‘Let no one despise’

In the first epistle to Timothy, the author includes this challenge and encouragement:

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

It’s interesting there that the writer assumes that this will be advice that Timothy will need — that some will, in fact, “despise” his youth. And these despisers, the writer suggests, may well be among “the believers.”

The writer was most likely not actually Paul, but there’s a Paul-esque logic at work there. Don’t let the haters “despise your youth” — it’s wrong for them to do that. But haters gotta hate, so do your best not to give them the slightest excuse. They shouldn’t be so despicable, and it’s not your fault if they insist on doing what they do, but try not to make it easy for them.

[Update: I botched that pretty good. That came across as more or less the opposite of what I intended to say. I'm sorry for doing that. Let me try that again.]

I think the writer of this epistle — who most likely was not the apostle Paul — is echoing a line of argument Paul took in the mini-Sermon on the Mount section of his letter to the Romans. “Live peaceably with all,” Paul wrote.

And then I imagine he stepped back and re-read what he had just written, realizing it was inadequate. It’s a lovely piece of advice — “live peaceably with all” — but it’s not really up to the Roman Christians whether or not they could do this. Paul knew all too well that the world is full of people who refuse to allow you to live peaceably with them — people who are determined not to allow you to live peaceably, period. So then, I imagine, Paul rewrote that section as the passage we have now:

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Paul provided that double qualification to ensure that he avoided the sloppy victim-blaming implications I slipped into in the original version of this post. He was clarifying, emphatically, that “living peaceably with all” isn’t always possible and often doesn’t depend on you. This takes place within the context of that larger passage, which is all about responding to the hostility and evil that Paul assumes and acknowledges to be an unavoidable fact of life for the people he’s writing to.

I think the writer of 1 Timothy is doing something similar here. “Let no one despise your youth,” is a piece of advice that can’t stand alone because it’s not something the reader is responsible for. How, exactly, are you supposed to go about disallowing this? You can’t withdraw permission for something for which you never granted permission to begin with. It’s not up to you whether or not the despicable despisers decide to despise your youth. Despisers despise — it’s what they do, no matter what you do. Youth is just one pretext — one of many concocted, imagined or invented so that they can do what they do. If you’re too old for them to despise your youth, they’ll latch onto whatever other flimsy excuse they can conjure up and go right on despising just the same. It really doesn’t have anything to do with your “letting” it happen.

I think that bit here — “let no one …” — isn’t meant to assign responsibility for this despising to the victim. I think it’s more like the “don’t let” in “don’t let the bastards drag you down.” And that, I think, is what the writer is trying to say to Timothy. It’s also what I’m trying to say here.

The latter half of that passage from 1 Timothy, I think, simply means “you’re better than they are, so remind them of that.” And I think there’s a strong implication there, too, of “rub their noses in it.”

This is another echo from that same passage of Paul’s. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” he wrote. And “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”

Much like all the cheek-turning, extra-mile, also-your-tunic, love-your-enemies business in Jesus’ original Sermon on the Mount, all that overcome-evil-with-good stuff can sound a bit too … well, too something. And a bit not-enough something, too. It seems naive, namby-pamby or ineffectual, or too blithely unconcerned with correcting injustice.

But Paul acknowledges that objection and even affirms it by appealing to that objection as the basis for everything he’s saying. Love your enemies, he says, “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

“Never avenge yourselves,” Paul writes, and then — in the very next sentence — he says, (and here I’m paraphrasing) “I know, I know, you want to heap burning coals on their heads, don’t you? Of course you do. And you should, they deserve it. But this is even worse for them!”

I think that’s the same line of argument that the writer of 1 Timothy is offering.

Don’t let the bastards get you down. And don’t ever let them forget who’s better.

Let no one despise your youth …

Let no one despise your gender …

Let no one despise your sexuality …

Let no one despise your legal status …

Let no one despise your poverty …

Let no one despise your [ ____________ ] …

 

  • Lori

    It’s easy enough to forget that Timothy was coming from a position of privilege in this context, because he and the church he led were all right at the bottom of the social pecking order.  But in the church-hierarchy sense, he was a leader and they weren’t. 

    The thing is, we aren’t talking about the modern church. At that time there really wasn’t much of a hierarchy. There was in-fighting between groups loyal to various apostles and teachers, but none of them had much in the way of authority in the hierarchical sense. Ultimately you can’t lead people who won’t follow you and can’t be forced to do so, so Timothy’s privilege was a pretty thin thing.

  • Ursula L

    The letter gives evidence for at least three levels of functioning hierarchy.  There is the letter writer (called “Paul” but probably not THE Paul), who has appointed Timothy to be the leader in that area.  There is Timothy, a local leader.   And there is Timothy’s congregation, at least some of whom don’t approve of having Timothy as their leader.  

    And this letter is very much about the higher leader giving advice to the lower-level leader.  It’s about asserting leadership, rather than looking at the substance of the congregation’s concerns. 

    The letter begins: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command people…”  The hierarchy may not be formally and fully developed, yet, but it is still there, and this letter is deliberately reinforcing the idea of hierarchy in the church.  

    And one of the tricks of authority is to know to act as if you’re the person who should be in charge, and to act as if you have the right to be in charge.  That’s what the letter writer is telling Timothy to do.  Timothy is there to command, not to serve.  

    “They’re just jealous because you’re young, you’re white, you’re a man, etc.” is a way of dismissing the concerns of those questioning authority.  The 99% are just jealous of the 1%.  In a communication from one person in authority to another person in authority, as this letter is, I wouldn’t take the authority’s dismissal of the congregation’s concerns as telling the whole story, not without hearing from the ordinary members of the congregation in their own words.  

  • Anonymous

    Living well is the best revenge.

  • FangsFirst

    Yes, life is that crappy, when you’re disabled and counting your spoons,
    or when you’re oppressed and counting you’re forks.  That you can
    imagine spare forks at the end of the day shows your privilege - you
    live a life that throws you few enough problems that you aren’t
    routinely burned out by dealing with them.

    I have plenty of privilege but almost no energy. So, except when I carefully arrange my life so that I don’t have to have any real interaction with other people, I’m only imagining forks left. Though sure, I have one left here or there when I stay in all day and don’t interact at all.

    And all I can ever figure is basically that makes me a worthless human
    being, because I can’t deal with the world as it is despite having
    privileges and advantages. Which isn’t intended to make you feel bad. Or to be sarcastic. Or to suggest I have it bad. As best I can figure that’s just how it is: I have privileges and advantages and am just shy of suicidal and that just makes me even worse as a person.

    Which is the whole reason I originally intended not to get involved in this conversation at all. But I have an impulsive need to try to broker peace and understanding and find common ground and things like that, so…hell. I suppose I deserved both responses anyway.

    Thanks for not being a jerk about it, though.

  • Ursula L

    Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  I messed that up badly, didn’t I.  

  • Anonymous

    I meant my post to be in support of your point, not as a takedown of your point. Not that my intent means jack. I’m sorry.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right, the point isn’t primarily to keep the haters off your back. 
    The point is to be a good human being, and I take the epistle’s meaning to be “direct your efforts towards what matters, rather than towards what foolish critics think matters.”

    I realize that it’s a lot harder, if not impossible, to do this when people are obsessed with your skin color, your sexual orientation, your religion, your gender.

  • FangsFirst

    Intent maybe doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean anything to most people, but it does mean something to me. I have the greatest difficulty intimating it, out of all the things people communicate. It has a little kind of ‘magic’ for me, personally, I guess.

    So I do appreciate that comment, sincerely. Thank you for taking the time to mention it. (PS: my final comment to Ursula was not intended as contrast, to say she was not a jerk and you were or something. I didn’t feel terribly “attacked” on either front.)

  • FangsFirst

    Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  I messed that up badly, didn’t I.

    For the record, please do not feel bad for this or anything. Nothing you need to make right. I’d say, “Sorry is enough,” but that implies I think I deserved an apology (which has no effect on whether you think I did, so if you did, then it is graciously accepted).

  • Anonymous

    “They’re just jealous because you’re young, you’re white, you’re a man, etc.” is a way of dismissing the concerns of those questioning authority.

    Is that what’s being said here, though?  “Don’t let them despise you” is not the same as “they’re just jealous because…”.  We come from a culture which often privileges the young over the old, but Timothy and Letter Writer (can we call her Paulina?) come from a culture where age and wisdom are privileged over youth and energy.

    I agree that there is a hierarchy implied in the letter, but I think Lori has a point about it being a new and possibly vulnerable hierarchy in an organisation that had not yet solidified into a formal shape.

    I have privileges and advantages and am just shy of suicidal and that just makes me even worse as a person.

    No.  No it doesn’t make you a bad person, let alone even worse as a person.  Privileges don’t ensure an easy life, and they don’t devalue your concerns or your struggles or anything about you.  I have tons of privilege – I reek of the stuff – and my mother’s family have even more – and while in some ways it can make it easier to cope with some things, it does not and never meant that any of us can avoid depression or plain old ordinary misery or lack of energy or any of the other nasty stuff that saps the joy out of life.  And that doesn’t make any of us – or you – a failure or a bad person.

  • Ursula L

    Is that what’s being said here, though?  “Don’t let them despise you” is not the same as “they’re just jealous because…”.  We come from a culture which often privileges the young over the old, but Timothy and Letter Writer (can we call her Paulina?) come from a culture where age and wisdom are privileged over youth and energy.

    I agree that there is a hierarchy implied in the letter, but I think Lori has a point about it being a new and possibly vulnerable hierarchy in an organisation that had not yet solidified into a formal shape.

    We really don’t know why the congregation is complaining, because we have only the hierarchy’s side of the story.  But we do know that they are complaining.  

    And we know that they have a right to complain, and to have opinions, even negative opinions, about their leaders.  And we know that leadership dismissing the concerns of the people they think they’re “above” is a chronic problem. 

    And even if the hierarchy is new and vulnerable, that doesn’t make it good.  And it doesn’t make hierarchy good in general, or something that shouldn’t be vulnerable.    This letter is very much a piece of establishing a hierarchy, of shutting down dissent (Timothy is to command “false prophets” to stop teaching, women to be quiet, etc.) and establishing inequality (leaders versus congregation) over equality.  If the hierarchy is vulnerable, it should be vulnerable to dissent, and shifting from tolerance of diversity to conformity is a negative step that needs to be undermined.  

    What we have, and all we have, is advice from one leader, to a subordinate leader, about what to do when there are complaints from the people they believe they have the right to lead.   That is how the writer identifies the relationships, both between himself and Timothy and between Timothy and the congregation.  The letter-writer put Timothy there to command.

    We don’t necessarily have advice for what to do about illegitimate complaints, because we don’t know enough about the complaints to know whether or not they are legitimate. 

    We don’t necessarily have advice for someone who is oppressed on how to deal with oppression, because we have no way of knowing if the complaints are legitimate or if there is actual oppression going on.

    And without knowing whether the congregation’s complaints are legitimate, without even knowing what they are, it is a misreading to take advice that is explicitly for someone in a leadership position and read it as if it is advice for people who are powerless.

    Because it’s a form of victim blaming to expect people who are powerless to have the resources to follow advice for people with authority.  

    “People doubt your leadership skills, so show them you’re capable of leading well” is practical advice for someone in a hierarchical system who is newly appointed to a position of authority.

    “People are oppressing you, show them that you’re better than they are” is another burden for the oppressed.  Likewise “people are oppressing you, so you have the extra burden of having to treat them extra-nice.” 

    Pretty much the only thing we know about the power dynamics involved is that the letter writer considers himself (and I think it is fair to say “himself” since he instructs women to be quiet) superior to Timothy, and Timothy to be superior to the people who are complaining about Timothy’s leadership.

  • Anonymous

    Privileges don’t ensure an easy life, and they don’t devalue your concerns or your struggles or anything about you.  I have tons of privilege – I reek of the stuff – and my mother’s family have even more

    The whole point of the excercise, I’d say, is to increase the level of privilege in the world.  It depends in part on how one defines priviledge of course… Not in the sense of ‘advantage over others’ but in an absolute sense.  The priviledge to buy a new video game without having to worry about the budget, or the priviledge to have your opinions acknowledged… (This category overlaps a bit with rights (or things that should be rights anyways…)

    “People are oppressing you, show them that you’re better than they are” is another burden for the oppressed.

    If you turn around and treat them just as badly, then it’ll quickly become nothing more than a cycle of revenge… atrocity met with atrocity in a perputual circle of annihilation.  It’s not a duty of the oppressed to ‘show them that you’re better than they are’.  It’s a duty of everyone to be better than the oppressor.

  • Ursula L

    If you turn around and treat them just as badly, then it’ll quickly become nothing more than a cycle of revenge… atrocity met with atrocity in a perputual circle of annihilation.  It’s not a duty of the oppressed to ‘show them that you’re better than they are’.  It’s a duty of everyone to be better than the oppressor. 

    Being better by not oppressing, certainly.  

    But you don’t deal with oppressors by simply treating them kindly.  You call them out on their inappropriate behavior. If there are laws against the type of oppression they’re doing, you use those laws.  You protest.  You demonstrate.  

    People don’t stop oppressing, don’t give up prejudice, if the people being oppressed just take it.  If people are prejudiced and oppressing, they won’t give justice to the people they’re treating badly just for the fun of it.  Segregation laws weren’t ended because black people were so nice to white people, laws and policies against harassment weren’t created because people being harassed were kind to those harassing them.  

    The way to deal with oppression is to demand justice.  

    The advice here is lousy for dealing with oppression, but well tailored to someone new to a position of authority establishing themself. 


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