Romans 7 and Cultural Assimilation

In a previous post, I laid out my position (taken from Ted Jennings, as well as Origen of Alexandria) that in Romans 7, Paul is speaking in the voice of a Gentile convert to Judaism rather than in his own voice. I have since thought further about this topic and about how it works in the context of Paul’s broader goal in Romans: establishing the validity of his novel idea of a messianic community made up of Jews and Gentiles, that is, directly including Gentiles qua Gentiles without requiring conversion to Judaism first. I believe that Paul’s insights into the mind of the Gentile convert can be generalized as a commentary on the problem of cultural assimilation.

I said in my last post that someone who is raised a devout Jew does not find the Jewish law especially difficult to carry out, just as I don’t find midwestern American customs difficult to carry out. It is well-known, however, that those who attempt to assimilate into a new culture experience it as an impossible task to fulfill — they can asymptotically approach it, but they will never be equal to a native. One can see this in the American attitude toward foreigners. First it is asserted that they should learn English. When the foreigners do speak English, many Americans make only a minimal effort to understand them because of the assumption that they will not speak English comprehensibly. Even someone who manages to speak nearly flawless English will inevitably encounter an American who claims not to understand them. Thus one could sympathize with a foreigner who chose to pretend not to speak English out of sheer spite — or who perhaps view their own language as a kind of “guilty pleasure” distracting them from what they “should” be doing, namely, practicing English.

Paul’s example of coveting could perhaps be seen as an example of the different moral concepts that regulate different cultures. Coveting clearly adds another layer to the basically universal strictures against stealing, adultery, etc., and so to someone attempting to adopt the prohibition against “coveting” late in life, it may seem like a completely hyperbolic demand: “What, I’m not supposed to even want other people’s stuff? That’s impossible!” It creates a whole new area of guilt that they had never experienced before. “Sin came to life and I died” — my previous unself-conscious way of being in the world gave way to a self-image of inadequacy. (A popular example of this phenomenon could be Larry David’s continually failed efforts, as a New York Jew, to conform to the passive-aggressive culture of Southern California in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Yes, Larry is an insufferable person, but it’s the cultural difference that creates all his problems — all the unspoken rules, etc.)

Even if the native-born Jewish members of the community could manage to treat the Gentile converts as perfect equals, the inherent structure of conversion to a new culture would prevent the Gentiles from ever feeling like true equals — thus there would always be a wall of division between Jews and Gentiles in the community. But Paul’s conviction is that the messiah has removed that wall of division and that the community needs to live that out. Therefore, he needs to figure out a way for the community to include Gentiles precisely as Gentiles.

Against Badiou and much of the Christian tradition, the problem with the Jewish law isn’t its particularity, but its false universality — the notion that everyone, regardless of their personal history, can directly conform to it. The messianic community isn’t a community of universalism, but of multiple particularities. (Indeed, from this perspective, we might read Romans 14 as attempting to counteract the false pagan universality as well — thereby showing that the problem isn’t the Jewish law in particular, but the problem of the treatement of the minority in any pluralistic community.)

9 thoughts on “Romans 7 and Cultural Assimilation

  1. “Against Badiou and much of the Christian tradition, the problem with the Jewish law isn’t its particularity, but its false universality — the notion that everyone, regardless of their personal history, can directly conform to it.”

    This is explicitly not part of Jewish law. Direct conformity to Jewish law is only required of participants in the Siniatic covenant, that is, Jews.

  2. “Can one honestly conceive of a universal that is not a particular standing in for the universal?”

    Perhaps “the universal”, in this very sentence, is such a conception?

    I think Ruby has a point, but I suspect that the Noahide laws can probably do the same work in Kotsko’s schema, if the point comes to that. Certainly there are elements of “Jewish law” that claim to be universally binding, even if e.g. only the sons of Israel have to be circumcised.

  3. If I were to have to “clarify,” I’d say that Paul is arguing against his opponents — those who seek to convert Gentiles — rather than the Jewish law as such. If the Jewish law does not incite conversion, then that’s all to the better.

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