Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Lent is the season where we participate in the life of Jesus as he suffered state violence. To the Roman Empire, Jesus and the community in which he lived were a worthless population. They were not citizens or soldiers, they had no prestige, and they weren’t particularly productive workers. To the Roman Empire, Jesus and his people were a redundant population who were, at best, tolerable and, at worst, a threat.
Our own society also renders a growing number of people outcasts from political, social, and economic systems. Sociologist Zymunt Bauman calls this growing population “wasted humans,” by which he means lives whose suffering is the direct byproduct of global capitalism. This term would include the large number of people who are refugees, migrants, unhoused, unemployed, and prisoners. Like Jesus’ own community, these populations are considered excessive and even dispensable by today’s authorities.
Starting in the 1970s, the number of people imprisoned in the United States rose drastically. “Although the US makes up about 4 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 22 percent of the world’s prison population.” Due to laws designed to their disadvantage, black, brown, and poor people are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested, be imprisoned, and face longer prison sentences. The “tough on crime” judicial system shrouds mass incarceration in legality and concerns of community safety, however its racist and unequal practices are well documented.
Mass incarceration is an instrument of state violence for managing the growing number of excess populations. The stark racial and class biases of the legal system reveal that mass incarceration is less about law or safety and more about managing the populations who are considered outcasts and worthless. That is, mass incarceration is motivated by the need to deal with people who are low-income, unhoused, unemployed, undocumented, and otherwise squeezed out of capitalism.
Though capitalism renders certain people useless and without value, sadly the church has been complicit in this violence. Christian teachings of eternal damnation for the unrepentant serve as a theological correlate to the practices of mass incarceration wherein people are considered expendable if they don’t fit within the reigning paradigm. Moreover, the historical alliance between the church and the state has given Christianity a bad habit of baptizing violence rather than opposing it. However, instead of rendering human lives as worthless and expendable, I believe our Lenten text offers a very different vision.
In this passage, Paul describes Adam and Jesus as conjoined and similar figures. Paul explains that through Adam’s sin, sin and consequently death entered the world. That is, sin and death affected all humans–even those who are distant or many generations removed. For Paul, Adam is not simply an individual, rather Adam is a model and a representative of all humankind. Just as death became Adam’s fate because of sin, death became the fate of every human. However, Paul writes that Adam was “a pattern of the one who was to come.”
Like Adam, Jesus is also a model and a representative of humans. For Paul, Adam and Jesus are privileged figures whose lives and actions have special consequences for the rest of us. However, unlike Adam, through Jesus’s righteousness and obedience he was granted life. Just as life became Jesus’ destiny because of his faithfulness, life has become the destiny of all. Where Adam introduced death for all, Jesus has introduced life for all.
In Christ, there are no wasted humans, no excess populations, and no outcasts because the redemption of Jesus is as universal as Adam’s sin. “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many,” (v.15) Paul reminds us that redemption is greater than sin, the healing is better than the disease, and if sin is far reaching, grace reaches even farther. And again, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,” (v.18). As far as sin and death has reached, the goodness and life of Christ has reached all the more.
In Christ, there are no wasted human lives. Unlike our social order that relegates black, brown, and poor communities to prisons and detention centers, in Christ no one is dispensable–all have been given life. The message of a God who suffers and dies as an outcast is that there are no more outcasts in the Kingdom and prisoners are set free.
Lent is the season where we participate in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Let us participate in the suffering of God who lived and died as an outcast. Let us participate in solidarity with prisoners and all who are deemed worthless by our merciless institutions. Let us participate in the breadth and joy of the divine life in which all are welcome.