Romans 16 – Women in the Bible: Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

The importance of the messenger

Paul greets a number of women in this chapter in addition to presenting Phoebe, the messenger delivering his letter.  In fact, Paul is reported (and reports himself) working closely with many women in the early church.  Phoebe caught my attention because, having read about how these letters were distributed and presented, I knew Paul must have held her in very high esteem for such an important task.

You see, these letters were not merely handed over by an impartial messenger.  The messengers, including Phoebe, read the letter to its recipients, and expounded upon it aloud, answering questions from the recipients and clarifying Paul’s words when needed.  The reading was often dramatic.  I think it was N.T. Wright who theorized Paul and his messengers standing in view of a crucified body for dramatic effect when talking about Jesus’ crucifixion.  If not that extreme, they certainly were impassioned public speakers who would have to know scripture inside and out – perhaps almost as well as Paul did – in order to fully deliver the message of the letter.  I’ve also seen it said that the spoken word was, in fact, the primary message.  The letter was a secondary or supporting document.  So whoever is doing the speaking has a very important role.

Phoebe’s background

So who was Phoebe?  The only concrete thing we know about her is that she comes from Cenchreae.  Cenchreae was a small but prosperous port town not far from the larger Corinth.  It had a deep, protected harbor that made it important for trade.  It was thought to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and is still inhabited today.  If lifestyle magazines had existed in ancient Rome, Cenchreae might have been included in a list “Top ten small towns in the Empire” for it’s array of temples, historic attractions, strong economy, and proximity to Corinth.

We can assume that Phoebe was wealthy, and probably single (widowed or never married is harder to guess).  The Greek word, sometimes translated “servant” or “helper” can also be translated as “benefactor” or “protector,” which the NIV translation above uses. She was in a role similar to Lydia, the wealthy female dye merchant of Thyatira we meet in Acts, then.  Given her freedom to move about society, I think she was also Roman, or at least part of a very Roman-ized social class, as many contemporary cultures, particularly Greek and Jewish, were a little more restrictive for women.

The Roman Empire was not a bad place for a woman of means.  Rich Roman women could often keep their finances, particularly their inheritance, out of their husband’s hands.  A Roman woman who had borne a certain number of children could also legally request that her finances be her own affair (in payment for producing so many little Roman citizens).  Aside from politics, Roman women were visible and active participants in society: attending functions with their husbands, hosting mixed company in their own homes, donating to social, theological, and civic groups. As we’ve seen in the example of Lydia, they could even run their own business ventures.

A woman with a ready heart

The picture we develop of Phoebe is this: a wealthy, independent woman with a bright, creative mind (I doubt Paul would have entrusted her with this important letter otherwise) who is not afraid of adventure (traveling to Rome was no small undertaking).  Most importantly, she is a shining example of an open heart.  I don’t know what may have troubled Phoebe in her lifetime – because we all have troubles.  But overall, it sounds like she was doing just fine before finding Jesus.  She had enough money. She lived in a lovely little town.  She probably had friends and family – community – before joining the early church.  Honestly, she could have picked anything to attach herself or put effort (and money) into.  But Jesus’ message of love and reconciliation with the one true God was the one that caught her attention, the one she wanted to help bring to the world.

Perhaps she saw the plight of women with less means than her, and saw Jesus as a way to uplift them.  Or, perhaps it was the other way around, and Jesus opened her eyes to the plight of her sisters.  It’s just a suggestion, but speaking more broadly, I think concern for others led her to a love for Jesus, or, through the love she developed for Jesus a concern for others developed, also. Either way, caring and love went (and continue to go) hand in hand.  Phoebe, in short, is a woman who used what privilege she had – status and money to be sure, but also time and intellect – in service to  this fledgling movement of Jesus-followers.  Remember what I said last post, about how it’s the responsibility of the strong to bring justice and love to the weak?  Phoebe did that when she became a benefactress, helper, servant, or whatever other translation you want to use.

Listen, if being a churchy-church person isn’t for you, that’s fine. I think donating money to a worthwhile church and volunteering for church-based events that you believe in is great, but we can see Phoebe’s service to the young church as an example of service in the broader sense of the word.  I think God sees and approves of any work being done to fight inequality and hate, whether it is led by a church group or not.  The important thing is that Phoebe had an open heart, was willing to listen to this strange new message of Jesus dying and being resurrected, and hear God at work in it.  She let that message of love and reconciliation guide her to service and to action.  God bless Pheobe, and may she be an example to the rest of us.

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Romans 15 – The Responsibility of the Strong

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

Major takeaways from Romans

This is the second-to-last chapter in Romans, with the last one being mostly greetings and salutations.  It seems fitting to try and tie it all together, so I went back and read Romans again as well as what I had written about in previous chapters.  I write slow, so I’ve been at Romans for a month and a half, which means a lot happened between then and now.  And I made some truly eye-opening discoveries along the way.  Perhaps most paradigm shifting, for me, was discovering the difference in translation between “Faith of Jesus Christ” instead of “Faith in Jesus Christ,” which opens the door to universal reconciliation as well as putting a whole new, joyous meaning on Jesus’ death and resurrection.  (You can read about it in my post on Romans 03,  You Are Holy.)

But as a mother and a farmer,  I am forced into practicality above all else, and my instinct is to leave Romans with actionable points for myself and for you, dear reader.  As such, I would say my biggest actionable takeaway from Romans is this: it is the responsibility of the strong to enact justice and peace for the weak.  Paul talks about this mostly in terms of Jewish and Gentile groups, because that was the major distinguishing factor of this new Jesus-following movement he was fostering at the time.  But it can apply today to so many dichotomies of power: white and black, male and female, corporate and ecological even.

What positions of power do you hold?  You may be surprised.  You can use these positions to amplify your message.  (Not sure what positions of power you hold? This post is a great reminder of ways you are influential in both personal and public life.)  And what message, exactly, should we be amplifying? Inclusion, stewardship, and of course, love.  This will take many forms, but all of them require at least a modicum of effort.

#wetsuwetenstrong

It can start small.  In fact, I urge you to start small.  My specific challenge for you today is to donate $1 (or more if you can!) to the Wet’suwet’en.  The Wet’suwet’en are an indigenous peoples standing up to the Canadian goverment and mining/pipeline corporations that want to invade their unceded land.  They have managed to seriously disrupt trade in Canada (NOT because they are anarchists, but in a desperate effort to protect their home), yet it is getting very little media attention outside of Canada.  Twitter or Instagram, honestly, is the best place to get some information upon it.  The hashtags #wetsuwetenstrong or #shutcanadadown will get you on the right track.  I support them because they are doing important ecological work, and it’s also high time that governments stop bulldozing the wishes of the people over the wishes of big business.

The time for waiting is over.

Next week is the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday.  It is a time of self-reflection, restraint, and waiting.  But too many people have been forced to wait for too long.  Forced to wait for recognition, for justice, for basic human needs and quality of life.  We have no more time to wait on climate change.  And make no mistake, the evils in the world (whatever you perceive them to be) will not wait for us to catch up or catch our breath.  As this change in the season-both liturgical and seasonal-happens around us, I urge you to be active.  Look around you with open eyes at what needs to be changed, and what your role (however small) could be in implementing that change.  Over the next month or two, I’ll be reading about community activism and organizing, and sharing what I learn with you.  I hope that we can all learn something, but we don’t need to wait until then to start doing something now.  It is our responsibility. Let’s get out there.

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Romans 14 – Appropriate Attitudes for Black History Month

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

A little back-story

A chapter wholly devoted to dietary preferences may seem a weird jumping off point for race relations, but there are actually many parallels here that can illuminate our current realities.

Let me start with a little back-story.  If you didn’t know already, my husband is black (I’m white, by the way).  He is very vocal about issues of injustice, especially those concerning representation of POC in and around farming, food, and land use.  (You can read his work on Medium.)  Last week, he noticed that Modern Farmer, a magazine in which he had been featured under the previous editor-in-chief a few years back, had not featured a single black farmer on their (very active) Instagram feed in the first half of Black History Month. In fact, they hadn’t shown any black farmers since November 20th (and even longer for a Hispanic farmer – both facts I independently confirmed when Chris brought my attention to it).  He reached out to them to let them know, and was ignored.  Then he publicly announced their oversight, and several other farmers reached out to them.  Again, this was largely ignored, other than a curt private message from Modern Farmer to Chris basically saying “cut it out and leave us alone.”  Well, Chris did not cut it out, and they eventually put up a weak apology – with a stock photo of a black farmer instead of a real, working, promote-able black farmer – on Thursday last.  They say they’ll do better, and I sincerely hope they do, but both of us have our doubts.

Those in power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power

Back to today’s Bible verse.  What it boils down to is people in a position of power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power.  In the Roman empire, pagan temples often doubled as butcher shops, where the meat sacrificed to the gods was then consumed by the people.  With almost all meat having been dedicated to pagan gods, many observant Jews decided to forgo meat entirely so as not to accidentally defile themselves with meat that may have been involved in pagan ceremonies.  Paul affirms, and many Gentile Jesus-followers believed, that Jesus did away with the old systems, essentially making all food clean. As such, the Gentile believers saw no need to limit themselves to (in their view, obsolete) Jewish dietary restrictions.  This was greatly distressing to some Jewish Jesus-followers, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law but not the abolition of the law.  To them, dietary restrictions were another way to honor both tradition and God, and should not be abolished.  Take the dedication some people have to Keto, vegan, or gluten-free diets, add a religious aspect to it, and we can begin to understand how important this was.  Gentiles, being able to eat whatever they want and move more freely through the larger society in part because of that fact, are the people in a position of power in this story.  Jews, with the need for careful dietary observances, avoiding certain (or all) purveyors of meat, and being scrutinized by the larger society for that fact, are the people who lack power in this story.

Paul, though he does affirm that he sees all food as clean, stresses to the Gentile believers that they should respect the beliefs and dietary restrictions of the Jewish believers.  I’m not a huge fan of his word choice: “strong” and “weak” faith makes it seem like Gentile believers were better at believing in Jesus.  Perhaps progressive and conservative might have been more accurate, though those two terms are also pretty loaded now.  But I digress. The important part of the story is that Paul urges those in power to respect those who lack it, up to and including following the restrictions of those who are “weak in faith” as a default, and saving free-for-all meat eating for personal meals.

Stumbling blocks of our own making

Dear white people, this should be our guiding light during Black History Month and indeed all times.  While Chris has had many supporters in this Modern Farmer skirmish, I’ve been appalled at the number of people basically saying “So what’s the big deal?”  Here’s the big deal: Black Americans – indeed any people of color, here – live in a country where they’re routinely treated as invisible, labelled as “aggressive” if they speak up (and are often fired, demoted, or otherwise punished for it), and watch as their culture is commodified for white-only consumption while they are forced to assimilate into white culture.  Need an example?  A white teenager walking down the street listening to ODB is viewed as cool, a black teenager listening to the same music is seen as threatening.  We, as white people, are in a position of power, let us respect the opinion of – and indeed uplift those – who are not!

My favorite line from today’s reading is “make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”  If you’re over there reading this, getting defensive, thinking “well, not all white people are like that” while remembering how you invited your black coworker to your last cookout, then whatever, I’m not going to argue with you on that one.  But you’re just one person, and if that is your attitude, then you’re not exactly a starter on the offensive line of combating inequality.  There are so many stumbling blocks we need to help remove.  Pervasive stereotypes exist that black people have to overcome every single day, over and over again.  Google even had to fix it’s auto-suggest because the suggestions were so racist.  Still, after Google’s attention to that issue, society’s biases continue to come through.  I just did a quick experiment with Google Images.  Type in “deadbeat dad” and a lot of memes come up, but one of the top “you may also be interested in” suggestions is “black” complete with a picture of a black man.  “Welfare queen” is another telling example example.  While most welfare benefits go to white recipients (and are often less than what a person truly needs), the idea of a “welfare queen” being a large, lazy, greedy black woman persists – in Google images and in the real world.  Now, imagine that stereotype following you around to the grocery store…on a job interview…hell, even on a date.  It’s like handicapping a horse during a race, only you’re adding weight to the wrong one, ensuring that the favored horse will continue to win.

Working towards peace and mutual edification

So what are we to do?  Paul gives us the blue-print in my other favorite line from this passage: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”  This passage needs one tiny bit of clarification: Peace is not the same as silence.  Peace does not mean getting black people to “cut it out and leave us alone,” as Modern Farmer basically told Chris (again, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the clear intent of their message).  As Paul stresses, the onus of peace and mutual edification is upon those in power.  So yes, that means it’s up to us, fellow white people, to listen when a black person says something isn’t working.  Equally important, we cannot then deny or try to justify that wrong, but must try to fix it.

Yes, that means more work on our part – but we’ve got the bandwidth for it.  If you’re lucky enough to walk out your house without a stereotype (or several) hanging over your head the minute you interact with another person, then you’re already saving on emotional energy.  Pour some of it into being a better ally.  Educate yourself. There are several good books out there.  I’ve read bits of White Fragility and have also seen How to be an Anti-Racist and Between the World and Me highly recommended.

Then, listen and don’t overshadow.  It’s easy to gain a modicum of understanding and then feel like you are an expert.  It is particularly important to resist that urge when working towards equality.  If your discussion about racial issues in the workplace doesn’t include minority workers, if your business claims inclusivity without having a racial minority in a decision making role, if you are in any way speaking for or about someone (or a group of someones) to the detriment of them speaking for themselves, then you’re not doing much to promote equality.

Finally, don’t give up.  The minute you excuse yourself from fixing the problem, you become part of the problem.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Then there’s this quote (not from film director Werner Herzog, but from a doppleganger twitter account run by William Pannapacker, a professor of American literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  The authorship, in my view, makes no difference on its impact): “Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”  In less eloquent language: indifference is the problem. Do not be indifferent to the sufferings of your brothers and sisters, of which we all are in Christ.  Do not look away, and do not excuse yourself from action.  Until there is truly peace and mutual edification for all, until all the stumbling blocks have been removed, then we have work to do.

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