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  1. Note in advance: sorry for length.

    Paul has always made very little sense to me. For that matter, Christianity in general has always made little sense to me, because it has precisely seemed like a broken set up and a system to correct that broken setup. So I had great excitement for Adam’s book and its bold proclamation — the grace is not God’s backup training — that things would just click.

    Adam is someone whose writing I want to understand, but whose writing in reality is usually something I simply don’t get. And so it was with Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan…at least the first time I read it.

    FWIW, I read a different “outsider”/”paraphrase-y” translation of Romans (from The Unvarnished New Testament), and I will say that that translation is even more opaque…so I think that the difference is precisely to try to “update” and “modernize” away from talk about Jews and Gentiles, righteousness, justification, etc., Still, the way that Adam did it didn’t *quite* make sense to me…at least the first time I read it.

    There was a talk I heard the other day from the Sunstone Theology on the Margins conference that got me thinking about something, though, and listening to the podcast kinda got me thinking that I was on a better “wavelength,” but I’m not entirely sure.

    So, maybe y’all could just let me know if my re-paraphrasings, re-analogizing, etc., is on track?

    1) The Law

    Certainly, I didn’t really grok everything that was said about the law because to me, a lot of the mosaic law stuff is opaque to me. Even Adam’s move to redefine in terms of insiders and outsiders didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because Mormon legal code stuff doesn’t make much sense to me. Like, Word of Wisdom? Who cares? So, I couldn’t really grasp anything about the grace fulfilling the law, or how law could lead one into sin, how the law is a grace, etc., etc., etc.,

    But my question is this (and Joe kinda went here on the podcast): can we view as the “law” anything that kinda sets up a system of meritocracy? So it’s not just the mosaic law, it’s not just the Word of Wisdom, but it could be something as simple as being “respectable, educated, polite, etc.,” [P.S., a lot of my comment is going to come from a framework of black respectability politics as I understand it, of the language around social justice [as I understand it], of things about privilege, oppression, meritocracy, etc.,..as I understand it.]

    Regarding respectability, I was struck on a re-read of Adam’s book at how this gets stated point blank at some point…I don’t have the book in my hand, but it was something like, “Being respectable, well-dressed, etc., isn’t good enough.”

    If that is true, would an example of the law selling us into sin be like our use of meritocracy to judge others (or ourselves) worthy of certain considerations? For example, we might say, “I deserve my job and income and good success because I worked hard in school, studied, etc., etc., etc., whereas that guy on the street deserves where he’s at because he slacked off, didn’t study enough, etc., etc.,”

    Moving on…

    2) Sin

    In this framework, would a good way of describing sin be like saying that “sin” is illustrated in the impulse to say that *we* are self-made people, that “we built that”, or that we did the work to get us where we are and can do the work to get us to where we will be? “Sin”, then, implicates others in that it fuels that framework for judging others and ourselves for our performance (or lapses in performance)? Is that missing a vital part or is that off track?

    3) Grace

    If I’m on the right track so far, then would it be reasonable to say that the reason sin misses the mark — and the reason it rejects grace — is because it rejects what has been *given* to us but not *earned*. In the framework that I’ve been describing, “grace” might align to social justice notions of “privilege” — but it is also far more expansive than our typical liberal/progressive dimensions of privilege? In this framework, we’d have to clarify that “privilege” itself is certainly not a bad thing — the problem with problem wouldn’t be that some people have it, but more that 1) not as many people have it, 2) we are not grateful for it, and 3) as a result of our lack of gratitude, we deprive others of that privilege.

    How it would look like is this: “privilege” is the sense that we get things that we did not necessarily earn (and therefore do not deserve). But in sin, we think, “Well, I built that myself; I earned that myself.” We may think that because of the law being hooked in with sin (read: systems of meritocracy) that we did x amount of work, checked y blocks, and that is a sign that we did earn it and others (who did not do x, did not check y) didn’t earn it and thus get what they deserve.

    But the thing about privilege is that because it is given without being earned, it benefits without being earned. That is, even if you make a mistake, privilege (read: grace) is that thing that can keep you afloat. In this sense, something like the #CrimingWhileWhite twitter meme is possible because even when privileged people commit crimes (which should “earn” them jail), their privilege which is unearned protects them.

    This analogy is probably misleading or inaccurate or of limited use because of our common understanding of privilege (where it accrues to certain kinds of things [e.g., being white, being male, being straight] but not others [e.g., being poor, being transgender, being female]), whereas grace is more expansive in that it applies to everyone. Like, if you want to say, “I did this myself” even for something like “making a pie from scratch,” you have to accept that no, you didn’t do it myself. because as Carl Sagan noted: “If you wish to make a pie from scratch, you have to first invent the universe.” That the universe is already here with its materials like apples and flour and butter and whatnot are all graces — unearned, undeserved, yet here there are.

    How does grace change us?

    Well, recognizing privilege (read: grace) gives us a choice. One can recognize privilege and then keep going about their daily life — or even continue abusing privilege. This is like Paul’s questions: “shall we sin more, so that grace may more fully abound?” Except the translation here probably would be like, “Shall I continue to break rules, etc., because I know my privilege means that I will probably get off very easy, not be shot by police, not be kicked out of school, etc.,”

    And the answer, as Paul goes is: Certainly not! God forbid!

    Because that is the ungratitude. Albeit, even that ungratitude does highlight grace (the fact that people who break rules, etc., can often seem to “get away with it” even though they deserve worse.)

    The other choice is the gratitude. Which mean, when we recognize that things are unearned, the gratitude gives us the opportunity to say, “Well, I’ve been pretty fortunate, so I should extend that fortune to others. I should not judge others when they are not fortunate, because ultimately, being fortunate or not being fortunate was all caused by privilege or lacks thereof, not because of “us”.)

    The way that it “clicked” was when I heard that Sunstone talk and it talked about allies. Allies are in a unique position because they have privilege, but they are aware of it. As a result, an ally can choose to use that privilege to help others who may not have it. But if someone with privilege does not recognize it…if they are in “sin”, then they might instead say, “Hey, I built this. Why do I need to try to help you when you haven’t done the work”

    4) Grace and the Law

    (p.s., please correct me if you think i got totally off at any point here. As I said, these feel like impressions…but it also feels like a little bit of a breakthrough).

    The way that grace and the law work together ideally is something like the way that privilege and meritocracy work together. Like I said earlier…having the privilege to make mistakes doesn’t mean you should do that with abandon (e.g., #CrimingWhileWhite). Rather, a certain gratitude would involve doing well with your privilege.

    In the Sunstone talk I had listened to, the speaker (Dr. Fatimah Salleh) had a line re: affirmative action. It was something like, “Affirmative action didn’t write my papers.” Like, there is this sense that things like “affirmative action” are used as accusations that someone didn’t do the work, or that someone didn’t earn where they got. And to an extent, part of the thing is that we all don’t “earn” what we get. However, whether we have affirmative action or are a legacy or live in a system that notices us (it’s already literally a grace to live in a system that has the ideal of moving up in the world…), those things *don’t write our papers for us*.

    I think the analogy here is inadequate or limited in scope because in mundane, earth-like contexts, we don’t really have a lot of complete freebies. In other words, does it really make sense to speak of “scholarships” as an unearned grace, when you could say that you earned them by getting certain test scores (and can lose them if you don’t maintain a certain GPA?) But recognizing those conceptual limitations, is that the gist here?

    5) Loose ends/missing pieces

    As I mentioned, these seem more like “impressions” rather than a fully fledged grand unified theory (although writing this out has helped tie some things together). But there are still a few things that kinda don’t make a lot of sense to me from the Romans/Paul standpoint:

    a) Faith. I get that faith should be seen as a trust…and I get that instead of running away from grace, one should trust in it. But I don’t necessarily know what this looks like. Maybe the privilege analogy kinda fails here? Like, to say, “trust in your privilege” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Saying “trust in what’s given to you/grace” doesn’t make sense to me. What does that mean?

    b) Death/life. My vague impression here relates to the comments made in the podcast about ego (and I thought that Joe’s comments that sin focuses on the end of death and then does things to avoid it were very interesting). So, as far as I can get, what it means to say that living in sin leads to death or is death means that if we are trying to preserve our ego, trying to “work” at our lives, etc., then we will naturally cloister ourselves off from various things. Like, if you’re trying to be on top (e.g., the rat race/meritocracy/Law), the problem is that being at the top is lonely, but it also is paranoid, in that you have to be aware of all the people who want to knock you off your perch. So, to stay at the top, you kinda have to maintain that state of paranoia and keep others at distance.

    Is that a good way to understand that, or is that missing something?

    My impression of life (especially w/r/t Joe’s comments about dying with Christ so that we don’t have to do all the “death”-focused stuff I paraphrased above) is this: you can’t kill what is already dead, so by accelerating death (to be reborn, so to speak), one need not fear dying, and one need not live in that fear. In that sense, if you died, you’re out of the rat race, and don’t have to fear getting knocked off the perch. Is that a good re-paraphrasing?

    Anyway, sorry for the length. I don’t have a good conclusion so I’ll just end this here

    1. Oh my goodness. Andrew, you are going to have to record that so I can listen to it on my way to work like I do the podcasts. 🙂

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