Weeks in the lectionary that involve the first 2 chapters of Timothy should come with commentaries that invoke a certain amount of moral ambiguity. It seems the writers of the Revised Common Lectionary think the same, because this weeks text drops before the eternally frustrating sexist language of the second chapter.
What we get instead in this weeks text is a little bit of confession, a writer (Paul?) telling of his own turn, away from a life as a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Indeed, the author goes as far as to say that he was among the greatest of sinners, a big claim to make.
These passages immediately bring up the images of Paul, the relentlessly violent pharisee, persecuting Christians across the land. The text is received by more modern ears like the grounds for moral superiority, the kind that sounds a lot like “look, I was lost and I found my way; now you too can be like me!” Imagining this kind of ideal behavior, preached as a form of freedom, conceals any kind of particular situation, and instead creates a “one-size-fits-all” formula: follow my path and know my freedom.
Especially in a time when the mainline church is challenging it’s perceived traditional role as the “moral police,” questioning what path the author of Timothy might be turning from, and to what behavior he may have adapted as part of his conversion, is crucial. This passage of scripture must be purged of all presupposition about what correct and acceptable behavior looks like.
Episode 381 of this American Life introduces the audience to Brandon Darby, a well know radical activist out of Austin Texas, who became famous after Katrina, when he headed into the flooded city in search of a friend. Along with other radical activists, Brandon helps set up the organization Common Ground, a support group run out of a house in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, one of the hardest hit areas, but as we learn, a place where most relief was not directed.
Brandon’s story only gets more complicated. A self proclaimed anarchist, he speaks about his dislike for authority, especially the government. But as he gets to know police officers in New Orleans, his views begin to change, from an unquestioning moral certitude (government/authority is wrong) to a more blurred view. He tells the story of the kitchen at Common Grounds, when a group of activists decides all of the meals will be vegan, and how he had to decide that there needed to be more structure, and that a volunteer organization with not money, dependent on donations and feeding people who did not like vegan cuisine, would not work.
Brandon slowly goes through a conversion, from seeing the world in black-and-white terms, authority vs. anarchists, to a more nuanced view of the world, one which views the things going on around him in more complicated terms. Maybe the police, who he once viewed as the enemy, were actually (at least in limited numbers) there to help people. Maybe some of the radical activists, so interested in creating a revolution among the people, actually didn’t have any idea what the people wanted.
Not everyone agreed with Brandon’s thinking at Common Ground, and eventually he left the organization. Which is where the story becomes even more muddled.
At some point, Brandon began to struggle with how other radical activist talked about revolution. While he wanted to help people in critical situations, he was instead being introduced to ideas that sounded violent. And so, in an attempt to help prevent violence from happening, he approached the FBI and agreed to be an informant. Eventually, while traveling with a couple of young men to the Republican National Convention in 2008, through what seems like a complicated set of interactions and deceptions and accidents, finds out (or maybe is the reason why…) they have constructed several Molotov cocktails, explosives made out of wine bottles and gasoline, that they plan to use to disrupt the convention.
But this is where it gets more complicated, because the two young men claim that it was Brandon, working as an informant, that put them up to it. Even when the police finally raid their hotel room, it is only after they did not show up with the explosives where they promised they would. And still they are arrested for the possession of unregistered firearms.
This story could be understood as one man, Brandon Darby, turning from his violent ways to a life of justice, working undercover for the U.S. government. It would sound like what we hear upon first reading of 1 Timothy, that there’s a discernible blasphemous life that gets converted into a clear and visible Christ-like life.
Only the conversions that happen in this story are usually from black-and-white narrow thinking to more nuanced understandings of how forces in the world work. Brandon does not end this story feeling like the unquestioned good guy, who has given his skills and abilities to the right side of the law. He expresses remorse for the men he helped get arrested, and even says that he’s not 100% sure about anything.
Even the narrator continues to switch sides in this story, both sympathizing with Brandon as someone so concerned with doing the right thing that he gets lost along the way, and criticizing him as someone with a “hero complex.”
When reading a passage like 1 Timothy, a book which has been used more than any other to defend a patriarchal and sexist church, it’s good to add a little bit of ambiguity. We don’t fully understand the conversion of the author, and we should be wary of projecting modern day understandings of acceptable behavior on to any part of scripture. Maybe the conversion of the author of Timothy, much like that of Brandon Darby, is not from the wrong side to the right side, but from the world of sides to more complicated perspectives on justice, peace and activism.