I remember sitting at a station in VBS, listening to an adult dressed as Paul speak about the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” He told us the saying was bad advice for Christians, as he encouraged us to cling firmly to our beliefs regardless of our environment and the people around us. At one point in time, I completely agreed with him. I wouldn’t have the wrong friends, and I most certainly would conduct myself as a perfect Christian girl when I found myself forced into the company of those unlike myself. In my experience, that is the precise attitude of many religious people. When in Rome, remember you’re better than the Romans. When in Rome, don’t act like a Roman… More often than not, when we’re in Rome, we look down upon the Romans.
I think that principle has become so engrained into our minds that we don’t even realize we do it. No matter how many times some people say, “I’m not better than them,” they still act as though they are. A group of students brought a Christian-based club to my school this year called The CHILL. We talked about starting a revival at Easley and how much of a difference we were going to make for some people. But, as it turns out, people don’t need our synthetic friendships designed to make us feel superior. They don’t need our condescension. They don’t need our posters, worship services, or love dependent upon spirituality. Some of them may need free breakfast… but they just need breakfast. They don’t need the accompanying obligatory appearance in a worship service.
They need people who don’t care about their use of foul language. They need people who listen to what they did on Friday night without becoming offended. They need people who give them space to be different, people who don’t use relationship as leverage to produce desired behavior or diminish undesired behavior. They need people who run to meet them where they are, not people who see them coming slowly and demand they make it the rest of the way. They need you, and me, to be Romans.
You see people so differently when you experience life alongside them rather than above them. Your values are not compromised by practicing true friendship with someone who holds different ones. A few weeks ago, I was in the chemistry lab, washing lab equipment with my lab partner, who also happens to be one of my best friends. He looked over at me and said, “Shannon, if I would have told you in like middle school that I was going to be one of your best friends, what would you have said?” I was almost ashamed at the person I used to be as I thought about his question. I knew him in middle school; I even had classes with him, but I wasn’t friends with people who misbehaved in class or conducted themselves in a way I didn’t approve of. I’m sure I was polite to him (I was polite to everyone), but politeness is different than friendship. Politeness doesn’t really show people love.
Just today, we were trying to figure out how we even became friends in the first place, and neither of us has the slightest clue. It doesn’t really matter though because my friend accepts so many of the things I do. He reminds me to chill when I get stressed about a lab and become bossy. He tells me to stop being mean when I slip back into my former self and tell him what to do or make a condescending comment. My favorite friendships are the ones I have with people who aren’t what I expected my friends to be like. I think there’s just something so beautiful in acceptance, in meeting someone exactly where he or she is without the intention of coaxing him or her somewhere else.
High school is just like the city of Rome- nonchristians (or not “good” Christians) and Christians who warn against doing as the Romans. But, I have discovered infinitely more Christ and love from doing as the Romans- from walking with the Romans, from laughing with the Romans, from practicing friendship with the Romans. Please, don’t get so caught up in righteousness that you become unable to fully participate in all the wonderful things life has to offer. People who are not like you often impact your life in the biggest way. My older brother and I are nothing alike, and I have found that my life is much fuller when I’m loving him for who he is rather than in spite of who he is. Life is so much bigger than you imagined when you expand your life to include those different than you. Romans are talented, extraordinary, compassionate, and vastly wonderful people who can teach you so much. So, next time you’re in Rome, I hope you step outside of yourself and befriend the Romans, experience something with the Romans. Most importantly, I hope you grow to truly love the Romans so that we no longer feel the need to differentiate between the Romans and non-Romans.
1 Corinthians 16:23-24,