Either Way, We Have a Lot of Work to Do

This is chapter 12 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, rendered in three different English translations:

English Standard Version

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

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. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Holman Christian Standard Bible

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts:

If prophecy,
use it according to the standard of one’s faith;
if service, in service;
if teaching, in teaching;
if exhorting, in exhortation;
giving, with generosity;
leading, with diligence;
showing mercy, with cheerfulness.

Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. But

If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
For in so doing
you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.

Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

New Revised Standard Version

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

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.

Emphasis mine.

The entire passage is a beautiful expression of the Christian life, the challenge of responding to salvation. But that one clause in verse 10, “outdo one another in showing honor,” has been bouncing around my head for the last few months. As a guidepost for personal conduct, it couldn’t be more straightforward. Christ taught that the last would be first and the first last, so it makes sense that the church would be called to engage in friendly competition, where the object is to see that another person, not yourself, wins.

Given the societal wounds that have been opened over the course of this election season, I feel that the time is now for a renewed vigor in showing one another honor. The passage in Romans may be primarily intended for relationships within the church, but Paul goes on to discuss “enemies” and “those who persecute.” Believers are commanded to extend love and mercy to everyone. This should be our defining characteristic.

Furthermore, I believe the admonition to “outdo one another in showing honor” is prescriptive for people who don’t call themselves Christians as well. When I use the word “we” in the title of this post, I speak for everyone living in America who can read it. Far too much political discourse is predicated on contracting the concept of “we.” Tribalism and prejudice have seen a resurgence in recent years, all building up to the current dire situation. Great evil has been roused and rallied in this country, and the only way to overcome that evil is with good.

So what does this radical showing of honor look like? There are many ways to go about it, in personal friendships, in our public statements (specifically on the internet), and, going forward, in the political causes for which we fight. In particular, I’ve been haunted by this tweet from Ayesha A. Siddiqi, editor-in-chief of The New Inquiry, asking her readers to “pick the Muslim youll [sic] buy dinner for when Trump’s inaugurated.” This seems like sound advice even if Trump loses; in fact, why wait? One could easily substitute Muslims for a few other groups as well, from Mexican immigrants to women (if you invite more than six women to dinner, statistically speaking, you’ve probably shown hospitality to a rape victim).

I can’t make any sweeping claims about “healing divisions” during this crisis. There are already a great many Christians and non-Christians who treat other people well. But we can always do more. Even as the anxiety over this election’s outcome reaches its peak, it’s important to recognize the results as a beginning, not an end. There is no excuse to give up hope or to stop working toward a more perfect union. Two opposing reactions to civic uncertainty have been common in my experience: “God is still on the throne” niceties and “either way, we’re screwed” cynicism. Neither of these viewpoints is a lie, per se. But they’re passive; I might even call them lazy. On the outermost ring is the old saw about moving to Canada if the wrong candidate wins. Such a threat is meant to be understood as principled fear about the end of America as we know it, but in reality it’s just an ill-fitting mask for privilege and cowardice. I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton as a conscious rebuke to this kind of apocalypticism. What I’m proposing here, as I hinted in my last political post, is a more active approach. I believe it to be the more excellent way.

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