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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Romans 10 – Why we should read the WHOLE Bible

The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

Jesus quotes the Old Testament about forty-five times, depending upon who you ask and what you’re counting as a quote.  Other New Testament writers also use the Old Testament.  Paul quotes the Old Testament eleven times in this chapter alone. (The segment of the chapter I’ve included above is a quote from Deuteronomy.)  The previous chapter quotes the old testament ten times.  I think this should be reason enough for us to read the Old Testament: if it was important enough for Jesus, then it should be important enough for me.  But lots of Christians (I’m looking at you especially, Red Letter followers) decide not to read most of the Bible.

The Bible is dense and esoteric in many places, especially in the Old Testament.  It’s gruesome and cruel in many places, too. That can take a lot of mental energy.  So while I’m a proponent of all Christians reading the Bible, I also don’t think we need to rush through reading the whole Bible. Those read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans have their place, but I think they hurry you through some things that probably deserve more than a day’s thought.  Just look at this blog – at the risk of scaring you off, it’s going to take me about seven years to get through this whole thing, chapter by chapter.

The cultural influence of the Bible cannot be overstated.

If nothing else, we owe it to ourselves to read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, in order to understand the profound, ongoing influence it has on our culture.  In fact, the best secular argument I’ve seen for reading the Old Testament comes from (in his own words) a “lax, non-Hebrew speaking  Jew,” a “hopeless and angry agnostic,” Slate contributor and author of Good Book, David Plotz.  Plotz gives us an example (from this Slate Article) of just how influential even the seemingly un-important books can be:

“I thought for a few minutes about the cultural markers in Daniel, a late, short, and not hugely important book. What footprints has it left on our world? First, Daniel is thrown in the “lions’ den” and King Belshazzar sees “the writing on the wall.” These are two metaphors we can’t live without. The “fiery furnace” that Daniel’s friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions’ den, sealing in a holy man who won’t stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus. Daniel inspired the novel The Book of Daniel and the TV show The Book of Daniel. It’s even a touchstone for one of my favorite good-bad movies, A Knight’s Tale. That movie’s villain belittles hero Heath Ledger by declaring, “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting”—which is what the writing on the wall told Belshazzar.”

At the least, it’s an intellectual pleasure to connect these dots.  More importantly, it helps us understand the cultural assumptions and historic pressures that may be exerting invisible influence in our lives.  Which segues me from my secular reason to my religious reason for reading the Old Testament:

If we don’t read the Bible, someone else will do it for us and tell us what to believe.

Let me give you an example from my own life, one that I think many around my age can probably identify with:  As a teenager and young adult, I believed that homosexuality was sinful.  I mean, it tells us so right there in the Bible, in black and white, right? And honestly I didn’t think much about it until college, when I had my first gay friends.  When I started questioning whether or not these people whom I had come to know and love were doomed to hell, I got an answer that, I think, was supposed to be comforting, but instead was vague and unsatisfying: “we are all sinners, so it is not for us to cast the first stone upon their sin, but yes, they are indeed sinning.”

That answer felt like it was side-stepping the issue: weakly admitting that we’re all sinners so that church authority wouldn’t have to outright condemn gay people (and maybe scare a few out of their pews, taking their money with them) yet still letting those in power (self-admitted sinners, as you’ll remember) bar people from full fellowship with God. So I started reading the Bible.  I didn’t know what the clobber passages were, and I definitely found a lot of nasty stuff in there, but more than anything I saw a God of love.  Even in the Old Testament, I saw a God of love.  So, how could a God of love condemn people acting out of love?  The readings I hadn’t been pointed to before, the readings I found myself, pointed to the idea that God would not do such a thing.

Then, fast-forward to this blog, and I now have a chance to refute the clobber passages point by point.  I’ve done the two of the seven or so (you can read here and here) and I’m excited to debunk the rest of them as they come up organically.  I no longer believe homosexuality is sinful. I know there are others struggling with the same ideas that my younger self held – blindly following the conclusions of others even though something is unsettled in their heart.  My hope is that they will pick up their Bible and study it for themselves.

Of course, it is important to find good teachers.  I will totally admit I didn’t get half of my material for this blog from just reading the Bible.  I’ve relied on everything from news outlets like HuffPost to scholarly journals like Vetus Testamentum and books from a range of authors (see my 2020 and beyond reading list of non-straight, non-white faith writers here) to help further reveal the depths of the Bible.

The Bible as a constantly evolving source.

I want to end by reminding you that the Bible is not static, to see it as such does it a real disservice.  I can come back to the Bible again and again and learn something new from even the same readings, noticing something I’d never noticed before.  I like to compare it to The Princess Bride – it was my favorite movie to watch with my father as a kid.  (Actually, I think it was his favorite movie to watch with me, and I’m sure he was subtly steering me towards making the decision to watch that movie instead of having to sit through, say, Rainbow Brite or Cinderella, but I digress.)  As a five year old heavily into Princess Culture, The Princess Bride was a princess movie, and I enjoyed it as such.  As I got older, I started getting some of the jokes that went over my head as a kid.  Now that I have kids of my own, the movie is steeped in nostalgia that didn’t exist in years past.  Are any of these enjoyments of the movie “wrong” or “better?”  No, they are all perfectly valid, and ones I wouldn’t have reached if I didn’t come back to the movie again and again.  The same basic principle is true of the Bible as well.

Many have used the Bible to uphold colonialist, racist, and sexist social structures that benefit only a privileged few.  Which is why it is even more important that we read it. “No,” we can say, “you are interpreting that verse wrong, and here’s why.  And while we’re at it, here’s some more verses to further prove our point.”  But that only happens when we read the Bible, become familiar with it, and allow it to guide us, to comfort us, and to challenge us.  Let me reference Isaiah 2:4 to close out this post: If others have used the Bible as a sword, wielding it for evil, let us beat it into a plowshare, turning it into a tool for good. Get reading, folks.

 

Romans 09 – Cold Comfort

19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Read the rest of the chapter here.)

Now we get to the question at the base of it all, the unanswerable question, the one that we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another: “But why?”

Paul both asks and addresses this pervasive question in this section of his letter. First, he bemoans the lack of universal faith in Jesus within the Jewish community. “Why have a chosen people,” he’s essentially asking, “if they do not receive their Messiah, what was the point in choosing them to begin with?”  And then, “why fulfill a promise to Abraham, even after he has had a son?  Why invert the natural order of Rebekah’s children?” These were not idle questions, but truly perplexing as they challenged the very workings of a patriarchal society.  Paul goes on to wonder with his readers, “why does God harden some hearts but make different ones – ones you might not expect – open to Xyr message?”  Why does God appear so irrational, and quite honestly, sometimes very cruel?

The frustrating truth is we don’t know.  I wish I could share some earth-shattering insight with you here, but I have none.  I only have this cold comfort: We can’t see the big picture.  At the risk of sounding trite in the face of so many anguished “why’s,” let me use this parenting story:

I was getting ready to take the kids to see their grandparents.  I hadn’t said anything to them yet because I needed to get things done before I had two excited little humans swirling around my ankles like rabid ferrets.  I was almost there – we were fifteen minutes away from starting the whole get dressed/go potty/get in the car routine.  My youngest comes up and asks if they can watch a movie.  Normally the answer would be yes in that situation, but like I said, we were so close to leaving, I just didn’t want them to know yet.  So the answer was no, and I got to deal with a pissy two year old which is probably just as bad as a hyped-up two year old, but that’s beside the point.  The point is, my irrational answer was actually very rational and pointed to a larger joy (going to Ninga and Grandpapa’s) than the small enjoyment of Madagascar 3. Betty just didn’t know the whole story, couldn’t see the big picture.  I believe the same principles are at work on a much, much larger scale with God.

That doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and say that every bad thing that happens is “God’s will” so why intervene at all.  Another parenting analogy for you: I’m watching very closely when the girls start getting testy with each other, but I try very hard not to swoop in and solve their problems for them every time (Chris still says I intervene too early, but that’s another story).  Allowing them to sort it out for themselves gives them a chance to mature emotionally.  Again, I realize this sounds trite to compare a siblings’ spat over crayons to an international war that kills thousands, but it’s the best I have.  I did say this was cold comfort.

I do believe there is a larger picture – I do believe that this life is just one chapter of our existence.  That makes it easier to believe in God’s existence and God’s goodness.  I do believe God loves us as a mother loves a child, and as such I have to believe that there is a reason that God acts in the way Xe does.  I doubt a lot of atheists are reading this blog, but if they are, this is probably where they roll their eyes at my desperate self-delusions.  I have no answer for them.  I wish that I had some clever words to change their minds, but I don’t.  I wish I had more comfort for the questioning believer, but I don’t.  What I do have is hope, hope that God will reveal Xyr larger purposes in due time.  And that will have to suffice for now.

***

I wrote this post before the death of Kobe Bryant, pausing, as usual, for a bit before coming back to it with fresh eyes for editing.  It now seems harsh, yet even more relevant in the loss of such a beloved public figure.  It painfully highlights the fact that we truly do not know God’s full workings.  My prayers are with his family and the families of the other passengers: may they find comfort in each other, love from the larger community, and may time to pass quickly, as it seems to be the only thing that truly heals in tragedies such as these.  May God hold them in xyr hands.