the legal system they create are the precondition – but also the product – of our society and culture.

II

So it was, too, for the Pharisee Paul. Living in the diaspora, a strictly observant Jew surrounded by goyim who were at best unmoved by God’s instructions, his observance of the law of the Torah was a central element of his identity. Identity as it differentiated him from others, and identity as it anchors and gives the self a sense of security.

And for him, God’s instruction through the laws of the Torah were comparable with our statutes. In the orthodox society in which he lived, they were generally recognized as binding. They determined the functioning of society in almost every facet of daily life. They decided the procedure for resolving disputes. And he could have lost everything if he had broken them.

The laws passed by our parliament have a different source of legitimacy, to be sure. And they no longer seamlessly transition into provisions on correct religious practice. But they organize and bind us because we recognize them as legitimate under the rules of the legal system, and that gives them the same position in our society as the Tora had in Paul’s.

III

But Paul doesn’t seem to think much of this tool for social ordering. He was ‘blameless’ under the law, and it brought him nothing, he writes. ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss.’

Brothers and sisters, these are not the words of a law-breaker, nor of someone who no longer loves the law because the grapes have become sour. This is not the complaint of an Uli Hoeneß who has come to regard German tax law as a loss. No, these are the words of a law-abiding citizen whose enthusiastic compliance has not led him to redemption, who eats and eats at the buffet of obedience and good behaviour and yet remains hungry.

And so I ask again: we all feel anger – why hasn’t anyone here murdered someone? Wine bottles fit so nicely under the Geneva gown – why don’t I swipe them from the supermarket?

Those questions are easy rhetoric. You’ve already recognized what I’m getting at: it is not because they’re illegal that I do not do these things, but because they are wrong. And that becomes clearer upon closer examination of the real degree to which we abide by the law. Even the pillar of society tends to speed a little now and then, crosses the street when the light is red, or maybe even lets his ID card lapse without renewing it. If the law doesn’t engage our sense of right and wrong, it’s not so important after all.

Might it be, brothers and sisters, that right and wrong are not determined by the law, but by something else?

IV

Paul distances himself from laws with whose legitimacy he no longer identifies and from which he as a Christian no longer profits. The Torah is no longer a part of his identity, has become foreign to him. But we as Christians are also Germans and Europeans. The law is ours, has developed from our Christian culture. We cannot so easily turn away from the law and toward Christ.

But our laws sometimes also conflict with the message of the Gospel. On our first day legal persons, a member of the people of Europe from the tribe of the civic-minded, we are capitalists born of capitalists; as to the law, obedient citizens; as to zeal, though, Frontex-tolerators, free-trade supporters, social-welfare cutters, and deporters to Afghanistan. Our laws secure and enable prosperity, yes, but only at the expense of the global South. And through the gaps of our indifference fall even our most fundamental human rights when it comes to things like those affected by German economic activity abroad.

Yet the Gospel continues to make its radical demands, continues to confront this worldly injustice. The Gospel is the reason that we eat and eat at the buffet of prosperity, of the variety of consumer goods, of the safe streets and the affordable fuel and of the exploitatively low-priced groceries yet always remain hungry.

V

My intention is not to start a revolution with the Letter to the Philippians as its manifesto. But I want to sweep aside the easy and false freedom we take for ourselves to take the urgency and the solvability out of the injustices of the present time by pointing to their legality. Paul breaks from his old life by no longer looking at the Gospel through the lens of the Torah, but at the Torah through the lens of the Gospel.

So must we as Christians under the modern rule of law look critically at our constitution and statutes through the lens of the Gospel. We must dissolve the lazy association between law and morality and meet our fellow humans as equals who, no matter how foreign or far away, carry the same spark of the divine in them as we do. Only on that basis can we sensibly organize a society through laws.

Beloved, not that I don’t rely on the law when it makes things easy for me. I do not consider that I have found a solution for every political problem in our world in the Gospel. But this one thing I know: we must forget the bourgeois illusions that lie behind us and strain toward a society ahead that reflects the justice of the Gospel. The love of Christ constrains us to do so. And no Christian has the right to obey, if we take seriously the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. ‘For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.’ Amen.


  1. To the Master of Theology students of the University of Marburg, Summer 2017. Translated from the German by the author. [back]

  2. Sometime national football player, immediate past president of FC Bayern München and, for a German audience in 2017, the most recognizable and notorious large-scale tax evader. Replace as appropriate. [back]

Open My Country

Discussed in this essay:
  • Trouble Will Find Me (The National: Matt Berninger, Aaron Dressner, et al. 2013)
  • Shaking the Habitual (The Knife: Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al. 2013)
“…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

—Harry Lime in The Third Man

I

It’s tough out there for white American guys. Expectations are high. The price of the best first-class berth on spaceship Earth is that society – and by that we chiefly mean other white American guys – is pretty quick to turn on you if you don’t seem to be availing yourself of all the benefits: wealth, power, respect, fear, the obedience of others. Every white man in America is expected to enjoy these things and as much of everything else as money can buy. Which, at the capstone of the socioeconomic pyramid, you are expected to have a lot of. Not for the purchase of flashy frivolities – that’s for the other male races, the seekers, the triers, the movers-on-up – but for the distribution of patronage and the projection of power in the form of providing for others. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Americanman is expected to be the castle himself: an entity which both envelops and makes possible the domestic; upon whom others can depend, can draw out of a limitless reservoir of strength.

And solid though they may appear from the outside, the walls of fortress Americanman are hollow with angst and battered by the loneliness and precariousness of that dependence – of his wife and kids, in the classical formulation; of the company, of the relatives: everyone needs a piece, financial, material, emotional, of something that is expected to continually replenish itself under its own power with no help from outside. For about a hundred pop music years, the soundtrack to this terrible privilege has been The National, whose music thrusts with the necessary outward virility of postmodern Americanman while their lyrics scream his panic:

I carry the dollhouse safe on my shoulders
Through the black city, nightlights are on
in the corners and everyone’s sleeping upstairs
All safe and sound, all safe and sound
I won’t let the psychos around
I won’t let the psychos around

or

All night I lay on my pillow and pray
For my boss to stop me in the hallway
Lay my head on his shoulder and say
“Son, I’ve been hearing good things”

Both of these are from Alligator (2005), the moment in their oeuvre when Americanman’s stage boner probably came closest to being a sword for him to fall on. Taken out of context, the lines of the first quotation, from Mr November, seem like the hardest of hard-man trumpetings that he has everything under control here. But consider why he repeats himself at the end of the stanza, and then notice the refrain that immediately follows it:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over
I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over

This isn’t a boast or a war-cry, it’s a mantra, a desperate prayer uttered under the narrator’s breath: Please don’t let them notice that I have no idea what I’m doing. What does Americanman lay awake at night (in the second song quoted above, “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”) hoping for? No – sorry – this is America – praying for? What does he want most in the world? Not just the approval of his boss, but approval coupled with outward signfiers of affection. And those are more imporant; they come first. After the family is safely tucked in bed and the ‘night lights are on in the corners / and everyone’s sleeping upstairs’, family-Americanman is so hollowed out that he can only moved by the emotional overtures (‘lay my head on his shoulder’) of even more powerful Americanmen. He could never be the one to reach out, to nuzzle, or to express these needs in broad daylight. He – and this is the essence of Americanman – has something to prove.

II

Sweden, in case you didn’t know, or in case your image of it was colored in by the tropes that their Eurovision halftime number wonderfully and with surprising arrogance at an enormously sensitive time condensed into a single blissful montage, is on fire.

The causes are multifaceted – neither immigration nor unemployment nor poverty is alone sufficient to cause a riot – but what happened in Sweden this summer is just another eruption of a toxic cocktail that bubbles under Europe all the time, seeping out variously in London, in the Paris suburbs, in Greece, and even sometimes Germany (though they’re better at leveraging their ancestral brutality to plug the dike). The toxic cocktail is a combination of inequality (status, money, discrimination) and the demand that Europe makes of its outsider populations that they conform while at the same time denying them any chance of ever achieving that conformity: you must become Swedish to live here, goes the thinking, but it is impossible for anyone not born to Swedes with blond hair, blue eyes, and a silver Ikea screwdriver in his mouth to ever be Swedish. Every outsider in Europe stands, mutatis mutandis, in front of the same cliff.

Let’s sweep aside Americanman’s problems from Part I by saying that Americanman can go lay his heavy crown-wearing head on a psychiatrist’s couch if he’s so worried about society not letting him express his precious affection deficit to his satisfaction. As real as his dilemma is, and as much as I personally like the music it produces with Matt Berninger as the bard of put-upon Americanmen from Allston to Ypsilanti, it’s probably fair in view of what’s going on. The country is on fire.

One person – two people – who can’t take it anymore are Karen Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olaf Dreijer, who are, by current events, snapped out of their examination of more fashionable expensive-fundraiser social problems (Like a Pen) and quite entirely out of the party mode of their even earlier work (Heartbeats) and into a new album which begins with what is quite frankly the finest six minutes of music that The Knife have ever produced. Here’s how it begins:

Under this sun
Look what we have got
And those who haven’t
Bad luck
We’ve been running ’round
Pushing the shopping cart
January 2012
Even in the suburbs of Rome

Look on our wealth, ye lowly, and despair. Interesting is that even as they protest the boasting excesses of the society they live in, they admit their own complicity: we is a broader accusation and a deeper confession than self-centered Americnaman is capable of. And the dagger sticks so perfectly: the crime – our crime – is constituted by ‘pushing the shopping cart’. For all the ruthless efficiency of empires past, the modern European citizen – sorry – this is Europe – consumer – can oppress the world from the comfort of the airy aisles of Ikea, perusing what all the shitty human underclass has toiled to lay at his card-wielding feet.

Border’s lies,
the idea of what’s mine,
a strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire

Conquest doesn’t happen by lines moving on a map anymore. Rumsfeld knew that: it happens in ‘hearts and minds’: in the broken will of the poor, the black, and the female; made possible by the pleasure-intoxicated indifference of the privileged watching Netflix (now available in Scandinavia!) on the wall of Plato’s cave while the decisions – the lines drawn by rulers (double entendre of the year)–are made somewhere else.

Karen seems a bit upset about this, and her outrage climaxes at what I think, even though it comes in the first song, is probably the most important moment in the album. It’s at the end of the quotation above, which I have sort of mislead you by rendering in sober print like that. She doesn’t sing ‘bring the fuel to the fire’; she reaches the peak of the diatribe that “A Tooth for an Eye” undoubtedly is, and, frustrated with reading Sweden and Europe the riot act, explodes in outrage:

Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fiiirrrrrreeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH

That scream is important because of what fuels it: outrage, striving, and action are all products of (and only of) suffering; and even bold pronouncements about the abolition of injustice are spoken by the voices of its victims. Consider this, from Jürgen Habermas’ On the European Constitution:

In this day and age, it is impossible to read the words “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” (Art. 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) without hearing the echo that rings through them: the cries of countless tormented and murdered human beings. The invocation of human rights lives on the outrage of the violated at the loss of their human dignity.

Shaking the Habitual rattles with the screams of immigrants, women, workers, and the poor; offers an invitation to deconstruct whole skyscrapers of oppression. It is difficult to listen to; it is, at moments, ugly, harsh, and hard work. But then again, so is sewing H&M jeans in Pakistan for 18 hours a day.

III

Meanwhile, back in Vegas, or at the Western White House, or at this great new bar I just discovered in Brooklyn, Matt Berninger has said something alarming: The National “don’t have to prove their identity anymore.”1 This is troubling because, even as good as Americanman has it, his entire essence is that he must urgently, constantly prove himself.

What does it sound like when Americanman no longer feels the need to assert his dominance? The force of songs like Mr November is that even the insecure narrator, trying so hard to convince himself, rides across the spectrum of sound on a triumphant, take-no-prisoners melody that combines the shock and awe of Americanman’s prime positon with the stonewalling inarguability of closing movie credits. Unmotivated to claim dominance, Americanman withers. I Should Live in Salt, the first track of the new album, is limp, without force or even tension. The slow dad rock songs like Demons and Heavenfaced lack the overconfident sleaze of their ancestors like Karen or Slow Show, which could be the soundtrack to every sex scene involving a straight white American man with a college education.

At its worst, Trouble Will Find Me is just plain lazy, exhibit A and B for which are the songs Fireproof and I Need My Girl, one of which you can sing to the music of the other, like the anthems of East and West Germany. Which isn’t to say that the old National doesn’t peek through: for about 9 minutes, on Graceless and Pink Rabbits, they rediscover their striving youth and lay down two genuinely manly tracks. But mostly, Trouble will Find Me, is streamlined, spit-polished, and car-commercial-ready; or, to be less charitable about it, overproduced and boring. Berninger’s baritone is now a whole octave higher on average than it was on Alligator: testosterone, after all, is the hormone of both hardons and baldness. The Dessners’ music has all the edgy throb of a Vegas lounge act on a rainy Tuesday lunchtime in February.

I’m going to follow Americanman on his journey from the young man and his date at the reception in Apartment Story out of that rosy-minded fuzz and into the rest of his life: they are married, financially more secure, even if they still owe money / to the money / to the money they owe, and as the words TEN YEARS LATER appear on the bottom of the screen, Americanman puts down the New York Times, where he has been reading about how intense the competition is to get in the good private high schools. He is worried about whether Leo and Emma are going to be able to get in, so he calls his bandmates for a writing session, to put their angst into song. Everything is just perfect. This is the album that comes out.