So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. Romans 12:1-2
If you know me, you know the title of this article is absolutely true. I’d like to think I fit Paul’s definition of “non-conformist”, but the truth is I’m really more of a contrarian, because I’ve never been one to follow trends; in fact, if something is trendy, that pretty much ensures I won’t like it. Not really what he was talking about, is it? A lot of what Paul wrote has been misunderstood and these verses are no different. Most often, they’re used to enforce someone elses idea of morality: don’t drink, don’t have sex outside of marriage, don’t be gay, etc. But, I don’t think those are the patterns of the world he was talking about. Call me crazy, but I believe he was more interested in how we treat our fellow-man than any laundry list of do’s and don’ts.
Whenever you read the letters of Paul, understanding the world he dealt with is crucial. Paul lived and moved in the Greco-Roman world of the first century and, just as it was in the time of Jesus’ ministry, that world was harsh and unforgiving. Society was heavily stratified, with huge wealth and utter poverty at opposite ends of the scale. Life in Greco-Roman culture was a picture of unequal relationships. The rich were in control and they exercised that control with brutal efficiency. They lived in opulent homes, had servants (slaves) to see their every need and there were few restrictions on their behavior toward these servants. Pederasty was common and slavery was the law of the land. If you weren’t a citizen, your protection under the law was limited at best; for slaves, it was practically non-existent. Into this unequal world steps Paul, a foreign-born Roman citizen, with a message of brotherhood and equality, one that calls on those in power to relinquish their privilege and look after those whose wealth and status isn’t equal to theirs. Talk about non-conformity!
In the America of today, our world is vastly different from that of Paul. Slavery is illegal, the Constitution guarantees everyone equal protection under the law and the plight of the poor in this country is far removed from that of ancient Rome. That doesn’t mean these words from the Apostle don’t still ring true. The “patterns of the world” he mentioned still exist, they just look a little different. The wealthy in this country enjoy privilege that many of us can’t imagine and they are extremely jealous of that privilege. People are pushed to the margins of society for different reasons, some within their control, some not. Politicians have blamed the poor for being poor and said if you don’t work, you shouldn’t eat. Financial and business leaders routinely place profits over people, sending jobs to other countries at an alarming rate and bilking us out of billions. Now, just as it was in the first century, everything is about “me”.
Paul, and the Gospel he preached, offer a different way to live; a way that doesn’t ask you to sell your soul for trinkets and baubles. This way lets you save your soul, but asks you to give up your self and your desire for “more” and reach out to your neighbor who is in need. It asks you to give your status and privilege and realize that we are all children of God and are all equally deserving. It asks you not to conform to the ways of the world, but be transformed to the way of Jesus, the ultimate non-conformist. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it will be worth it.