“Overcome Evil with Good” Romans 7–16 #BCCSundaySchool2019

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Reading: Romans 7–16.

Main topics: Overcoming Evil with Good, Predestination and Adoption, Women in the Early Church

There is a scene from Toni Morrison’s Beloved that takes my breath away every time I read it, that makes me gasp and ache and weep with grief and hope. Baby Suggs, the matriarch of the community, the grandmother-prophet that leads the congregation in worship, takes her people into a clearing and prays over them. She tells the children to laugh, the men to dance, and the women to cry.

“It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

“She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.”

Beloved is a book about how to respond to evil—pure and real and human evil. How do you move on? How do you let go? How do you remember? How do you respond? Paul’s epistle to the Romans also talks a lot about grace, and it talks about how to overcome evil with good. In the spirit of Paul’s letter, Baby Suggs combats evil and hatred with goodness and love:

“‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.’ Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh.”

Beloved is a narrative about life post-slavery, and Baby Suggs’ prophetic call is to respond to hatred with love, darkness with light, evil with goodness. It is an echo and a magnification of Paul to the Romans.

Overcoming Evil with Good

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’

“No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 9–20, New Revised Standard Version)

Toni Morrison’s epigraph to Beloved is from Romans 9:25: “I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.” Paul’s words begin the narrative, and Morrison’s story breathes new life and context into the words.

Paul’s words also remind me of Michelle Obama’s, “When they go low, we go high.” She later expounded on what she meant by this:

“Fear is not a proper motivator. Hope wins out. If you think about how you want your kids to be raised, how you want them to think about life and their opportunities, do you want them afraid of their neighbors? Do you want them angry, do you want them vengeful? . . .  And I have to think about that as a mother, as someone who’s a role model to young girls. We want them to grow up with promise and hope, and we can’t model something different if we want them to be better than that.”

What does evil look like in your world today? What kind of goodness will overcome that evil? How can you add to that goodness as an individual or a family or a community?

Predestination and Adoption

Another interesting aspect of this part of Paul’s letter is his teaching regarding predestination. I won’t pretend like I have something intelligent to argue about Paul’s words here, but I can point to a few brilliant people who have tackled these interesting passages. Here are some tastes of what Paul writes to the Romans about foreordination and predestination (and dare I call it fate?):

  • “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30)
  • “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (Romans 9:20–21)

Paul also talks a lot about adoptions in his letter, pointing out that you don’t have to literally come from the seed of Abraham to enjoy the Abrahamic covenant and be considered a part of the house of Israel:

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.” (Romans 9:4–8)

He’s got a big metaphor, too, about wild olive shoots being grafted onto the “rich root of the olive tree” where sinful branches have been broken off (see Romans 11:17–24). He reminds grafted branches not to get cocky, because they could get broken off and have new branches grafted in their place. At the same time, he acknowledges that the wild olive shoots successfully become a part of the cultivated olive tree—they are fully adopted in as part of the organism.

I enjoy the contradictory, paradoxical nature of this predestination doctrine synthesized with adoption doctrine. Because if God is a God of predestination, why doesn’t he just put all the spirit babies into their proper physical families and bloodlines (as many people and scripture storytellers claim He does)? And yet, the doctrine of adoption supposes that people can elect of their own volition to join families and groups that God did not birth them into from the beginning. I’m not sure how Paul reconciles this, but here are some interesting reads on this topic for those eager to continue the conversation:

Women in the Early Church

Allow me a moment to wax speculative about these cool mentions of early Christian women at the end of Paul’s letter. These tragically brief references leave us with more questions than answers, but they are absolutely questions worth musing over, in my humble opinion.

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Paul at Aquila and Priscilla’s house. Paul is writing and the family are making tents. Engraving by J. Sadeler, 16th century

  • Phoebe: “I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1–2). Many scholars conclude that Phoebe is the woman whom Paul trusted to deliver his letter to the Romans. Paul uses the Greek word diakonos to describe her as a deacon and a minister, though others have noted that this may have referred to a servant in general and not necessarily a priesthood office. On the other hand, Michael Peppard, professor of theology at Fordham University, makes this point: “Archaeological evidence shows that some Christians of later centuries certainly viewed Phoebe as a forerunner of women deacons, in the official sense of the term. In their admirable Ordained Women in the Early Church, Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, and Kevin Madigan catalog sixty-five ancient inscriptions about women deacons. The vast majority come from eastern Christian communities (Greece, Asia Minor, the Holy Land, Syria), while only a few come from Rome, Gaul, or North Africa. Yet the geographical breadth of the ‘find spots’ (from modern-day France all the way to Syria) suggests that the diaconate of women was, while concentrated in the Christian East, not merely a regional peculiarity.” Seeing Phoebe as a priesthood-holder was certainly one reading of Paul’s message to many early Christians. BYU Professor Camille Fronk Olson does not read Phoebe as a deacon with priesthood authority but as a “succourer” (and an important woman, nonetheless), and you can read her argument here.
  • Priscilla/Prisca: “Greet Prisca [Priscilla] and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the gentiles” (Romans 16:3). Aquila and Priscilla were a married couple, missionaries, and tentmakers. Their marriage, what we we know of it, exemplifies an equitable partnership—Aquila did not think of Priscilla as his property, as custom would have dictated. Priscilla was one of the first female teachers in the early church, and Paul here greets her not just as the wife of Aquila but as another partner and cohort in Christ. Some scholars argue that Priscilla wrote the Book of Hebrews. Priscilla and Aquila taught and converted Apollos, another early evangelist. They were allegedly martyred together, and the Orthodox Church commemorates them together as saints on February 13.
  • Junia: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7). Scholars and theologians debate whether Junia is a man or a woman. Depending on how the name may have been accented, this name could be male or female. It’s also not entirely clear whether Paul is calling Andronicus and Junia highly esteemed apostles or whether he is saying that the apostles esteem them greatly [as regular, nonapostolic people]. Some people read Andronicus and Junia as husband and wife, parallel to how Paul greets Aquila and Priscilla. Because of Greek manuscripts that exist with “Junia” clearly written as a woman’s name, the scholarly consensus today concludes that Junia was most likely a woman. What might this mean for Paul to have possibly recognized a woman as a fellow apostle? Or is this question too speculative to be worth pursuing? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any modern-day messages from Latter-day prophets regarding Junia in my hunting, but perhaps a savvy reader can find mentions of her in church archives?
    EDIT: Kevin Barney wrote a fantastic post on Junia and you can read it here.

Stray Thoughts

  • Paul reminds his readers in Romans 14 not to judge each other regarding whether or not they keep to a kosher diet according to Jewish observance: “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:19–20). If some people observe certain days differently or abstain from “unclean” meat, don’t let your judgment of this person interfere with your love for them. I immediately thought of the Word of Wisdom in this section. Are we judgmental of others who live this law differently than we would ourselves? Do we have friends who, in our opinions, break the Word of Wisdom in what they imbibe or eat or take? Paul reminds us, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.”
  • I want to acknowledge how touching it is that Paul first declares at the end of Romans 8 this beautiful testimony about Christ’s love: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). But then he immediately follows it up with this admission the next verse down: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2–3). Paul loves his people so much, he says he would be willing to give up Christ’s love if it would save them. I’m not sure yet what I think about that, but it strikes me as earnest and solemn.

Comments

  1. Stephen Hardy says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and learned a lot. It will help me prepare my lesson for Sunday. Thank you very much.

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and learned a lot. It will help me prepare my lesson for Sunday. Thank you very much.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the great intro to this material for our personal and classroom study.

    Two notes on Junia:

    First, I blogged on her here (although the title to the post obscures the connection):

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/06/16/elder-joanna/

    Second, those of you who know Bridget Jack Jeffries may be interested to learn that she will be writing her PhD dissertation on Junia. (You’ll have to give it a few years, though.)

  4. Eric Facer says:

    On the question of “Women in the Church,” a few additional observations.

    It is noteworthy that in Romans 16:3, Paul mentions the woman’s name first: “Greet Prisca and Aquila . . . .” Crossan & Reed, in their book, “In Search of Paul,” indicate that Paul does this elsewhere in his letters, so this wasn’t just a one-off.

    Also, there are only six times in all his letters where Paul uses the Greek root for special apostolic activity—kopiao, which means “worked hard”—and on four of those occasions he is describing a woman: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis. (The other two times, he describes himself.)

    In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul makes it clear that women were actively involved in local worship services, praying and prophesying, much as the men did. But he seems to walk back from these liberal views in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where he says, in so many words, that women should keep silent church and look to their husbands if they wish to learn anything.

    The passage from 1 Timothy is pretty easy to disregard since most scholars believe that the Timothy and Titus letters are the second-century musings of a follower of Paul. The authors of those letters simply misappropriated his name to give their writings greater legitimacy.

    The passage from 1 Corinthians 14, however, is more problematical since no one disputes Paul’s authorship of that epistle. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that Paul was not the source for these particular verses (34-35), as noted by Bart Ehrman in his fine book, “Misquoting Jesus.”

    As it turns out, these verses are shuffled around in several of the oldest surviving manuscripts from which the New Testament is often translated. In five of the more highly-regarded Greek and Latin ancient manuscripts this misogynistic language is found not in verses 34-35 but later, after verse 40, suggesting that it originated as a kind of marginal note added by a scribe. This was not uncommon since the scribes who copied the texts that later became scripture were involved in the debates about the role of women in the church. And in almost every instance in which a change of this sort occurs, the text is revised to limit the role of women and minimize their importance.

    Moreover, these verses do not fit well within their immediate context, where Paul is addressing the issue of prophecy and giving instructions to teachers concerning how they should conduct themselves during worship services. Finally, verses 33-34 are completely at odds with the views expressed by Paul regarding women elsewhere in First Corinthians and his other letters.

    Sadly, the radical views of Christ and Paul concerning the equality of women were ultimately rejected in the doctrines and practices of the early church. Paul’s teachings on this subject were not only ignored but eventually distorted by the scribes and church leaders to give doctrinal legitimacy to the discriminatory treatment of women. But the real tragedy is that traces of their deliberate mischaracterizations can still be found in the history and practices of virtually every Christian denomination. Including our own.

  5. Eric Facer
    I too believe some of the misogyny in Paul’s letters has crept into our church. But I believe the leaders of the church have been preaching against it for years and have made it ever more important as they modify handbooks and temple teachings. The central teachings of the gospel become clearer as we become more willing to throw off the traditions of men, something the D&C specifically warns us against.
    Joseph Smith cautioned the members of his time for becoming upset every time he introduced any ideas that were foreign to their established beliefs. How much would he have changed in our church culture if people had been willing to grow faster? Would we have welcomed the freed slaves to Utah if more Blacks had joined the church and been ordained to the priesthood in his time? Had Jane Manning been sealed to Joseph and Emma as their daughter, would the temple restrictions for Blacks have been instituted? Or was this all too much cultural baggage to throw off in one generation? It is easy to identify false cultural beliefs when you are not surrounded by people who all believe a certain way, much harder when you are. In our own day we have seen church leaders try to overcome cultural traditions such as doweries in Africa and Asia or tribal loyalties or the difficulties members in India experience when lower caste men are called to priesthood leadership positions. But the general church leaders come from outside those cultural beliefs and were not raised to believe in them. It may take several lifetimes for those living in these societies to see the foolishness of certain norms.
    False ideas creep into our beliefs because they benefit the people who teach them, usually financially. Most often they are carefully reasoned and justified some way through the use of scripture in the past and science today. Change comes when we challenge this reasoning, pointing out the counter examples in the scriptures or the uncertainty of the science. Change comes when we humble ourselves and admit we might be wrong.

  6. Kevin, what a fantastic and thought-provoking post! I will edit the OP and add the link—thank you!

  7. Great post. What I got from the end of the reading this week was how at the beginning of Romans, Paul made some pretty intentional splits between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. But by the end of the epistle, I’m not seeing those splits anymore. Paul is trying to unify the two groups.
    For the predestined\foreordained part, what I took from it was less about foreordained to be saved (like how we usually think about that word) and more about everyone having some role to play. I know many like to talk about how God has an individualized plan for them, and I think that this is what Paul was getting to. Different people are going to have different roles, some of them even with divine influence. What matters for you, is how well you do in your role.

  8. Thank you for this post. I found it very thoughtful and insightful.