Had a long, wonderful conversation with a brilliant young New Testament scholar this morning, Rafael Rodriguez of Johnson University. (Rafael is “young” because he is younger than me.)
He is doing important work reading the Bible historically, but also exploring how the Bible (properly read) should inform life, faith, and practice in the church today.
Part of our conversation revolved around a biblical approach to the current political climate. I asked him how we might look to Paul’s statements regarding “strong” and “weak” in Romans 14. His response was brilliant, and sent me in a new direction when it comes to thinking about our dividedness.
As I ruminated on that conversation, I realized that our initial impulse when it comes to Paul’s teaching on strong and weak (Romans 14 – 15; 1 Corinthians 8 – 10) is the wrong approach.
We immediately ask, “Which one of us in this dispute is the strong?” and “Which is the weak?” This is a dead end. (Or we don’t even ask, we just assume WE are the strong and anyone who disagrees is the weak.)
We all THINK we’re the strong, at least most of the time. None of us aspires to be “the weak”. (Although if we’re honest with ourselves …)
We need to begin from the opposite realization. To whit: I am always the weak. Always. Even when I’m right about a particular issue. Even if, in the end, I AM the strong. Always start by thinking of yourself as the weak.
Here’s how I think it might work.
What is our primary orientation toward people we disagree with politically? What is the center of our thinking about them when they come to mind?
It SHOULD be “This is a person who needs the gospel just as much as I do.”
How much do I need the gospel? I am a sinner saved by grace. I am ignorant and selfish and corrupt. I have been freed from the clutches of hell not by any virtue of my own–not because I’m holier, smarter, the beneficiary of better choices or upbringing or environment or genetics–but because Jesus graciously loved and saved me.
I am the tax collector (Luke 18.13): “Lord, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.” And like the tax collector, I dare not raise my eyes, much less look down on another person.
That’s ME. AND THAT’S ALSO THE PERSON I DISAGREE WITH POLITICALLY. We’re both “the weak”.
I shouldn’t look at them without also looking at myself. I shouldn’t judge them without first seeing myself, my need, my fallenness, my sinfulness, clearly.
Think of the person you disagree with the most deeply, the person who makes your blood boil because of what they represent spiritually, politically, or ideologically.
Is the first word that comes to mind “bigot” or “socialist” or “gay” or “anti-Christ” or “liberal” or “sinner” or “wicked”?
Or “a person who needs God’s grace as much as I do”?
Martin Buber wrote about seeing people as “I and thou” rather than “I and it.” If we look at people as “I and it,” we turn them into objects of judgment, things remote from and different from ourselves that we can scapegoat, condemn and exploit and exclude, hate and want to destroy, etc.
But “I and thou” says that I understand that person and myself in relationship to one another on the basis of our sameness before God.
Who do you despise? Who do you hate? Start with the thought, “I’m just like him. I’m just like her. May God have mercy on him/her as he has been merciful to me.”
This puts the way we see & understand our differences on a different, more gracious footing.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak … Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you.”