A reading of Romans 13–15
In a nutshell: Paul closes his letter with an appeal to greater tolerance within the community that has rallied around Jesus as God’s anointed king. He especially emphasizes flexibility around other people’s spiritual and religious practices.
I myself have come to believe that you all are filled with good intentions, well furnished with knowledge of every kind, and quite capable of providing one another with good advice.
It’s Day 29! Just one more day to go in our 30-day challenge! Today is the conclusion of the long letter to the Romans. Tomorrow’s reading is a brief letter of recommendation that may have accompanied the longer letter.
“Think globally, act locally.” Paul’s global attitude pops up regularly in his advice to local communities. Paul’s advice is usually to do what he is doing: to think and act globally. He pushes locals to continually think more expansively and universally about their relationships with others and role in ultimate reality.
That was my reality for about ten years of intensive intercultural and interfaith work. I’m still completely engaged in that work, but my reality has shifted. “Universalism” no longer means seeking to make everybody else intercultural and interfaith. HR analyst Josh Bersin underwent a similar reality check in 2013:
While we certainly live in a highly interconnected world, the business world is not as “flat” [a metaphor for viewing world commerce as a level playing field where all competitors have an equal opportunity,] as Thomas Friedman once predicted. Quite the contrary in fact. There is no “global market” for goods and service, rather there are now a set of globally connected “local” businesses.
We are just completing a year long effort to study best-practices in the structure of Human Resources. What we found is that while companies want order and consistency around the world, the highest-performing companies don’t standardize everything: they localize.
We can see this mentality in Paul, to a point. He still believed that he had a universal message that could bind everyone together. While I still agree with Paul that flexibility and tolerance are vital to community survival, nowhere is the death of the metanarrative more painfully obvious to me than in my attempts to read and interpret Paul’s letters.
Paul tried to make a local god universal. Unfortunately, that particular project has no relevance to my life, nestled in the high desert foothills of Idaho. As for the stories of the Bible, a collection of often profound books written by people who, like me, were looking for ways to survive in a desert climate and taking lessons in wisdom from that harsh terrain—those do have relevance for my life. Paul is a companion, a visitor from out of town. He reminds me that the local can be stagnant when not injected with new vision from time to time, and for that I extend him a hand in gratitude.
Does this mean the lack of a universal story that gives all humanity something to unite around means we must walk in hopeless circles going nowhere? (This is the pessimistic definition of postmodernism.) I like that Paul reminds us to “pursue what makes peace possible and what is constructive for all of us” (14:19b). That’s not possible unless you actually immerse yourself in a real community, get to know its concerns, and let it be personal. If I may be pardoned an utterly non-scholarly soccer reference in the wake of the World Cup:
You’ve got to risk being completely devastated if you don’t achieve your dream.
For some additional insights from the perspective of intercultural and interfaith work, along with some comments about how this whole issue fits into Paul’s broad goal of uniting the nation of Israel with other nations as the people of God, listen to the audioblog below:
Questions for the Road:
- Why did you read Paul’s letters? What personal or communal concern drove you to stick with this challenge?
- How do you balance universal and local concerns? What aspects of Paul’s advice do you find helpful for doing so?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.