Friday, June 8, 2007
Be Ye Transformed: An Exegesis of Romans 12:1-2
(picture taken by Qiyamah A. Rahman 2006)
Be Ye Transformed
by Qiyamah A. Rahman June1, 2007
Romans 12 1-2
“I appeal to you therefore 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 you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
As an African American female student/scholar I approach the Bible with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Furthermore, I use my racial, gender and cultural identity both as a hermeneutical lens and as a reading strategy. Thus the text becomes the site where my social location as reader and the historical conditions merge with the text to produce multiple meanings. For me, living in the hypen as an African American is a counterculture act which places me on the margins/borders where I can use my education and awareness to help others and stand with those who are disempowered as a result of various oppressions. Questions that often inform my reading and exegesis are: 1) What is the context of this scripture? 2) What are the significant historical circumstances that impact the writer’s choice of words? 3) Who is speaking? 4) Who is not speaking? 5) Who is the scribe speaking to? 6) Who is the scribe? 7) What is their stand point, that is, their identity and social location? 8) what is their agenda and motivation? 9) Are they speaking from the margin or center of society and power institutions? 10) What if any relevance does their message have for people of color striving to be in integrity with God/the Sacred? 11) What is the metatext? And 12) What are the historical circumstances out of which the text emerged and why is it significant?
Verse 1 - Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
The body is the temple of the Holy and Sacred. The body is the living church/temple that we have been given to house our “soul” - that physical body that holds our cells and blood and skeletal frame. That is the practical role of our physical temple, the physical being what others first see and react to. Surely there was a time when we judged others by the quality of their soul and their character and not by their temple which comes in many sizes and shapes and colors may or may not resemble one to the other. Surely, there must have been a time when all bodies were considered beautiful and valued regardless to appearance. Perhaps in the mythical Garden of Eden. Did the original split between spirituality and sexuality begin in the Garden? Now we tend to be influenced by “first impressions” and judge one another by external things like the color of our skin, hair texture and facial features, even though these things may have little to do with ones holiness. Romans 12:1 reminds us that we worship using our bodies as a sacred offering for spiritual worship which is sanctioned by God, so surely the body and the source of good things. Thus it is only right that we keep our temples “holy and acceptable” to present to the Holy. The Apostle in Romans speaks positively about the body and the mere fact that it is presented to God portrays a positive meaning and links the body/temple to God the Holy. One can extrapolate a holistic relationship in which the Apostle emphasizes a distinct relationship between the following words that are placed in the same paragraph: “bodies” “living sacrifice” “acceptable” “spiritual” “worship’ “God.” Were these words not powerful in and of themselves the use of the phrase, “acceptable to God” commands the attention and alerts the lovers of God. Like the Sufi mystic, like the Christian saints – the lovers of God eagerly seek to do those things that are acceptable and pleasing to the Beloved.
Reading for subversive purposes and with a hermeneutic of suspicion, one realizes that in today’s times we have not followed the advice of Romans 12:1 to hold sacred the body temple. But instead we have separated the body and soul, resulting in misguided worship of the physical body. Separating body and soul we distort its true purpose. When the soul separates from the body, that act of separation, essentially constitutes a kind of death, a disconnect, a mini death. Conceptualizing the body and soul as separate entities creates a sense of disconnection that has created a lot of damage. The splitting of spirituality (soul) and sexuality (an aspect of the body temple), according to Lee Butler, results in the bifurcation of our very being that does not only result in the fracturing of our individual selves, it ultimately results in the destruction of our lives as relational beings.” Thus, we create and experience sexual dis-eases and sexual predators in our disembodied selves, in a world spinning out of control. By splitting spirituality and sexuality we create a dangerous world full of “evil” acts and behaviors. Romans 12:1 reminds us that our precious bodies serve as our temple and as a reminder of our connection to the Holy One whose creative energy in the universe inspired the design of the human body. Every breath we take, every word we speak is discerned in the universe. That which is sacred engulfs us with compassion and love as we seek to express the gifts of life that we have been given. Do we cherish this gift or do we squander it? Do we hold it as precious or do we abuse not only our temples but also others temples through acts of violence, that include, verbal, emotional, physical and psychological? Are we complicit with systems and institutions that abuse others and act unjustly? The mystery of life is embodied in the temple of life which we use to worship and give praise and acknowledgement to the Holy.
Another important role of the body is to procreate. Keeping our temples sacred allows us to preserve the sanctity of life and to continue the sacred act of procreation. In some faith traditions before men and women begin intercourse with the recitation of a prayer or a meditation. By doing so they acknowledge the sacredness of the act and the potential gift of renewing life through birth and rebirth. Additionally, the body represents a source of pleasure. Many individuals erroneously associate the terms erotic and eros with adult films that diminish the human body in general, but specifically women’s bodiesl. Others often consider the words erotic and eros as profane. Karen Baker-Fletcher reminds us that the love of Christ for the Church, the love of a bridegroom for his bride, and the bride’s love for the groom are examples of eros. She defines eros as the desire for union with the other. Baker-Fletcher asserts that eros has the power to heal the spirit as well as the body. She contends that the erotic satisfies more than physical hunger and tastes. Furthermore, the power of the erotic heals the soul and the very bones. “Presenting our bodies,” as instructed by the Apostle in Romans 12:1 is an act of power. Audre Lorde links the two concepts, power and eros. She describes eros as one of several types of internal powers that women can use to effectively work to heal oppressive conditions in their lives. Lorde maintains that, “the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling . . . and is the life-force of women . . .that creative energy empowered . . . our language, our story, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Human failure to claim the power of eros and the erotic is a direct result of the split between spirituality and sexuality. As a result, the Black Church has predominantly taken a reactionary and accusatory stance that has unnecessarily wounded and stigmatized those who have courageously claimed their sexual identities that include gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trangendered and those questioning (GLBTQ). The HIV/AIDS epidemic has dramatically deepened the disconnect within the Black Church that as has resulted in “disappearing” sex except within the bounds of marriage and heterosexual unions.
Verse 2 - Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind
The Apostle in verse 2 offers guidance to the people not to be drawn into the world. In other words, do not allow the world to act on you but stand strong and act on it that you may live a life according to those standards and values that reflect that which is sacred and holy. How might the world seek to transform us? Any number of ways, but this essay will address institutional power. Attempting to live by a set of moral guidelines is encouraged in the Bible and most religions. Yet, often working in environments and cultures where honesty and integrity may not be valued can be problematic to those living a life according to the laws of God. While moral guidelines can provide a moral compass in our individual lives it may be more complex if we desire success in our careers and vocations. This is particularly true if we live and work in highly competitive fields and environments where unethical behaviors are the norm. “Moral corruption” is damaging to the soul. In the Quran the scribe likens the soul to a mirror that is tarnished each time a wrong deed is committed. Thus, guarding the portals of the soul is essential. Living in the world becomes even more problematic for African American women in fields and positions where they are either the “only one” or “one of a few.” While the institutional culture and systems may affirm African American women by allowing them entry, that does not mean the institution is acting responsibly if once in the system she is expected to “play by the rules,” that is, if the rules are cut throat or simply require her to sell her soul for a job or career. Now a days some positions require sixty plus work weeks, with mandatory evenings and week end meetings. For women that want a life separate and apart from their careers they may have to choose between the lesser of the two “evils.” Thus, we are not always talking about evils that do great harm to others. In this instance she is being asked to do harm to her mental health and to dismiss any regard for effective self care in order to position herself for promotions and the perks that a career track can offer. As a result of poor self care, research findings indicate that the majority of ministers suffer from workaholic behavior, depression and substance abuse. Thus, the Apostle’s words of warning, “Do not be conformed to this world.”
A dehumanizing environment can cause alienation, a condition of estrangement which Delores Williams describes in her article, A Womanist Perspective on Sin. This condition of estrangement she asserts leads to a loss of identity. Society imposes a sense of unworthiness on African American women that in turn promotes their loss of identity. Williams further characterizes this process as “invisibilizing” African American women. Williams sheds light on how pervasive racism is in society that conveys messages to women of color through out their lives that they are not good enough the way they are. So the sin of “devaluation and defilement” renders African American women “invisible.” Unfortunately, because these conditions are so pervasive African American women internalize them and they usually assume they constitute the problem. Hence, the term “internalized oppression. Research findings indicate that African American women working in settings with few or no other African Americans often experience some or all of the following:
• Pressure to perform and prove themselves. One manifestation is assuming myriad tasks and roles to prove ones worth. This pressure is often a combination of internal drive and external realities.
• Emotional and physical stress from the pressures may result in health problems if self care is not a part of the individuals life style.
• Emotional conflict due to switching personas, that is, crossing cultural divides due to segueing between work environment, family and social life.
• Struggle with sense of self. If the individuals sense of self is not already sufficiently strong enough to withstand not seeing images of others that look like her she may end up mired in depression or be vulnerable to unhealthy addictions such as workaholism, alcoholism, food, sex, gambling etc.
Serving as bridges between two worlds, African American women often
experience what Katie Cannon calls the “loneliness and pain of endless and constant translation.” She further asserts that it is “harder to find places where they can be at home in the same way that others can.”
Having knowledge of this tendency to internalize oppression, African American women can choose to retain an ethical framework when others are playing “dirty” by refusing to react hostilely or to lash out at others. This allows African American women to stand in their power and be grounded in their ethics. Maintaining ethics and dignity are essential and herein the Apostle’s words resonant, “do not conform yourselves to (the easy standards of) the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind . . . Do not lose your self in the ways of the world. The easy fixes that coerce and seduce us into their ways bear a price in the end. If we choose to align ourselves with systems that are destructive to ourselves and others then we give away our souls and we may find that our hands are stained with “bloodguilt.” What is it that the Apostle is cautioning the people against? Fill in the blank _________________. Whatever your tendency is that sends caution to the wind. Fill in the blank_________________.
We must know ourselves or we are vulnerable to the “evils” of the world. Physician heal thyself! Minister, heal thyself!
But be transformed by the renewal of your mind
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word renewal means: 1) to make or become new; fresh, or strong again; 2) to restore to existence; recreate; revive; 3) to make or do again; repeat; 4) to begin again; resume; 5) replace; 6) to grant or obtain an extension. What a rich and powerful word. The scribe places the following three words in close proximity to each other: “transformed: “renewal” and “mind.” The two words “transformed” and “renewal” are not only action words but they evoke positive action. They direct the reader toward change. Both words denote change, not just any change but change for the better. Using the example cited earlier let us examine African American women ministers in Unitarian Universalism, in the congregational setting where some are battling with what could be defined as oppressive cultures. How does this manifest? Perhaps there is resistance to anything “Black” that the minister suggests or attempts. Any anti-racism training that the minister suggests or anytime a Black speaker is invited to deliver the sermon when she is not in the pulpit, the board and/or her ministerial committee or both, caution her about becoming a “single issue” pastor. Or the other extreme is they are so eager to be seen as non-racist they provide no critical feedback. Everything she does is fine. Neither extreme is helpful. A year later the minister has failed to increase the diversity at the church, thus, the board and/or her ministerial committee are growing impatient and beginning to micro manage her because they believe if she were more efficient she would be more successful at achieving diversity. They are beginning to question her competence which taps into her own internalized oppression. She begins to work longer hours and to initiate new programs that while needed, she cannot possibly manage alone. She becomes more controlling in her relationship with the administrator who she feels has not responded well to her leadership. She is not sure if it is because she is African American or simply a personality conflict. In addition, pastoral care has dropped off after a year because the “uniqueness and glamour” of having their first African American minister has worn off. The minister is living in an area in the country where she has not lived before and so she has not formed any close friendships. She has intentionally not formed close intimate relationships with members in an effort ot honor appropriate boundaries. Yet, she has not been successful in forming any outside of the church. She was dating a United Church of Christ minister that she really cared about but he wanted to be free to date others. Besides, she was still lonely for “girlfriends” that she could hang out with and let her hair down. In the erroneous belief that if she worked harder and longer hours to prove her competency, she would win over the board’s lingering concerns about her leadership, and the few disgruntled members that didn’t seem to like anything she did, she was now working sixty hour weeks.
Girlfriend needs a renewal of the mind. She needs to remember who she is and whose she is. Where is her mentor? Where is her spiritual director? Where is her therapist and self help group? In other words, where is her support network? The trite and overused axiom that, “God helps those that help themselves” is applicable here. She needs to stand in her power and find some support that will hold up her mirror and remind her who she is. She is a child of God and she is good enough just as she is. A renewal of the mind is needed here as she heals from the woundedness that she is recreating in her present from past experiences. Losing sight of her ministry goals has dug her hole deeper, made her situation worse and allowed her to become a moving target for all that is wrong with the congregation. A renewal of the mind will allow her to call on the God consciousness that called her to ministry and to the congregation in the first place. A renewal of the mind will bring her some peace of mind and clarity so that she can rein her workaholism in and begin to practice better self care. Having allowed the world to transform her she needs to claim the power of God and renew her ministry and mind by getting a mentor, a spiritual director, therapy and into a self help group. She needs to get a life.
One commentary source contends the following:
that “conversion and sanctification are the renewing of the mind: a change, not of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul. The progress of sanctification, dying to sin more and more, and living to righteousness more and more, is the carrying on this renewing work, till it is perfected in glory. The great enemy to this renewal is conformity to this world. Take heed of forming plans for happiness, as though it lay in the things of this work, which soon pass away. Do not fall in with the customs of those who walk in the lusts of the flesh, and mind earthly things. The work of the Holy Ghost first begins in the understanding, and is carried on to the will, affections, and conversation, till there is a change of the whole man into the likeness of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. Thus, to be godly, is to give up ourselves to God.
That you may be and prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect
What is the will of God? It is about manifesting the God consciousness that we were conceived in. That we might know God and recognize our God consciousness and learn to live integrated lives that reflect balance, values and justice for all people. The prophet Micah in 6:8 says it much more eloquently and simply, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to work humbly with your God.?” The Apostle in Romans clearly spells it out for us, “the will of God is that which is good, acceptable and perfect.” Thus, when we resist oppression and the abuse of power, then we are doing the will of the Holy, we are doing what is good, acceptable and perfect.
May it be so! Blessed Be! Amen! Shalom! Ashe!
Butler, Lee. “The Spirit is Willing and the Flesh is Too: Living Whole and Holy Lives Through Integrating Spirituality and Sexuality in Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic edited by Anthony B. Pinn and Dwight N. Hopkins. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2004.
Daloz, Laurent A. Parks, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen and Sharon Daloz Parks, ed. Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Fletcher, Karen Baker. “The Erotic in Contemporary Black Women’s Writings” edited by Anthony B. Pinn and Dwight N. Hopkins. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2004.
Walley, Barbara “Oneness (part 2 of 2) in Creative Thought: Awakening Humanity to Its Spiritual Magnificence (Spokane: Religious Science International, 2007.
Williams, Delores S. “A Womanist Perspective on Sin” in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil & Suffering. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999.
BibleGateway.com – Commentaries (http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/index/php?action=getCommentary)