One of the most surprising things about the evangelical subculture is how often Paul’s words in Romans 12:2 is used as a bludgeon to try to enforce a certain view of Christianity on other Christians. “Do not be conformed to this world,” many evangelicals will tell you, following it with something about denying leadership positions to women or condemning people who fall in love with members of their own gender. As if the forces of conformity were those liberating us from constrictive gender roles, or opening our hearts to the array of sexuality and gender expression. As if it were revolutionary to prolong centuries of patriarchy, or to accept their indoctrination without question.
So, what is a reasonable view of “nonconformity” that actually applies to our daily life, to our relationships?
To start with, the verse doesn’t stop at proscribing conformity to the world. Paul goes on: “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Paul’s underlying message here is not one simply of resisting the world; it is rather one of embracing newness and change. He uses two words meaning roughly the same thing to underscore his gist: “transformed” and “renewing.” If the first part of this verse is telling us what to stop doing, the rest of the verse advises us what to embrace: transformation, renewal. It says that openness and change are where we will connect with the will of God.
The duality between the world and the will of God is another place where misunderstanding creeps into our interpretation of this verse. It’s easy, especially in light of millennia of world-denying dualisms between flesh and spirit, to read this passage in that light. As if the world itself is suspect, tainted, a corrupting influence. But Paul’s not talking about creation or nature here; he’s talking about the social system we grow up learning, and in which we can be trapped. A few weeks ago I talked about the cross as God’s “no” to those toxic systems, the ones that encourage us to scapegoat others, to inflict violence, to cast out those who don’t conform. And the cross is God’s “yes” to abundant life, to living expansively and loving expansively, a call to all who love God to also love each other so much that we step outside that toxic system, an act that may cost our comfort or our very lives, as it cost Jesus’ life.
Our passage in Romans 12 is Paul’s riff on this theme. Paul explicates what he means in verse 2 in the rest of the chapter: Jesus’ followers should love each other, hate what is evil, and hold fast to the good. You can almost hear his subtext here: no matter what the world throws at you, no matter how much you want to fall back on old patterns of behavior, you must hate those evil patterns and hold fast to what God has revealed in the person of Jesus. Instead of retaliating or returning evil for evil, bless those who persecute you. We’ve all heard “turn the other cheek” so often we forget how radical an idea this really is! It’s unlikely very many of us have faced physical threats for something we believe, so the idea can be abstract, but just consider how hard it is to back down in the middle of an argument, to de-escalate, to apologize. To not return anger with anger. “So far as it depends on you,” Paul writes, “live peaceably with all.” Oh, so much easier said than done!
Paul concludes today’s passage with an exhortation not to “be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul’s use of the passive and active voice here says something interesting: “do not be overcome by evil” is set in the passive voice, implying that giving in is a very easy and real concern. Think about someone in your family with whom you’ve had a difficult past. When interacting with that person, how often do you simply slide into the grooves you’ve worn over the course of thousands of interactions? Even when we tell ourselves we will not have this or that argument one more time, if the other person brings it up it’s all too easy to take up our accustomed role in the argument and find ourselves playing out a scene we’re desperately weary of. We are not the independent actors we like to think of ourselves as being. Instead, we are formed over time by systems and patterns of relating to each other, and it can be very hard to get free. Conformed to the world we’ve made, however much we tire of it, however little we intended it.
Paul is trying to get his readers to lay down new tracks, to cultivate habits of peacefulness and love that will eventually be stronger than the toxic patterns of the world. In that final verse, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Paul is reminding us to resist the gravitational pull of the world’s patterns of behavior in order to create a new pattern, to imagine a new form of community that will, with time and practice, replace the old ways.
Thus, the goal of nonconformity shouldn’t be only on the first part of Romans 12:2, but on the first and second together. That is, we need to go beyond simply resisting the world’s attempt to make us fall in line and also embrace the transformation that comes by way of renewal.
As with any pattern or habit we want to break, or any new habit we want to encourage, it’s never too late to start. In fact, it is always the right time to start. Just because we fail to keep a New Year’s resolution by the end of the first week of January doesn’t mean we should just forget it. A more serious example from experts in addiction: if you’re trying to be faithful to the guidelines of Alcoholics Anonymous, and you relapse and have a drink, or several drinks, or a weekend-long bender, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. It means you have to start again. One of the ways we fail is by convincing ourselves we’re failures, and the only remedy is to try again.
An example: a friend, when she visits her dad, psychs herself up ahead of time. She tells herself she will not be drawn into the same frustrations, the same arguments, the same battles that she and her father have spent 35 years perfecting. She’s been telling herself this for over 20 years, and it’s still hard, and she still fails often. And there have been times when she simply needed to step away and not visit, because neither one of them was capable of breaking those toxic patterns.
And maybe the hardest thing is realizing that, if she wants to break the pattern, it’s up to her, not her father. With any family pattern, the first change comes usually from a single person. And that puts a huge amount of pressure on that person, but since the very nature of these patterns is to reinforce themselves, it makes sense. It takes a person willing—like Jesus, or Benedict, or Fred Rogers, for that matter—to refuse to succumb to the gravitational pull of society’s toxic systems. Most of us aren’t up to the standards of Jesus or Benedict or Mr. Rogers, though (in fact, I suspect all three thought of themselves as failing often). But think of the movements they started, and the refuge they provided and continue to provide by their example.
Perhaps you never thought of Fred Rogers as a nonconformist, but this was a man who hated television. He loathed it! But rather than simply ignore it or rail about it, as so many others have done, he decided to be involved in it. A man who hated television devoted his life to making it better, to making TV that would teach children and help them be less scared and encourage them to value themselves and love each other.
Here’s one of my favorite stories about St. Fred: He once won a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys, a gathering heavily populated by talk shows and soap operas. This is his acceptance speech: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.” And he raised up his wrist, with his watch on it, and said, “I’ll watch the time.” And people cried. At the Daytime Emmys. That’s the kind of space Fred Rogers created by his refusal to conform, and by his openness to transformation through the love of God.
A couple days ago the TV critic Emily Nussbaum asked people on Twitter, “Where were you radicalized?” And Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, whom I think of as my Twitter chaplain, replied “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And then she quoted Rev. Rogers saying, “To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” And someone else replied with another of his sayings, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It’s an active noun like ‘struggle.’”
What could be more counter-cultural than that? What better sums up the most radical teachings of Jesus and of Paul? To be radicalized to love: that’s what Mr. Rogers was, and what Jesus is. It’s a form of nonconformity that transforms the world, that creates spaces where we can begin to imagine transforming the world, if we can make a good habit of it.