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Fortress or Field Hospital?

I’ve been reflecting on the current stage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as seen through the lens of moral foundations theory, because it seems to me that one of the dimensions of dissonance in the responses of Catholic factions to what’s been unfolding since the summer of ‘18 relates to the findings of those proposing this new theory of moral psychology.

A little while ago, I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and (perhaps appropriately) it really struck home by validating something I saw in myself and the people around me. That is, people are not morally rational…at least not primarily rational. Instead, people form an opinion, especially about morality, intuitively, in their emotional center, and then turn to reason to justify that heartfelt opinion secondarily. What changes people’s minds, Haidt argues, isn’t really a change of mind; it’s a change of heart, usually by intersecting with personal stories that shift their current worldview by exposing them emotionally to another way of seeing a situation.

Moral foundations theory, which Haidt outlines in the book, assumes that communities of interest prioritize different constellations of moral values, with some mix of care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and maybe liberty/oppression. Haidt (himself a self-professed progressive atheist) argues that progressives tend to keep their moral reasoning almost exclusively in the first two dimensions, while conservatives tend to use all of them in more of a balance. (Libertarians are a special breed, who in part sparked the addition of the sixth provisional value set.)

In trying to understand my friends who believe that the root cause of the current crisis is the tolerance of deviance from church teaching on sexuality (by which I don’t only mean openness to LGBT believers, but recognizing that that’s the key issue), what keeps coming up in my mind is an observation that they are driven by a deeply felt sensitivity to sanctity and degradation. At a very obvious level, this applies to a reaction to the idea of same-sex sexual relations at all by those who are offended by them; clearly, they would hold that same sex relations violate the sanctity of the divine design of human sexuality and signal the degradation of what sex was meant to be.

But, deeper than that, there’s a sense that what it means to be Christian is to seek sanctity and purity and to actively keep out all that degrades. The other elements are important – authority in determining purity, loyalty to that vision of sanctity, etc. But in this understanding, the Church is a fortress in a viciously antagonistic world, one that must be kept secure by keeping it pure, by keeping out those who by their identities would degrade it.

You could do a full-out Bible Study on Old and New Testament passages that underscore this point. I’m not going to, but I welcome those who want to. I’m just conceding that this is a narrative of what it means to be holy that extends back to the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But it’s not the only narrative that can claim that heritage and power, and that may be the issue at play in a lot of the dissension we’re seeing today. What Pope Francis brought to his papacy was a different model of what it means to be Church (one echoed by his predecessor Saint Pope John XXIII and many others): Church as field hospital. Let me try to make that case:

One of the gifts of Catholicism is the lectionary – a break down of the Bible into chunks of Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel passages that cycle you through most of the Bible every three years on Sundays and every two years on weekdays. Today, tomorrow, and any day, every Catholic Church in the world (pretty much) will read and reflect on the same set of readings, including at least one Gospel passage, one Psalm, and one other reading. These were set decades ago, so it’s not the case that a pastor wakes up, is struck by a particular thing, and goes to pick readings to underscore that thing. You have to play the cards that are dealt, and while that doesn’t cover the entire Bible, it covers most of it. So if you’re Catholic (or attend another Church that follows a common lectionary), you will hear over the course of time a broader lens of what’s in the Bible, I would argue, than if you are attending a Church in which a pastor picks one book at a time to go deep on. (Growing up in such a Church, I got a heavy dose of Pauline letters; less so the other stuff.)

I raise that to say, it is really, really hard to listen to Jesus’ exploits, both of word and deed, every single day without getting a clear sense that he was deeply subversive and intensely driven by care. Most of what He says, and most of what He does, centers around breaking a norm in order to show care and, even more subversive, actively include those who had been cast out as degrading, unsanctified. Widows and orphans, sure. Those afflicted by deformities and illnesses blamed on their sin or their parents, you bet. But lepers and bleeding women and Samaritans and Romans who were specifically declared unclean and degrading to observers of the Hebrew law of the time.

His subversive focus on care didn’t just undercut the sanctity/degradation and the authority/subversion realms. He violated fairness in what he said, all the time. The parable of the workers said forget paying people based on how hard they worked; shower them all with enough. The parable of the Prodigal Son becomes the parable of the Prodigal Father, who lets his son waste away half his inheritance on wine, women and song and then throws a feast to welcome him back, ticking off the older son who still clings to fairness and all-but-shouts “He’s cheating!” And, perhaps most uncomfortably, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he testifies that even the most malevolent harm can be transformed into loving care, not only for the sinless Son, but for the thief rightfully executed at his side.

In the light of that subversive ethos, this counternarrative of the Church says we are not called to be set apart from the hurting as a shining, exemplary, pure fortress on a hill; we are called to be a field hospital, choosing as Jesus did to go straight toward the margins, to actively embrace those that purity says you should keep at arm’s length, to overwhelm them with love and let yourself take on their stain in the process. One of the fundamental turning points in St. Francis of Assisi’s life doesn’t get as much play in the arts and legends as his taming wolves and preaching to birds. When he was younger, he was horrified by the lepers outside Assisi’s walls, reflecting the cultural norms and good hygiene. But in the process of his conversion, God confronted him with a leper who Francis finally saw not as an impurity or a threat but as a brother needing human touch. When Francis hugged the leper he had earlier scorned, it marked the turn toward sainthood. So are we called as Christians to love first those most scorned by our society, even those that make us go “Eww.” So says the Gospel writers. So says Francis of Assisi. So says the current pope, as imperfect as his example may prove to be.

I obviously have a rooting interest between these narratives, so I admit the bias. But it seems to me that our choice of vision is one of running away from sin or running toward love. Either way, you’re running; one direction is clean and cold, and the other is warm and messy. Like I said, I’ve made my choice based on the God I’ve encountered in Word, Spirit and Sacrament. But I also need to recognize that others hearing the same Word, participating in the same Sacrament, and receiving the same Spirit might be pulled in the other direction. (And the test I will offer – which life brings the most evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, and the like) – might be a split decision or draw to a truly objective judge.)

As (almost) all of us react in horror to the thought that 16 years after US Catholic Bishops adopted a charter to protect children from sexual abuse, there remain thousands of cases (perhaps) that have never been reconciled, and a hierarchical culture of coverup, you notice that some people’s horror is a little different from others. The victims of abuse lose when we allow ourselves to obsess on those differences rather than the crimes from which there has been no repentance. But maybe if we understand how these divergent narratives of what the Church should be drive those differences, we can give them a nod of understanding and shrug them off enough to focus together on bringing care to the victims and justice to the wronged, and we can rebuild a Church that can hold together the tension of fortress and field hospital.

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A 12-step plan for reforming the Church

I’m posting this here, but it’s entirely the work of Michael Bayer (@mbayer1248), who posted it on a Twitter thread and gave me permission to replicate it here for the blessed among you who don’t do Twitter. I cleaned up the formatting a little to translate tweets to more common grammar, but otherwise have left them as is. (He acknowledged in a subsequent tweet that this format required less context and more succinct points than many of these suggestions deserve.) I’ve been casting around for ideas about what a “non-clericalist” Catholic Church would look like, and what policy or organizational changes would get us there, but I’ve had trouble finding much. We are intensely focused as a Church on fighting over the sexual element of the sexual abuse crisis, or on arguing over the same political/ideological fights that existed before the latest revelations of abuse and cover-up. But as Pope Francis outlined in his letter to the faithful (without proposing concrete changes), and as other stories of abuse and cover-up that go beyond sexual abuse illustrate, the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed is the consolidation of power among those clerics at the top of the Church hierarchy and their lack of accountability to the faithful they serve. I hope that Michael’s 12-step plan can be fodder for discussion and a catalyst for organizing the please of the faithful around an agenda for organizational renewal. Please take a minute to read his brief list of suggestions and talk about the ones you think would help, the ones you think wouldn’t help, and what other changes you’d suggest instead. It’s up to us – all of us – to make change happen.

  1. Reform of the priesthood and episcopacy: Based on the priesthood of Jesus in the Scriptures (he held no titles, bore no earthly power; he wasn’t on the Sanhedrin, he didn’t aspire to political office), disentangle spiritual leadership from earthly executive governance.
  2. Reform of diocesan/parish [structure and culture]: Priests/bishops can’t be CEO, CFO, COO, and Chief Spiritual Officer. Lay staff can’t just be mindless automotons who execute the will of the boss. They must be true and equal collaborators whose expertise and authority cannot be peremptorily dismissed.
  3. Reform of seminaries: Taking (mostly) late-adolescent young men and withdrawing them from the world in a self-enclosed Church dorm is exacerbating certain insidious tendencies. Partner with Catholic colleges. Go to classes with lay peers. Live in a house of discernment.
  4. Reform of seminary formation: Not just where priests are trained, but how. Increase human/psychological formation. Focus more on interior holiness, less on external pietistic practices. Classes on leading an organization (e.g. Pat Lencioni) in addition to Eucharistic theology.
  5. Reform of the diaconate: Recognize that authentic diakonos is more than just serving at the Eucharistic table. Youth ministers, hospital chaplains, directors of religious education, those who take communion to the homebound: all deacons. Many (if not most) are women.
  6. Implementation of Lumen Gentium’s call for the laity to take up their true place of leadership in the Church. It is not fair/healthy/sustainable to ask priests to be CEO, COO, CFO, and Chief Spiritual Officer at their parish. Create formalized structures of lay co-leadership.
  7. Independent lay review boards as a mandatory ecclesial structure in every diocese, re: reporting of abuse allegations and decision-making with respect to clergy treatment, transfers, and future ministerial assignments. Members can’t be dismissed by the bishop sole[ly].
  8. Greater involvement of qualified lay leaders and more transparency around priest personnel decision-making. Even most diocesan clergy have little to no understanding (much less input) into how personnel decisions, ultimately, are made. They need to be more involved.
  9. More focus on prayer and spiritual formation in parish religious education programs. We’ve focused so much on transmission of catechetical concepts and doctrinal formulations that most teens, adults, even Church employees, have a meager active prayer life. That’s a problem.
  10. More focus on integrating parish priests into the life of the community. (Examination of mandatory celibacy is unquestionably part of this.) Living alone in a rectory while being tasked with ceaseless pastoral ministry is a recipe for burnout, loneliness, addiction, etc.
  11. Comparatively less focus in youth ministry on sexual purity and more on developing healthy human relationships, in all aspects of life. This isn’t to run away from Church teaching; quite the opposite. It’s filling in huge gaps in how we talk about the gift of human sexuality.
  12. Eliminate disproportionate emphasis on vocations to priestly/religious life as being inherently higher callings. The near-idolatry around vocations/seminarians in many pious parishes leads too many young men who lack deep sense of personal identity to look for it in the collar.

So, let’s discuss…

 

Miraculous Orbits and What to Do Next

I was reflecting this morning on the miracle of our planet’s orbit around the sun. Were our path any farther away from the heat of the sun, Earth would be too cold to harbor life as we know it. Were we any closer, we would all burn up from too much heat. And yet we are in this precious middle channel that offers the possibility of life.

This came to mind as I thought about the reaction of Catholics, myself included, to the unfolding story of ongoing cover ups by bishops and diocesan staff of sexual abuse by priests, which seems to get worse every day – partly in the lack of concrete responses from most of those in authority to the actual revelations of abuse and their cover ups, and partly in its devolution into a proxy battle for settling personal and ideological scores between conservative and progressive camps within the Church.

On the one hand, there is a temptation to ignore it all. Truthfully, the life of the Church is lived locally, and as awful as all this is, worship goes on, faith formation continues, service to those in need still happens, and as parishioners, this is where we really encounter our faith and our Church. So those who aren’t big on following the news don’t know much about the charges and counter-charges and even those of us who are aware can find it easier to act as if we don’t.

On the other hand, there is a temptation to get sucked into the vortex of anger, blame and animosity in ways that feed our sense of righteousness but aren’t directed toward resolving these issues and end up instead pulling us farther from the source of our faith, hope and love.

I am trying to surf the middle ground between helpless apathy and pointless rage. And here are the things that have been my guidestars; I encourage you to consider them as well.

  1. Double down on the actual practice of faith. It has been so inspiring to see many – both personal friends and public figures – responding to this awfulness by saying they are recommitting themselves to the essential elements of their Catholic faith. In essence, if the leaders of this institution are corrupt and have lost the centrality of the way of holiness through love of God and love of neighbor, than it’s a reminder to the rest of us to be all the more diligent in our pursuit of holiness. Whether you think of living your faith as a mix of prayer/study/action or a combination of worship/discipleship/community/service/witness or just applying a core focus on loving God, loving the people God puts in your way, and using what God gives you for Him, focusing on making yourself the best possible version of yourself is both key to preparing you to rebuild the Church and the only worthy goal to begin with. One way we risk “burning up” is by failing to look for ways of engaging that start with prayer and worship and end in an increase of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – not only for you as an individual but for the Church as a whole.
  2. Do what you can do. If we focus only on cultivating our own garden of faith, nothing will ever change, and the future of the Church “freezes.” In the search to stay up to date, I have found myself getting buried in a morass of scapegoating, palace politics, and abstract online rage; thus the reminder to double down on the faith. But the Church has faced this sort of institutional rot before, and people stepped up to address it. People like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena. So what can Fred from Anytown do? Contact your bishop. Contact your diocese. Contact your pastor. Ask questions. Raise your concerns. Share your ideas. Tell your friends to do the same.  The key, I think, is in focusing your attention on those who can actually make changes to the way the Church operates, at the level where you can make a difference. I could be wrong, but I don’t expect the pope to listen to me, nor the head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. But my bishop? It’s not unreasonable to expect a fair hearing in my own diocese.

Don’t stop praying, but don’t stop pushing, either.

Why I’m Staying

Last week I had planned to write about John Courtney Murray and the concept of religious freedom in American Catholic thought, as a follow up to the piece I did on Romans 13 that exactly three people read. But I wasn’t up to it. I will admit that the news from the Pennsylvania grand jury and former Cardinal McCarrick made me pause. So I wrote a little about that instead, and then I kind of stewed in the aftermath of statements by various bishops and, eventually, the pope.

A couple of my beloved atheist and agnostic friends asked a question that a lot of people are asking a lot of Catholics this week, I expect: how can you stay in a church that would allow such horrors to happen? It’s a legitimate question – so much so that our priest last night even said in his homily that he can’t argue with people who decide to leave the Church after the latest revelations of systematic cover-ups by bishops of sexual abuse of minors by priests. He gave an impassioned plea for staying, but I realized my answer to the question “Why stay?” was maybe a little different than his.

It’s probably worth noting that I chose to become Catholic as an adult after being raised in the United Methodist Church and schooled in enough mainline Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist) that I was probably one Lutheran church-school short of hitting for the cycle. I wrote about my (then-20-year-old) decision a few years ago, and a lot of those reasons, both for joining the Church and for growing in loyalty to her, remain the same. But here are the reasons that stand out in this moment as to why I’m not leaving, for what it’s worth:

  1. Sacramentality – (Probably not a word) – This was the argument our priest leaned on – that Catholicism’s unique embrace of the sacramental nature of the Eucharist means we have access to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in ways that other churches can’t or don’t claim. Because of my deep affection and respect for my Protestant brothers and sisters, I don’t lean too heavily on this one, but I will say this – with the exception of possibly the Orthodox church, Catholicism stands out among Christianity for its sense of mystery. While a lot of Protestant and Evangelical worship and practice focuses almost exclusively on the Word – on Scripture, preaching, and reasoned theology – Catholicism bears witness to the transcendent, ineffable, felt-not-thought elements of encountering the divine. It’s funny, because many Catholic converts seem to be attracted to its sense of certainty and predictability, but to me, the sacramentality of the faith points to worship of God as an encounter that has to be felt and not just understood, that can’t be completely explained, that carries a degree of unpredictability. I can only really accept a god who is bigger than I can possibly understand. The emphasis on word and sacrament together continues to challenge the limits of what I think I know of God. I fully believe that those who worship God through other denominations (and other religions) can experience God’s transcendence, but this is the channel that most reliably forces me to appreciate that transcendence and bring both my heart and head to worship.
  2. Globality – (Almost certainly not a word) – At some point, I really do hope to get to spend longer stretches of time writing about the intersection of faith and public policy. In the meantime…one thing that I appreciate about the Catholic Church is its universality. In every corner of the globe, EVERY DAY, people are praying the same prayers and reading the same readings in their own languages. While the hierarchical nature of the Church may be responsible for the ethos that has led to the current awful mess, we live in an age in which much of American Christianity is really just a front for civil religion, for nationalism with a cross on top, for a validation of the status quo. Catholics aren’t at all immune to this temptation, but the fact that the Church has a headquarters, and that the address isn’t in the US, provides a greater opportunity for prophetic criticism of the powers that be. We could use a lot more of that, for sure, but it’s easier for me to see how that prophetic distance happens in a Church that isn’t tied to national borders or atomized into individual, loosely connected congregations.
  3. Theology – (Definitely a word. Probably a concern that this isn’t higher on the list.) – I’ve been wrestling with an idea that this set of scandals may ultimately vindicate the Augustinian-Calvinist view of the total depravity of man, which I may come back to another day. But in this case, what I value about my Catholic faith is the focus on repentance, confession, and reconciliation. The sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession) is where people focus on this, and I know that’s a barrier for many Protestant brothers and sisters. But for me, it underscores the slow work of grace and the role we play as active responders to that grace by acknowledging our sins, not only to God but to our brothers and sisters, and seeking reconciliation. More than anything else, what has haunted me about this scandal is that bishops built a culture that chose, instead of seeking reconciliation, to hide their sins and those of the priests they supervised. That is both a criminal and theological abomination. But it’s through the Catholic language of reconciliation that I can best express that abomination. That Church leaders ignored the practice and ethos of the faith doesn’t invalidate that ethos.
  4. Faithful relationality – Last Friday, the readings for daily mass were from Ezekiel and Matthew. The Ezekiel reading (the shorter of the two options) was about how God was going to confront those who turned their backs on him and overwhelm them with shame by showering them with forgiveness. The Matthew reading was one of the ones where the Pharisees quiz Jesus on rules of divorce and he says that we weren’t made for divorce but for marriage. As I sat in mass, what struck me was the relevance of these readings to today; specifically, that they spoke to God’s call to fidelity in the midst of our infidelity. God doesn’t accept or ignore our penchant for unfaithfulness, but he confronts it and calls us to repent of it and learn fidelity instead. Much of the meager spiritual growth I have experienced in my life has come from practicing the drudgery of faithfulness: keeping small promises, participating in daily rituals, reading the day’s readings. Catholicism has lots of opportunities to improve my ability to be faithful. But more than that, faith itself isn’t about cognitive belief as much as it is about loving relationship, with God and with God’s people. I’m a member of the Catholic Church, but I’m also a member of my Catholic Church, and “member” – long since trivialized – is meant as “part of one body.” It may be a screwed up, dysfunctional body (sometimes because of me, sometimes in spite of me). But it’s the one I’m attached to. As much as we Americans value consumerism and the ability to make individual, disposable choices, over reliance on that mode of living deprives us of true belonging. Sure, I could choose to leave for another church. But in doing so, I’d be practicing the opposite of the sometimes painful faithfulness to God and the people God gives me that is at the center of what I think it means to believe.
  5. History  – One of the treasures I’ve only begun discovering as a new(ish) Catholic is the history of the church as told through the lives of the saints. That historical thread that runs from Peter to today is attractive to me, but it also gives me context to reflect upon the question of leaving. The more saints I learn about, the more I learn that the history of the Church has always been a jagged one, with corruption threatening to send it careening off the tracks, only to be saved by corrective reformers from within (including and especially non-priests like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena). As a product of the Reformation, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those who left the Church. But Jesus was pretty clear about wanting His believers to be unified. I decided 24 years ago that, as unlikely as I was to change the Church in anyway, my odds were better from within than outside it.

There are some other reasons – some more trivial, some more reflective of my idiosyncrasies – but these are the ones I’d suggest make the idea of abandoning the Church a non-starter for me. They may not be compelling to you at all…and I understand that. I don’t share this so much to convince others to stay as to explain why that’s the choice I make.

Princes and Thrones: On the feast of the Assumption and the Pennsylvania grand jury

There’s kind of a lot for a somewhat vocal Catholic convert to react to today. I’m still processing the news of yesterday’s Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting graphic allegations by more than 1,000 victims over 70 years against more than 300 priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses. I feel the need to say something, if only because silence has been the hallmark of a complicit Church over decades of unconscionably heinous crimes. What’s different about this report, which seems to indicate that the changes in policy implemented by the Church in 2002 may have improved things to some degree, is that it outlines how bishops and priests routinely, systematically squelched, hid, covered up abuse, including rape, of young children and teens by priests. And while that may have changed in 2002, many of the same men are in charge of the Church now who were party to those coverups.

I flipped around the radio a few times today, between the local Catholic station (which, when I listened, focused on music), EWTN (which focused it’s “open line” on emails about doctrine and discussion of the Feast of the Assumption), and the Sirius Catholic Channel (on which several hosts, including some I don’t care for, engaged in serious, honest soul-searching with their callers and guests and looked for ways that lay people can be part of the solution to this issue). I have much greater respect for the Catholic Channel than I did before. I am happy that my own bishop (one of recent vintage, incidentally) was quick to put out a statement. It seems to me that Catholics, from Pope Francis down, need to  affirm that, not only are crimes against vulnerable children totally contrary to the Gospel, but silence is complicity and complicity should disqualify people from leadership roles in the Church.

Today is the Feast day of the Assumption, which celebrates one of the three final barriers I had to becoming Catholic. It celebrates the dogma that Mary was assumed directly to heaven at the end of her life and did not experience earthly death, and while it was a part of Church tradition since the sixth century, it wasn’t made an official part of Church dogma until 1950. Like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born without original sin), it was proclaimed by a pope invoking the doctrine of papal infallibility; in fact, those are the only two instances in which a pope has invoked the infallibility of his office to proclaim a dogma.

Those three things – papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary – were the things I really couldn’t buy into about Catholicism, and when I did join the Church almost 25 years ago, it was not out of conversion on those doctrines but humility. I still have serious doubts about them, but I am just humble enough to know I might be wrong about those doubts.

On the one hand, you could argue that the revelations of the grand jury underscore the fallibility of human leaders of the Church and call those doctrines even further into question.

On the other hand, because of the Assumption, Catholics were obliged to celebrate together as a community and hear these words, spoken by Mary in Luke 1:

He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

At yet another crossroads on the scandal of abuse by leaders of the Church, it is perhaps God’s working that we hear that Gospel proclaimed and ask ourselves, in this time, whether we side with the proud, might and rich or with the lowly and hungry. Especially when it can seem as though our leaders are motivated primarily by protecting the name and holdings of the institutions they lead.

Anyway, Mary was really clear about which side God was on. Maybe she’s worth paying attention to after all.

Let’s talk about Romans 13

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. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it doe not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrat on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Py to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

—Romans 13:1-7

Since I majored in religion with a focus on the New Testament and minored in politics, did a master’s thesis on an element of Catholic social teaching, and started a doctoral program in Christian political thought (before thinking better of it), Romans 13 (specifically 13:1-7) is a passage that I spent a lot of my post-secondary academic career wrestling with. So earlier this year, when that passage was making news because government officials were citing it as proof that what they were doing was aligned with Christian teaching, it touched a nerve. If, say, you spent most of your young adulthood obsessed about a particular TV show or movie or band, and 25 years later somebody brought it/them up in the popular conversation in a way that didn’t really do the original experience you had justice…well, it’s kinda like that.

I didn’t write right away, mostly because I didn’t have the time then and I knew it would take more than my customary one-evening first-draft. When the furor died down, or at least moved on from Romans 13 to something else, I thought about letting it go. But then, I noticed conservative friends continuing to cite the passage to justify government policy, and I also anticipated progressive friends filing this away for the next time their side is in power, and I realized I still needed to get this off my chest.

Romans 13 is really one of only two passages in the New Testament (along with the “Render unto Caesar” story in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) that speak explicitly about how Christians should relate to the government of the time, the Roman Empire. I would argue that the way that we misunderstand this passage stems from three things: how little attention we give to the context in which it was written, how much we have changed as Christians, and how inured we’ve become to the transformation wrought by the American democratic experiment on the experience of citizenship. A serious reading of this passage in these contexts shouldn’t give us comfort or self-justification; it should raise an entirely new set of questions about what it means to be Christian in modern political society, questions that even after several centuries we are still struggling to answer.

Romans 13 in its literary context

Of the 27 books in the New Testament (the part of the Christian Bible that is distinctly Christian), about half are attributed to St. Paul, although more critical scholars would say only seven are likely to have been written by Paul himself. (The others attributed to Paul were most likely written by his disciples, a convention that sounds shady today but was common and accepted at the time.) Regardless of which ones you count as Paul’s, his letter tot he Romans stands out as his most comprehensive written explication of what Christians should believe and do. (If you’re wondering, this is because Romans is the only letter Paul wrote to a community he hadn’t founded and in fact had not at the time ever visited. This letter served as an introduction of Paul to the Church of Rome, as he sought to visit them on his way to a missionary journey to Spain.) In the first 11 chapters, Paul explains his understanding of what Christians believe; in chapters 12-15, he focuses on what Christians are obliged to do in light of those beliefs. The first part, chapter 12 and 13, is more focused on overarching ethical issues, while 14 and 15 are more focused on issues arising within the community of Christians over the divide between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Romans 12:1-2 opens the section with a general call to holiness:

”I urge you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perefect.

(That second sentence is one of my favorites.)

So then there’s a section on humility and diversity of gifts (12:3-8), a beautiful section on the call to love (12:9-21 & 13:8-10) bracketing the section everyone talks about, and 13:11-14 closes the section with the underlying rationale behind all of this. Those surroundings are critical for understanding the verses everyone focuses on, yet we seldom pay them attention in that context. When Paul wrote the letter, he didn’t set up the chapters and verses – that didn’t happen until more than 1500 years later. So it’s meaningful that starting in 12:14, Paul says things like “bless those who persecute you,” “do not be haughty but assoiciate with the lowly,” “do not repay anyone evil for evil,” “do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath,” “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink,” and “do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” Likewise, right after the section in question, Paul goes to “owe nothing to anyone,” and “love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:1-7 is pretty clearly a claim that authority is divinely ordained, but it’s within a context of Christian action that is neither a will to power nor passive submission but active, even countercultural love. (As an aside, many of Paul’s writings on authority are misinterpreted because we overlook the element of loving self-sacrifice to which those believers privileged with authority are called.)

So that’s the literary context in which Romans 13 exists, but let’s also note the historic context. Consider the actions of the authorities Paul lauds, and given that this was written to the church in Rome, let’s focus on the Roman Empire and leave out King Herod:

  • In about 33, they executed Jesus. Maybe you heard.
  • In 49, they evicted all the Jews and Christians from Rome because they were seen as seditious for not worshipping the emperor (this comes not from the Bible but from contemporary histories). Romans was written less than a decade after this.
  • They martyred most of the original twelve apostles of Jesus as well as thousands of other early believers.
  • After Paul wrote this letter, he went to Jerusalem and got into some trouble. The Roman authorities saved Paul from a mob of Jewish leaders (yay!), but sent him to Rome as a prisoner, where he was eventually executed, likely in 64, about the same time Peter was also crucified in Rome.
  • In 70 they destroyed the Jewish temple.

And for the next several centuries, Roman emperors until Constantine would imprison, torture and kill Christians in waves because they dared to claim that they would worship Jesus, but not the emperor.

So why does Paul attribute divine ordination to these powers? Clearly they are not consistent in enforcing goodness and justice. Clearly, as Paul himself learned, those who do good had ample reason to fear their wrath.

Romans 13 in its theological context: the big thing that changed

Don’t get scared now, but I’m about to throw out the term “eschatological expectation.”

Wait, wait, read on.

We Christians tend to read the Bible as if it were contemporary, and there’s some value to that, as we seek to apply it to our lives. In the process, though, we tend to forget that we’re living 20 centuries after the time of Jesus, and a lot has changed. I’m going to draw on two points from the best teachers on Biblical stuff in my academic years – first a point I picked up from Luke Timothy Johnson (no relation), and then one from Charles Talbert.

Dr. Johnson’s basic point on Christianity as a whole is that it stemmed from an experienced the very first believers had with the resurrected Jesus. We cover this every Easter season, when we recount the stories of the risen Jesus appearing to Mary, to the disciples journeying to Emmaus, to the apostles in the upper room, and again when Thomas was around. From Johnson’s view, those experiences are the central point of Christian faith; the Gospels can be studied, in some sense, as an effort to “reverse engineer” Christ — to find a way of expressing exactly who this Jesus must have been in order to have created an experience of resurrection that was felt as so clearly real and uniquely Him, but couldn’t be fully explained. Jesus wasn’t experienced as a ghost, but neither was he a resuscitated corpse as Lazarus had been. This was something without precedent, and in casting about for ways to describe it, the Jewish concept of resurrection of the dead was the best they could come up with. We’ve spent 2000 years adding grace notes and texture to this understanding, but we need to remember that, in the beginning, this was fresh and unpredictable and freaky.

The concept that best fit their experience, though, was a Jewish one that wasn’t about the resurrection of one person, or about some alternate plane (as many of us think of heaven, which has more of a Greek origin), but an era of mass resurrection of the righteous. This wasn’t fully accepted by Jews at the time, even; we see fights between a sect that believed in the resurrection of the dead (Pharisees) and one that didn’t (Sadducees). But to the extent that it had any understanding, the presumption is that all the dead who were going to be resurrected would come back at once.

So the early Christians bent this a little, assuming that Jesus’ resurrection would inaugurate a new creation that the faithful would partake in, whether they were dead or not. (I Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, written around 20 years after Jesus dies, has a major theme explaining to the church that their fellow believers who died won’t miss out on this resurrection.) But even as the days turned to years and the years to decades, the 1st century church was rooted in the belief that the resurrection, the end times, the eschaton, had begun to happen with Jesus and would continue and conclude very, very soon. The writings of Paul have to be read with that “eschatological expectation,” that belief that the end was truly nigh. So Romans 13 ends with:

And do this because you know the time; it is the our now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than wen we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. (Romans 13:11-12)

And it is through this lens, Talbert would argue (and I would agree), that you have to understand Paul’s ethics, especially his social ethics. If you believed that the world would likely end tomorrow, or maybe the next day, you wouldn’t waste a lot of time trying to reform it. You wouldn’t jump into entanglements like marriage and family life if you weren’t already so committed, but you also wouldn’t try to reform social structures, especially since there weren’t readily available ways to do that if you were a persecuted minority. You might instead focus on just preparing your inner circle – your family and friends – as we invariably see people who predict the world’s end doing. It’s a notable feature of early Christianity that they believed they had been commissioned (as in the end of Mark, the first Gospel) to spread the Good News about Jesus as far and wide as possible in the short time left so as many believers as could be reached would be able to enjoy the benefit of new life in Christ.

It’s that short-timer, eschatological Christianity that can say to persecuted believers that you are better off trusting that God has ordained the power structure we don’t have time to change and that your best course of action is to focus on spreading love.

Romans 13 in political context

So what about us? While we profess a hope in the resurrection of the dead, and many strands of Christian theology emphasize eternal life as a payoff for faith in this life, for the most part we do not live with the same urgent expectancy that today may be the end.

But beyond that major theological difference, there is an enormous political difference. In the Western world, Christianity of some form has been the religion of the dominant culture since the 4th century. There is a reason government officials in the US refer to Romans 13 for validation and not, say the Koran or the Talmud. There is a whole separate riff on the sociological role of religion in propping up existing power structures versus the subversive, prophetic role religions can play that I will save for another day, but for now let me just posit that Christianity is firmly entrenched within the power structure, which is a complete reversal of where it was when Paul wrote to the Romans.

Beyond that, the game-changer in modern Western culture is the rise of representative democracy. Since the 18th century and the American Revolution, government’s authority has been claimed to be derived from the consent of the governed.

So go back up to the actual passage, and replace “authorities” and “rulers” with “we” and “us”. It’s hard to underestimate the difference it makes for Christian believers to acknowledge that in this society, we can’t yield passively to the ruling authorities, because they are us. And the challenge of being a Christian in a democratic society is that the early Church that crafted the Scriptures had no concept that a Christian, participatory government was a possibility (or even something desirable), so any guidance we find there is extrapolated out from the ethical demands of Christian community (which were intimate in a way that presupposed little need for formal government) or from denying our own role as citizens and assuming falsely that “the authorities” are somehow an “other.”

Consider it this way: if you take Romans 13 at face value, and we are to fulfill the requirements put upon us by the governing authorities, we run into the circle that our responsibility as citizens is to exercise our right to vote and select who those authorities should be and what they should do, making us the creator (or at least endorser) of the authorities we claim to be following. It doesn’t work; it’s one of those infinite loops.

So in conclusion (finally!), Romans 13 isn’t all that helpful. It falsely implies that the authorities are acting with divine justice because it presents a social ethic for a people with a political position and an eschatological orientation that are not at all ours. We ought not indulge political leaders or followers who want to use these verses to justify their actions. We should instead point to the surrounding verses on love and forgiveness to challenge them to better model the justice of the crucified and resurrected Christ.

Did I ever tell you about that one time I faced a group of angry protesters?

This would have been back during the fight over the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, which my organization supported on policy grounds. It was summer, and we were, like the foolishly idealistic policy wonks that we were, trying to educate our members about what was and wasn’t in this significant piece of health care legislation, explain the impact on the 50+ population we represented, and answer any questions or concerns that they had.

This was when the Tea Party really took off.

I was not the primary front man for most of these excursions, something for which I still experience some guilt. But there was one that was set up by a volunteer leader of ours in Volusia County that I was going to lead. He had done a great job of lining up a meeting space and because it was limited in size (and we had heard by this point that these sorts of events were drawing a bit of a crowd), we limited to members who made a reservation, and we had a full house. Some were pro-ACA, some were anti-Obamacare, some just had questions. So I hear. I never got in there.

So as we were setting up for the event, one of the community center’s staff members said, Hey, I think you should know there are some protesters outside with signs yelling stuff.

Let me not oversell this. They were about 20 in number, and they were angry, but they weren’t threatening anybody or calling anyone names or anything like that. But they were standing in the driveway of our building with signs yelling at cars coming in, and I though, man, that seems like a bad first impression for our members and any press who might be covering this thing.

So I checked with the center to see if they had a separate room where I could hold a listening session with them, just like the full-house one with our members. They really didn’t have another meeting room, but they had a little computer lab that would fit about that many people. That’ll have to do, I thought.

I commissioned my volunteer, who is still going strong in his 80s and once ran a medical school, to lead the main session and just have someone take notes of any questions we needed to get back to people on, and I invited the group of protesters inside to do a listening session with me. I explained (as they had already heard) that the main session was full, but I said they’d have my full attention this way, and look, it’s summer in Volusia County, it’s hot. Wouldn’t you rather sit in air conditioning and stand outside while everyone else is inside a room where they can’t even see you?

Thank God for Florida’s humid heat.

So once the group got settled and I set up at the “front” of the room (the farthest from the door), I said, look, we can do this whatever way works best for you, but here’s my suggestion. I was going to talk through with that other group why our organization has the position we do on this thing and then take any questions or concerns they had and do my best to answer them while also taking note so I could let the folks in DC know what people were asking about and what they were worried about. Would something like that work? They clearly hadn’t scenario planned this, but they couldn’t figure out was unfair or sneak about it, so they said, sure, provided I guarantee I’d listen and that I’d report everything they said. I promised I would. Plus, they were between me and the door, so I wasn’t going anywhere.

Our session was longer than the other group’s session; I’d have to go back to my notes at the time. One thing I learned quick, which was the only really sneaky thing I did, was that I needed someone else to take notes on their questions or concerns so I could focus on listening to them and responding while knowing someone else would capture what they wanted to be sure I reported back. They understood that, and I pointed out that they thereby controlled the record for the event that I’d report back. So I deputized one of their unofficial leaders as the reporter, which she liked, they liked, and I liked too…because she was the one who kept interrupting me. Once she had to take notes, it didn’t quiet her down all the way, but it did slow her down enough that I could at least finish a thought. So I guess that was sneaky.

So I explained what we liked about the bill and what we thought it would do and what we didn’t think it would do and what we didn’t like about it. I explained why we thought the pros outweighed the cons. But mostly, I listened. I made sure I understood their concern, made sure they understood that I understood, made sure our reporter understood too, and I gave my best answer as someone who knew the bill pretty well.

I won’t say it was fun, per se. But it was kind of a game, as they would try to get themselves mad about some part or another only to defuse them with calmness, kindness, patience, and a willingness to listen. By the end, the group that had come in convinced I was the mouthpiece of an organization they hated as evil and corrupt had moved to a point where they thought we were…well, wrong, and maybe stupid and naive, and maybe still secretly corrupt a little, but generally nice people.

I’m not saying that would work today. But it could. And when I hear that there is a Fred Rogers movie out, and that people are angrily protesting someone leaving a screening of that movie, this story somehow popped back in my head. I think none of us who were there in the summer of the ACA would ever imagine that those would be anything but a low water mark of civility in American discourse. We were wrong.