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]