Monday 12 September 2016

Overcoming Evil

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:17-21

We don’t have to go too many days without coming across a story of revenge – some variation on the spurned lover who cuts off the sleeves of their ex’s clothes and gives their silver car a coat of red gloss paint. Many books and films are driven by a revenge-type plot, building up the tension until the bad guys gets their comeuppance, with the sense of relief that brings. There seems to be endemic in humans a desire for personal justice that is powerful and potentially deadly.

Certainly that was the case in first-century Rome. In Reading Romans in Pompeii, Peter Oakes invites us to imagine how Paul’s letter might have sounded to a mixed group of people meeting in the rented workshop of Holconius the cabinet-maker. If Holconius’s daughter was mugged by a known criminal in the neighbourhood, Holconius could expect to muster up a group from the congregation, go to the man’s house, beat him up, and take back any belongings – in revenge.

But Paul wants Christians to find different ways of dealing with vengeance, different ways of handling people who wrong us.

It feels like it’s a way of passive acquiescence, but it’s not. The negative commands – ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’, ‘do not take revenge’, ‘do not be overcome by evil’ – are balanced with positive ones – ‘be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone... live at peace with everyone’, ‘leave room for God’s wrath... feed [your enemy]... give him something to drink’, ‘overcome evil with good’. These actions require us to be proactive; they place the initiative with us.

That makes sense. Most of us have to work hard at not coming back with the snide comment, not wanting to get ahead of that car that undercut us, not firing off that passive-aggressive email. Revenge keeps evil in circulation, whether in a family or on a motorway or between nations.

Loving our enemies in tangible ways (‘feed him... give him something to drink’) seems so counter-intuitive. And it is. But no less counter-intuitive than what we see in the cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, even ‘while we were God’s enemies’ (Romans 5:10). It’s there we see a different way of responding to hostility. In seeking to overcome evil, how could we not expect to be called to do the same?

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