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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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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