Wembley Downs Uniting Church
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Standard Operating Procedure (Kirsten Lambert) 13.7.2008
Romans 8:1-11 is one of those passages that is almost too well known. I find really difficult to read because I just tune out. As someone once said of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is ‘full of quotations’. Liturgies and prayers and thousands of sermons have been written on it, and given that I’m probably only going to speak for ten minutes I’m not even going to attempt to do it justice.

The passage revolves around a series of contrasts, focusing on the words ‘Spirit’ and ‘flesh’. There is the contrast between the ‘law of the Spirit of life’ and the ‘law of sin and death’, between ‘walking in the Spirit’ and ‘walking in the flesh’, and between the ‘mind’ that focuses on the ‘things of the Spirit’ and the mind ‘set on the things of the flesh’. The Spirit is connected with ‘life and peace’ whilst the flesh is described as ‘sinful’, it cannot please God and indeed is hostile to God, and results in ‘death’.

I’m not going to go into the issue of Paul’s view of the ‘Law’ or Torah in Romans because we’d be here all night, but suffice to say that these passages form the conclusion to an argument that begins in chapter 7. Essentially, the passage goes to the heart of the self-identity of the people of God. The Torah informs Israel that as descendants of Adam they are in slavery to sin and facing death, and that assurance can only be found in the death of the Messiah and the life-giving presence of the power of the Spirit.

Before we look any further into the passage’s meaning let me first define a few of the key terms, and that way we’ll avoid the more seriously dodgy interpretations. Firstly, when Paul talks about the ‘flesh’ being bad and the ‘Spirit’ being good he is not promoting some sort of Gnostic dualism between body and soul which sees our physical bodies as bad and promotes some sort of ‘super-spiro’ lifestyle where we neglect our physical needs and sing hymns all day. Our bodies are good and are God-given and approved of. One famous Pauline commentator, N T Wright states that when Paul talks about ‘flesh’ he means the ‘present rebellious and corruptible state of humankind, within which sin has made its dwelling’. When talking about the meaning of ‘sin’ Wright believes that Paul is not referring to the ‘bad things that people do’, but rather a personified force or power that is at work in the world and in humans, even those with the best intentions. Another commentator, Brendan Byrne (a Catholic) states that ‘sin’ for Paul here is the ‘fundamental tendency to put self at the centre of the universe, denying the claim both of the Creator and all other beings`. Sin is anything that degrades our humanity, anything that does not allow us or others to be who God intended us to be. This can be nothing more sinister than living an ordinary human life based on the values of our society.

Like the famous passage in Deuteronomy (30:15,19) which ends with ‘Today I set before you life and death … choose life …’, Paul sets before his readers two ways of living. This involves two things, walking and thinking. ‘Walking’ denotes a general way of living, and for Paul, as well as the modern-day promoters of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, ‘Thinking’ precedes ‘walking’, or to put it another way, ‘As a man thinketh, so he is’. In fact, walking the way of the ‘flesh’ or having one’s mind set on the things of the flesh, is what the Messiah came to save us from. We are not talking about some sort of judicial exchange here where hostile God who needs to punish people for their sins is placated by merciful Jesus who steps into the breach on everyone else’s behalf. Rather, Jesus, by embodying the Spirit of God just as the Shekinah presence of God embodied the wilderness tabernacle, both shows and enables us to live the way God intended us to; to be fully human, by living a life that fulfilled the law of love – to love God, neighbour and self with all your heart.

I went and saw two films this week that I believe would be really good modern day examples of the values of our western capitalist system and the problem of human nature – that Paul would probably label as living by the ‘flesh’. The first, Sex and the City, was about four women who were living the American Dream in that they were beautiful, independent and very very wealthy. I mean how many pairs of shoes does one woman really need to own? If the film were about men then you could probably cross off the ‘beautiful’ and change it to ‘powerful’ and you’d have the male equivalent of the American dream: powerful, independent and very very wealthy.

The second film, Standard Operating Procedure, examines the incidents of abuse and torture of suspected ‘terrorists’ at the hands of US forces at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Photographs taken by soldiers in Abu Ghraib changed the war in Iraq and changed America’s image of itself. Erroll Morris interviews the soldiers who took the photographs and gives us a glimpse of the horrors of Abu Ghraib; and the subsequent cover up by the military. Many journalists have commented that Abu Ghraib is a smoking gun. If you read the ‘blurb’ about the film it states that the underlying question the film asks, four years after the scandal, is: ‘how could American values become so compromised that Abu Ghraib could happen? Isn’t America a Christian nation – the biggest powerful Christian nation in the world?`

When my mum saw the film she said it exposed the fact that America is ‘rotten to the core’. Is this true? After seeing the film I’d have to agree. Not because I think Christianity is rotten to the core but because I think the ‘values’ of the capitalist system are rotten to the core, and are actually the antithesis of Christianity. In the capitalist system – in the American dream – MONEY IS EVERYTHING and everything has a monetary value, it is a commodity. This is exemplified in Sex and the City where the poor black woman who is Carrie’s PA (servant) finds success in the end of the film, which is symbolised by owning a Louis Vitton handbag. What’s more, Samantha dumps her partner of five years even though she still loves him and he’s pretty much perfect, because she’s bored with him. If people become nothing more than a commodity that is replaceable, then they have no intrinsic value. They are de-humanised.

The proof that the capitalist system de-humanises people is seen in Standard Operating Procedures. In Abu Ghraib prison, (which was originally Saddam’s prison where he tortured people) the young untrained US soldiers were given the task of ‘finding Saddam’ by interrogating people. Basically the only rule was that they couldn’t kill them. Well you’ve all seen the pictures in the newspapers of the young female soldier with the naked Iraqi man being dragged around on the ground on a leash, and the other picture of the man with a cape on his head, standing on a box with his arms stretched out and wires on his fingers. I used to teach history and one of the topics we always cover in history is the Holocaust. The kids always ask, ‘How could this happen? How could ordinary people allow it to happen right in their own back-yards?’ Well one of the main reasons the holocaust happened was that the Jews were slowly de-humanised in the media, in racist cartoons and short films for example. Once you convince people that ‘the other’ … whether they be Jews, Muslims or ‘boat people’ are ‘evil’, or ‘terrorists’ or somehow ‘less human’ than us, you can justify all sorts of abuses against them.

I guess what I’m saying here is that if we live by the values of our society, of the capitalist system, which values money over everything, even people; if we set our minds on these things and walk in the ways of this system, then to use Paul’s terminology we are living ‘according to the flesh’ which will ultimately result in death. For some of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib this was literally how it ended and for the soldiers involved, apart from prison sentences they ended up with a kind of spiritual death where as one of them said, ‘If I had to do it all again I can’t honestly say that I would do it any other way; there is no other way’. For them, and this is what the film highlights, most of what went on in Abu Ghriab was standard operating procedure. Whilst sexual abuse and violence were not seen as okay, degrading and de-humanising people was. It was standard operating procedure; it doesn’t conflict with American values, and there is no other way of doing things.

The good news that Paul talks about in Rom 8:1-11- well it’s the main ‘theme’ of the passage actually - is that we don’t have to live under the domination of sin, or under slavery to the powers of this world – the standard operating procedures of our times. Paul invites his audience to rejoice in the new era of freedom and ‘possibility’ brought about by the Spirit. What the indwelling of the Spirit has given us is the ability to live in a manner that ‘pleases God’ – in a way that allows us to be fully human. This way has been laid out in Scripture and reinforced and exemplified by Jesus – namely the way of love. `Love thy neighbour as thyself`. Like one of the interviewees in the film said – the one soldier who did walk away and refused to be a part of it – ‘I knew it was wrong … I thought, `How would I feel if someone did this to me`’.

So what’s the catch, how do I live ‘in the Spirit of Christ’? How can I be transformed by the Spirit of Christ so that I can live in a manner that affirms the goodness of God, other human beings and myself? Well it doesn’t take a brain surgeon, or a spiritual guru to work that one out… and dare I say it… you don’t even have to be a Christian. Not all the signatories or even the authors of the International Declaration on Human Rights were Christians. So what’s the key? Paul says, ‘For those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on the things of the flesh, while those who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on the things of the Spirit’. It’s your thinking that determines your actions … the path you eventually end up taking. To me this means we really do have a choice. We have the power within us to choose, between the standard operating procedures of this world, which lead to death, and the way of the cross: to die to this world’s values and systems and be born again to a life lived by the transforming power of the Spirit of God. A life that has its mind set on love, on treating others with the dignity and love that they deserve as God’s good creatures. This is the path that ultimately leads to the blessing of ‘life and peace’.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands