A Discussion of Romans

Today we’re going to talk about Romans a little bit. Specifically, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is, in my opinion, an extremely powerful and eloquent expression, one of the stronger pieces of writing in the Bible.

However, it’s often misunderstood and (surprise) used out of context. Quotations from Romans are often trotted out to compel or justify obedience to a secular ruler. That’s not what Romans says, at all.

The reality is, Romans is a discussion of the primacy and perfection of God’s plan and a reminder that salvation comes from God and God alone. It’s a plea to hold fast to your faith and yet to remember you are still a part of the world. It’s an outline of responsibility, not a free pass to ignore responsibilty in lieu of obedience.

I won’t write an entire commentary here, that’d be silly and presumptuous on my part. Be aware, though, that I currently have several commentaries open and have read a bit of Aquinas on this as well. I’m trying hard not to put my own words and beliefs into this. I’m deferring to theologians and philosophers that know a ton more about this than I do here, even though some of their words and interpretations chafe me a bit. I don’t throw them out just because I don’t like them though, I submit to the idea that they have a clearer understanding even if I don’t like what it says.

What I will do is discuss one of the most often (and in my mind misused) passages people like to quote in Romans. Specifically, let’s take a moment to talk about Romans 13:1-2 which states:

“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. 2 Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.”

This is often trotted out as an argument by the right wing as an exhortation to submit and failing to submit is a transgression. Let’s talk a little bit about what was going on in Rome when Paul wrote this so we can understand where he was coming from though.

At the time, Roman protocol and law was requiring devotion to pagan idols. In addition, a whole lot of newly minted Christians were rebelling against law and order, declaring themselves outside of the law and only answerable to God. They felt they weren’t citizens of Rome but were instead only citizens of the kingdom of God. Paul uses Wisdom 6:1-3 as a foundation to discuss the primacy of authority here. Let’s look at that passage:

“1 Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! 2 Give ear, you who have power over multitudes and lord it over throngs of peoples! 3 Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!”

I’m going to quote directly here from “A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture” because it says it much more succinctly than I could:

“Can v 2 be quoted to show that a Christian must acquiesce in such a state of affairs as described under nr 1 and regard such a government as established for ever? No, to wait for and co-operate with God’s opportunities by using all legitimate means to bring about improvements in such a government or even to replace it by a better, would seem to be every citizen’s right by natural law. At all events every one by natural law has the right to resist injustice even when this injustice is done in the name of a government. In either case, however, the means employed must be in accordance with the moral law; and here in many cases conscience will have to be the final arbiter for the individual; cf. Boylan, on 13:2; SH 372 (on passive obedience); Lehmkuhl, Theol. Moralis, I (1898) 472; Génicot, Theol. Moralis, I (1922) 287 f.”

Theissen, A. (1953). The Epistle to the Romans. In B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (p. 1075). Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.

We as Christians should be resisting injustice and we should be working within the Christian moral framework to bring about positive change, to bring the injustice back in line. To do otherwise is to turn our backs on our faith.

This is even more clear when we look further into wisdom beyond those first 3 stanzas. In fact, let’s look at Wis 6:1-8:

“1 Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! 2 Give ear, you who have power over multitudes and lord it over throngs of peoples! 3 Because authority was given you by the Lord” and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!”

We read that part, but what about this part next?

“4 Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you did not judge rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God, 5 Terribly and swiftly he shall come against you, because severe judgment awaits the exalted— 6 For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. 7 For the Ruler of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and provides for all alike; 8 but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.”

What’s that? Hey, you rulers, you better do the right thing because if you don’t, I will come against you. Oh, yeah, we conveniently ignored that followup initially, didn’t we? Yeah, this makes it perfectly clear that rulers can be wrong, and that if they are they’d better be prepared for a whuppin’. Do you want to be reliant on the pardon of God or do you want to just make sure you’re not in a position where you need the pardon? I’ll go for the latter, myself.

Taking it a few steps simpler, let’s use reductio ad absurdum here and see how that reacts. For those who aren’t up on their latin, trust me you’ve seen it before although you may not know what it’s called. This is a common technique of attempting to prove something by taking it to ridiculous extremes. Generally, if it holds up at the extreme, it’s probably ok but often when you take it to said extreme you begin to see how ridiculous it really is.

Let’s say that yes, Romans says we should absolutely submit to every temporal authority and that every temporal authority is in fact appointed by God himself. Let’s say that it also states that we are compelled to obey and to do otherwise is a transgression against God. We will use that as the supposition we want to test.

Ok, well, that may be fine for your current favorite authority (let’s use Trump as an example). “Gary, Trump was appointed by God, it says so right there in Romans, so you must submit”.

Hmm, ok, if that’s true than it also means Obama was appointed by God. I sure don’t recall you submitting. In fact, I remember a lot of hatred. Oh, not ridiculous enough? Ok, that also means Putin was appointed by God. So was Pol Pot. Stalin too. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law early, your argument would also mean that Hitler was appointed by God and our resistance to his slaughtering of the Jews was against the commandments in Romans.

Yeah, it’s starting to go off the tracks pretty quickly, isn’t it? So, can we all agree that reductio ad absurdum here reveals that yes, this extreme is ridiculous and therefore we need to reexamine our initial premise?

In reality, it’s important to place the scriptures fully into the time they were written and to examine the things that were going on. Romans 13 is an admonition by Paul to remind his followers not to think too highly of themselves and to remember to place themselves into the world, not outside of it. At the time, it was a widespread belief that, as followers of Christ, they had gained total freedom from the world and were no longer a part of it. They were instead only responsible to God’s law and could openly defy temporal authority simply because of that. Paul was intent on correcting that misconception.

In point of fact, Paul’s letter is just as much an admonition to authority to act justly as it is for us to recognize just authority. Do not fall into the trap of saying “well, I was only following orders”. We don’t get to stop thinking and be absolved of responsibility for our actions just because we’re Christians.

Don’t Call Yourself a Christian

Probably not going to make a lot of friends with this statement, but if you don’t like what I’m about to say, either stop reading or feel free to prove me wrong with intelligent discourse. Stuff that does not contribute to a respectful discourse will be deleted with no apologies.

I’m going to go on official record and state outright that I absolutely 100% believe that modern day Trumpism/right wing MAGA style conservatism is fundamentally and diametrically opposite of what Christianity teaches. I do not believe that you can follow both, because the core tenants of MAGA-ism go directly against the core teachings of Jesus Christ.

Jesus taught radical unconditional love. Jesus was a refugee, a brown skinned refugee who fled his home country to avoid violence. He hung out with hookers, thieves, tax collectors and lepers. Jesus never once taught a message of hate. He commanded us to love. Period. The core fundamental teachings of Christ are to LOVE.

Matthew 22:36-40 CLEARLY states this, unequivocally and without reservation.

“36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

A very wise man who happens to be the father of my friend stated that the fundamental rules of life are to remember “You are your brother’s keeper” and that “everyone is your brother”. I think that pretty neatly encapsulates Matthew’s statement above as well.

So many “Christians” want to pick and choose parts of the bible. They love to quote Leviticus but conveniently overlook Matthew. Jesus brought a new covenant and a new law and where they are in conflict, the New supersedes the Old testament.

Jesus did not say “Love thy neighbor as long as he looks just like you”. He said LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. That means thy brown-skinned neighbor, thy gay neighbor, thy refugee neighbor, thy neighbor who plays his music too loud, thy neighbor who is disabled and can’t work, thy neighbor who got raped, got pregnant and had an abortion, thy poor neighbor who didn’t grow up with the opportunity for education that you got. There is no line. Everyone is your neighbor. Love thy neighbor.

ANYTHING that teaches a divergence from that is not from Christ. Anyone that spouts that is not from Christ. God isn’t “using Trump to fix America”, but it’s quite possible the father of lies is using Trump to deceive and divert the believers and destroy us. He loves lies, he loves destruction.

Christianity is love, not selfishness. It’s “you first” not “me first”. God doesn’t need to wrap his agenda in lies, hate and selfishness in order to succeed and anyone that espouses these things is not from God.

Christianity is easy to understand, but wicked hard to actually do. Loving everyone unconditionally is damned hard and none of us succeed at Christ’s level. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re not being held accountable though. Don’t call yourself a Christian if you aren’t willing to even try to follow the teachings.

Why Are We So Divisive?

Our political system is seriously messed up on both sides. We are intensely polarized and have lost the art of compromise; a skill that is critical to political success. We snipe at each other from our entrenched positions and refuse to give quarter or budge an inch. It is ridiculous.

We need to be able to speak respectfully with each other over issues we disagree on. We need to be able to consider each other’s opinions and be flexible. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t have all the answers to every problem no matter how smart I may think I am and I have changed my opinion drastically in the past based upon thoughtful reasoned debate with people I disagree with. None of us knows it all and none of us should trust that anyone else does either.

My wife and I are liberal democrats who believe in much (but not all) of the “liberal agenda”. We believe in social services, universal healthcare, and taking care of those around us in need. We have two very close friends that we care about who are conservative republicans who believe in self empowerment, personal responsibility, small government and much of the “conservative agenda”. We are opposite on the political spectrum but we are also quite a bit alike as people.

If you listen to the public discourse, you’d demonize your opponent. My wife and I should, by all rights, look at our friends as horrible people who have no heart, who don’t care about people less fortunate than themselves and who want to eat babies. In return, they should look at us as just a couple of hippies with no sense of responsibility, a couple who thinks the government should run every facet of our lives and who sacrifices babies to some pagan god.

The reality of it is that our friends are two of the kindest people I’ve ever met. The husband, especially so. He’s a retired detective. She still works in social services. He has spent his life protecting people and she spends her career making sure the less fortunate have a safety net.

He cares deeply about people and when someone needs something he’s the first one there to do it. He takes care of people who are sick, he brings food to friends and he is bothered deeply when he sees injustice. God forbid you ever abuse an animal in his presence.

She is a fiercely independent woman who feeds hungry people, buys gifts on a whim and is her sister’s biggest cheerleader and fan. She hurts when people around her are in pain and would give you her last nickel if you truly needed it. God forbid you ever abuse any truly needy person in her presence.

I can draw similar parallels with my wife and I, who also defy our entrenched political labels. I hate government snooping and interference. My wife and I are both devout Christians who believe in salvation and try our best to live a morally “good” life. We believe there are always consequences to our actions and that we have to be personally responsible for them. None of us are neatly understandable people who fit into pigeonholes.

If you look closely at our friends, you can see how their beliefs color the way they live. They believe that if someone needs help, you don’t turn to the government but instead roll up your own sleeves and go help them. They walk the walk and do this themselves, helping those around them. My wife and I believe that there aren’t enough people in the world like our friends who will truly help others and there should be a public safety net to help those people because in general, most people suck and won’t help.

Are we wrong? Are we right? No more or no less than our friends and we both have valid opinions and viewpoints. Demonizing the other side simply because we have different motivations and viewpoints would be stupid. Unfortunately, the way our current public discourse is going that’s what most people do. Instead of taking the time to disagree respectfully and truly listen to each other we try to distill everything down to little soundbites and memes and lob them at each other like bombs. We try to “score” points off each other like we can “win” which is, in a word, stupid.

Well, I’m going to take a page from our friends’ playbook on this issue. I see something that needs to be done and I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do it myself. I’m going to change one small thing that I do and see if I can use it as a catalyst to change the people around me as well. It may seem small and simple, but I believe it’s the first step in changing how people interact with each other and once we change that, we can start closing the gap.

One of the popular things to do on social media is to capture some complex issue as a small picture and “soundbite” and post it as a barb to the other side. We all have seen it and I’d venture to say we all do it as well. I know I certainly do. I did it just yesterday, as a matter of fact. This morning it struck me as ridiculous; how can I truly distill a complex person like my friend who happens to have a different opinion than I do politically down to a single stupid image and short series of words? I probably couldn’t explain who he is to someone who doesn’t know him in a million words, let alone a picture and short sentence. Do I want to “score” some sort of points off him? Hell no, I don’t. He’s someone I like and respect so why would I want to do that? Knowing him, I can’t possibly imagine he wants to “score” points off me either, he’s a much kinder and more thoughtful person than that.

The reality is that most people are just like we are. Most people are more thoughtful and reasoned than we truly give them credit for and to demonize a stranger is just as stupid and unproductive as demonizing friends. To that end, I’m going to stop posting those stupid memes and images and stop trying to “score” points off the other side with them. That doesn’t mean I won’t still have opinions and share them, but I will do my best to try and share them in a thoughtful fashion that invites discourse instead. I will attempt to avoid disparaging those who disagree with me and instead try to create an atmosphere of thoughtful discussion. I don’t pretend that I will always succeed but I will definitely try.

I will do my small part to bring people together and encourage thoughtful compromise instead of encouraging polarization. Who’s with me? Can we do this together? Are you in it with me?

Very disappointed

Wow. Stopped at Jack in the Box today to get a quick sandwich and I really don’t think I’ll be stopping there ever again. Here’s a copy of the email I just sent to their corporate HQ:

“I stopped in to one of your locations in san francisco today on my way to work. My intent was to pick up a sandwich for breakfast. Instead, I was witness to an unfortunate incident.

As I stood there waiting for my food a homeless man came in. I assume he came in to use the restroom or something of that nature. He was quiet and inoffensive and didn’t bother anyone as he came in, he merely walked in and started walking back towards where the restrooms are as anyone would do.

He was immediately accosted by the store manager and another employee, who shouted at him in spanish. They were aggressive, demeaning and used a tone one would use to address a dog. The man mentioned he just wanted to use the restroom at which point the employee mopping the floor began to get physically aggressive with him, posturing and attempting to goad him into an altercation. The few of us “acceptable” customers who were in the store all looked obviously uncomfortable by the behavior your employees exhibited.

The homeless man turned around and walked out, at which point the employee sped him on with a few parting demeaning comments (I assume they were demeaning, the tone they were delivered in was offensive at the least but I didn’t hear them clearly enough).

I am ashamed. What ever happened to basic common decency towards another human being? I am disgusted at this behavior by your manager and employees and I am asking you now, is this Corporate policy for Jack in the Box? Is it your policy to aggressively demean people because of their unfortunate socioeconomic status? If so, I can assure you I will no longer be purchasing anything from your restaurants and I will be sure to clearly and concisely communicate your corporate policies to my friends so they can decide how to react as well.

I understand there may be mitigating circumstances, this store may have had a hard time with homeless people, etc however nobody should be treated as I saw them treated today with a complete and utter lack of basic human respect. Nobody should be treated like they are filth blown in off the street and even if there were mitigating circumstances this could have been handled in a much more gracious manner.”

Love Letter To Myself

Dear Younger Gary,

You are very near and dear to me and looking back, I can see some things that are going to trip you up. I thought I’d take a few minutes to write down some advice for you so that you can hopefully benefit from those bumps and bruises without actually having to live through them.

Sell the stock before the split. Trust me on this.

You will find a girl who will hurt you very badly. Stay away from her.

You will find another girl who will complete you. Find her sooner. While you’re at it, spend more time with her dog too.

I hate to say it, but you’re never going to get that million dollars. Deal with it and move on. You really don’t need it, trust me on this too.

Fast little cars are fun, but big trucks are way more comfortable.

Stop being so smug. You really know less than you think you do and you’re wrong a lot more than you admit to yourself.

Go hug your Grandma. Right now. Go… I’ll wait.

Listen to your Uncles and Aunts when they try to teach you something. Pay better attention and take notes, because some day they’ll be gone and you will have to fry your own potatoes, clean your own chickens and grow your own garden.

Your mom was right.

Your mom was right about that too.

Your mom was wrong about that, though.

Islay whisky is very very good but it takes some getting used to. Start sooner.

Your politics will shift radically to the left. Seriously. I’m not kidding. It’s called “compassion” and it’s ok.

No matter what you think right now, you really don’t want to be famous. You’re really happy and thankful being normal.

Yes, they are right. A drop of water in your whisky is much better than drinking it neat, no matter how “cool” you think it is to order it that way.

Blended margaritas are for rookies and noobs. Order them on the rocks with salt. Trust me. Now get two of them and go sit on the beach with that girl I told you to find sooner and listen to the waves. That’s it, just listen to the surf and hold her hand.

You’re going to convert to Catholicism. Stop laughing, I’m serious. I was just as surprised as you are but it’s a really good fit and you will be much happier.

Remember that million dollars? Yeah… I told you to forget it, pay attention.

You will have dogs. You will cry bitterly when you lose them, and you will always find room in your heart for another. Cherish them and love them, the tears are always worth the love you get from them.

Go ahead and learn to play the guitar. Try slack key first. Hawaiian music is much better than that crap you’re listening to right now.

Joining the Navy, volunteering for submarines and going into the nuclear power program instead of going to college isn’t a bad life choice… but doing it because you were tired of studying and just wanted to get out of a bad situation is a really really stupid reason.

Eat more mangoes.

Sleep more. Work less. Take relaxing vacations with that girl you found sooner this time.

That job where they spend a year trying to recruit you? Yeah… stay away from it and tell them to get lost.

Other people’s opinions matter a lot less than you think they do.

Healthy food can actually taste good and all that fat you eat is why you feel like crap all the time.

Turning 40 is actually pretty cool. You can finally afford all those things you wanted, about the time you realize you really don’t want them after all.

You will eventually be allergic to crabs and shellfish. Eat lots of them before that happens.

Are you still thinking about that million dollars? Sheesh.

Go ahead and write that book.

Most of all, rest assured that you will love yourself eventually. Once you love yourself, you open yourself up to the possibility of other people loving you too. Everything turns out pretty good so don’t mind the rough patches. Try to bark less and wag your tail more. Most of all, just relax and enjoy the journey.

With all my love,

Older Gary.