Romans 13 – Did Paul really write this?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

I’m going to go right out and offer my inexpert opinion: I don’t think Paul wrote vv. 1-7.  I think they are a later addition.  Remember, the New Testament has has undergone almost 2,000 years of transcriptions and translations.  It is very possible someone slipped a little something extra in there along the way thinking that Paul’s message needed to be clarified, or that it needed to be made more palatable, even.

It interrupts the flow of the letter

It’s placement it weird.  Paul ends the previous section talking about overcoming evil with good, essentially expounding upon the “love thy enemies” idea, and then in the next section, continues the love theme by expounding upon “love thy neighbor.”  So why this unrelated insert about respecting authority and paying taxes between those two sections?

One could argue it’s a continuation of the “love thy enemies” theme, but I think that’s rather weak because the word “love” isn’t used at all, where it is used often in the preceding and following sections.  Also, Paul was never one to shy away from punishment.  He had been whipped, imprisoned, put on trial, stoned, and was on a loose house arrest when writing this letter.  Why would he be concerned about avoiding punishment, as he mentions in verse five, or stress that doing right by the authorities is doing right by God, when he has so clearly angered the authorities himself many times over?

Paul had removed himself from the Roman “Honor System”

I find it particularly suspect that Paul talks about paying “respect” or “honor” to someone or something.  As N.T. Wright, Karen Armstrong, and probably many others have written, Paul removed himself from the honor system of ancient Rome in very deliberate way.  In ancient Rome, there was a strict social hierarchy.  Those lower down strove to pay “honor” to those higher up in an effort to gain recognition and status.  Whole cities vied for Caesar’s honor erecting statues and temples to the empirical court.  In short, this created a culture of boasting and bragging, with people crowing about their faithfulness to the empire, their achievements on Caesar’s behalf, and the achievements of those from which they were trying to gain favor.

Paul turns that tradition on its head, bragging not only of his own ignominies and weaknesses (most famously in 2 Corinthians), but also of Jesus’.  Paul again and again stresses Jesus’ death on the cross.  Death on the cross was not some mere tragedy, it was a fall from social grace, a punishment for the most reviled of society.  In addition, it was also often hard to recover and prepare the body for proper burial.  Scavenging animals often further ravaged those that were executed, soldiers may prohibit collecting the remains, and honestly, it may have been just too risky to even try.  Burial rites were an important ritual in ancient times, not least of all for the Jews, so the fact that Jesus died, defiled on the cross, like a base criminal, would have been proof for many that he was not the Messiah.  Where is his honor, his glory? How can we possibly respect someone with such a base demise?  Paul argues that Jesus power comes from his weakness – by accepting such a fate as the cross Jesus brought about the fullness of God’s kingdom to those who need it most: the weak, the oppressed, those crying out for justice and love.  So I ask again, why would Paul suddenly be urging readers to pay their honor and respect to the civil authorities?

I have seen the case that Paul is possibly referring to synagogue authority, and not Roman authority. Paul did take up a collection from diaspora churches and bring that back to Jerusalem before writing Romans, and perhaps he was hoping to do the same thing in Rome.  This, I suppose, is possible, but I again have my doubts.  I think that Paul would have alluded to the synagogue directly, and probably wouldn’t have referred to his collecting money as “taxes.” Returning to Paul talking about fearing authority, I doubt that Jesus-followers in Rome had much to fear from Jerusalem Jewish retaliation.  There were Jews in the city of Rome, but they had only recently been allowed back to the city after being kicked out, and tensions were high.  A Jew attacking a Gentile for any reason (such as being a Jesus-follower) would have only been detrimental to the Jewish individual.  As for the Jewish Jesus-followers, perhaps there was a bit more to fear from local intra-Jewish retaliation, but again, being a large city with several enclaves of Jesus-followers, I think that they could have found a safe haven with like-minded believers.  So we’re left to conclude that the synagogue is not the fearful authority to which this section refers.

The real author of this section

So who did write it?  My guess is an early Gentile contributor, maybe about the time the Deutro-Pauline letters (letters attributed to Paul but probably not written by him: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, possibly 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) a few decades after Paul’s death.  Early church leaders, when they weren’t ignoring Paul’s dense rhetorical letters, often down-played his Jewishness, focusing on the creation of a new religion in a way Paul had not.  An addition about paying “honor” and “respect” to the civil authorities can be seen as an attempt to assimilate Jesus-following practices into the wider Roman culture, distancing themselves from the Jews. Jews had special dispensation to not worship Caesar (aka not participate in the honor culture), and it often deepened Greco-Roman suspicion of the Jews.  If these new Jesus-followers paid honor as the rest of society did, then they might have been viewed with less suspicion than the abstaining Jews.  Of course, as Christianity gained first acceptance and then power in the centuries to come, early Christian rulers would look approvingly upon this passage condoning God’s support of earthly rulers, and thus it’s canonical status would not be often or seriously challenged.

How we should view this addition

Let’s say I’ve convinced you that Paul didn’t write this little blurb.  What does that mean in the grand scheme of things?  Honestly, nothing revolutionary.  It’s just a little historical Easter egg that hints to the long and storied history of the Good Book.  It’s a perfect example of just how the Bible isn’t separate and apart from history, but very much effected by history and affecting history.

Even with “inauthentic” additions, if you want to call it that, I still think reading the Bible is important. I still think we can gain deep insight to ourselves and God through it.  I still think we can turn to the Bible for guidance.  But it once again highlights the fact that we need to understand the Bible in context of when it was written and why it was written, and remember that even if it was divinely inspired, fallible people were the ones doing the writing (and later interpreting).  The important thing is not to get too bogged down in the details, or limit your understanding of the Bible to just a few verses, because then you’ll miss the broader themes.  And here, the broader theme is love.  I’ll remind you once again: The previous section was Paul expounding upon “love they enemies.” The following section is Paul expounding upon “love thy neighbors.”  This little hiccup in between doesn’t change that message.  And it certainly doesn’t negate our responsibility to be caring of our neighbors, our community, and the world.

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Romans 12 – Remembering the Corona Virus Whistleblower

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Dr. Li Wenlaing, 34-year old doctor in Wuhan, China, died last week after contracting the corona virus.  Back in December, he had warned colleagues about it, after which he was forced by Wuhan officials to sign an official statement renouncing his warnings as lies and rumor-spreading.

The Wall Street Journal reports Dr. Li as wanting to continue to help, no matter what. “The outbreak is still spreading,” the article reports him writing on his verified account on Tencent News. “I don’t want to be a deserter.” His mother confirmed his commitment to his patients and public health in this NY Post article, both seeing it as his duty as a doctor.

I think Paul would agree with me that Dr. Li filled all of the obligations which Paul puts forth in this chapter.  You see, this bit of Paul’s writing is, according to all the sources I’ve read, a very politically radical statement.  Caesar declared himself head of the state, so in saying that Christ is the head of the church (with all belonging making up the body), puts Christ forth as a rival to Caesar.  Add in that little sentence about “do not conform to the world” and this becomes a very subversive message in the eyes of Roman authority.

But accusations of political subversion didn’t deter Paul, the message of Jesus Christ was too important.  Accusations of rumor-spreading didn’t deter Dr. Li, trying to save people from the corona virus by spreading the message was also too important.  And, just as Paul urges us to do, Dr. Li used his own specific gifts – in his case, healing – to keep serving his community for as long as he could.  Yes, I believe that Dr. Li will be one of God’s special saints.

I don’t believe God calls us all to martyrdom. A large minority of early Christians actually sought out dying in Jesus’ name in order to cement their place in heaven (remember the Crusades?), perhaps rising with the saints, who Paul says will be raised sooner than the rest of us hoi polloi believers.  Saint Francis, now remembered as basically the friar version of Snow White, set his sights on converting a Sultan or dying in the process.  He was so fervent the Sultan basically was like, “no thanks, but if you believe in your god that strongly here’s safe passage through my land just get this crazy out of my court.” But I digress.

We don’t need to die for God, but we should devote ourselves readily to service.  That is, I believe, what Paul means by a living sacrifice, and why he goes on at length about using our gifts in service to the world.  As an aside, I wrote two posts last year about the wonderful gifts God has given us (and how to use them) and also assessing your spiritual gifts, if you are at a loss to how you might play a role in serving the world.  Please don’t let martyrdom scare you off from service, or make you think that what you are doing isn’t good enough.  The important part of the equation is service. Death of a generous spirit, when it happens, is a tragedy.  Dr. Li is a shining example of this.  I pray that we open our ears and our hearts to the message of the whistle-blowers, who call our attention to impending crises and ongoing injustices.  I pray especially that those in power may not be hard of heart towards those messages.  Let us remember Dr. Li with the saints, and may his death not be in vain.

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Romans 11 – The Economic Benefits of Inclusion

11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring! (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

Paul’s plea for unity and inclusion

“If their loss means riches for the Gentiles,” Paul says, referring to non-Jesus believing Jews, “how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring?”  One of Paul’s primary concerns – one that often gets forgotten as the church has had a lamentable history of playing down Paul’s Jewishness – was establishing unity among the early believers.  He had to overcome each group’s, Jew’s and Gentile’s, suspicion of each other.  Making the case that uncircumcised Gentiles can be welcomed into the fold, or that Gentile believers should be respectful of Jewish dietary restrictions (whether they chose to follow them or not), and other mediations of that sort take up a lot of his letter writing.  Romans 11 is a gentle but insistent reminder to said Gentile believers that they are not to look down upon their Jewish brethren, whether believers or not, because God chose Israel, and through Israel we have Jesus, and when Jesus returns and the fullness of the holy kingdom is realized, God’s firstfruits (as Paul refers to the Jewish people) will all be holy.

Of course Paul’s primary concern was the inclusion of Gentiles into Jewish Jesus-following communities and vice versa.  But if we zoom out and apply it to modern issues, this is one of the best Biblical passages I’ve found for acceptance and inclusion.  Paul asks his listeners again,  “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”  Let’s apply that to today: what gains have we made on the back of slavery, with the oppression of indigenous peoples? This country’s wealth was bought with blood money.  Now, whether we realize it or not, we rely on indigenous peoples, who only make up 5% of the population globally, to protect 80% of the earth’s biodiversity.  Lives and livelihoods are still being lost to racial tensions.  What would acceptance be today but life from the dead, indeed?

Paul reminds his listeners not to be proud, for they were once as lost as the unbelievers they sneer at.  He reminds them to be kind, for God is kind to them.  He reminds them that we have received mercy through the grace of God, and no one is beyond God’s reach.  Aren’t those all reminders that we could still use, today?

Making the economic case for inclusion today.

The best way to America’s heart is through its pocketbook.  So is it possible to make the case that acceptance and inclusion are more than just lofty, feel-good spiritual goals, but actually concrete economic benefits?  Yes, a thousand times yes.  Let me be very clear,  I do not think we should include marginalized people only because it is good business policy, but sometimes you need to meet the people where they are.  Also, removing the discussion from a single individual’s beliefs and biases, and instead moving it into the less personal business realm, can sometimes diffuse a potentially charged exchange, and may win more hearts and minds that would otherwise be defensive.

As I started this blog writing about refugees, let’s start with the refugee example.  Here’s an article from the Brookings Institute that explains how welcoming refugees to a country does not take jobs away from existing citizens but actually boosts unemployment overall, as well as entrepreneurship, international trade, and investment. And here’s a 2017 report from New American Economy that shows refugees in America contributed $21 billion in taxes in 2015 alone, as well as earned over $77 billion in annual household income.  And yes, there’s no denying that refugees need assistance when they first arrive, but here’s my favorite statistic from the report: By the time a refugee has been in the country at least 25 years, their median household income reaches $67,000—a full $14,000 more than the median income of U.S. households overall – and that’s not because they’re all scamming the system, it’s because they’ve gained independent financial success through that initial leg up.  Here’s another study where Rwandan refugees in several encampments were given assistance in the form of cash. Every dollar received translated into $1.51-1.95 in the local economy. Forbes, The LA Times, and even Nature Magazine have also all written articles that expound upon how acceptance of refugees boost economic output.

Let’s move onto LGBT acceptance.  I’m not denying there is still much work to be done in this arena, but public support of LGBT peoples has grown so much that exploiting that support for economic or political gain has its own term: pinkwashing.  Pinkwashing occurs when a government or organization uses a veneer of gay-friendliness to mask other issues, such as Anti-Palestinian policies in Israel.

But this rather jaded realization aside, LGBT acceptance does us much economic good, just as refugee acceptance does.  This Atlantic article sums it up nicely, but I want to point out one small but profound example that stuck out to me: In 2014, eight men were sentenced to jail for three years in Egypt for participating in what looked like a gay wedding ceremony.  As the article’s author points out:

Those eight men sitting in an Egyptian jail, for example, will not be contributing to the economy for three years and instead create an avoidable cost for the government. Their skills and knowledge might be less valuable when they get out, and if future employers are likely to discriminate against people assumed to be gay, their options might be limited to work in less productive jobs.

The LGBTQ population in the US measures somewhere between four and ten percent, depending upon what report you’re looking at.  That’s up to 32 million Americans who need to eat, buy clothes and cars, and enjoy going out with their friends – just like everyone else.  Economically speaking (again, that’s not the only reason for inclusion, but it seems to be the one that changes everyone’s mind) it just doesn’t make sense to exclude that much of the population.

Let’s quickly list some other examples of how inclusion and acceptance increases the bottom line: Companies investing in increased accessibility means they get more business from the disabled community – of which we’ll have more and more as the baby boomers (with all their money) continue to age.  Reducing the incarceration rate means less burden on the state (and the tax-payers). Companies offering multi-lingual services, such as signs, packaging, or customer service representatives capture more of the business from the 40-some million Americans for whom English is not their primary language. Investing in the “bad” parts of town with new infrastructure, street lights, and neighborhood revitalization efforts reduce crime and boost citizen morale.  These effects are a little harder to measure directly in the economy, but I think we can all agree that less crime is less expensive, and more people being able to get to work via safe roads, sidewalks, or new public transportation options is also economically beneficial.

Get educated, get involved, get out there!

Individual attitudes are important, for sure, but the more I read, the more I have come to believe that if we want to see real progress, we need to be thinking bigger than our personal actions.  We need to see changes in businesses and in government if we’re going to combat everything from institutional racism to climate crises.  That’s why legislation like the ADA and Civil Rights Act have been critical to societal change, and why boycotts and “voting with your dollar” are still so necessary.  I’ll be writing more about this in weeks to come, but for now, remember to call your representatives, get involved, and more than anything else: get educated.  My hope is that my brief overview of the facts above may arm you to speak up when that one family member starts talking about “those dirty Mexicans taking all our jobs,” or to go ahead and vote “yes” for slightly higher taxes when an infrastructure project is proposed on the next ballot.  But don’t stop here, find the cause that speaks to you, and dive in. There is lots more to learn, and lots more to do.

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