Overcoming Evil with Good (a sermon for Remembrance Day on Romans 12:9-21)
This sermon was preached by Tim Chesterton, Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network Vice-Chair, at the recent Prayer Service for Peace at McDougall United Church on Remembrance Day, November 11th 2015. In the light of subsequent events it seems appropriate to post it online to make it available to a wider readership.
This is I think the sixth time we’ve held this prayer service on Remembrance Day, and this year we are probably even more aware than we were last year of danger and terror and violence, both around the world and here in our own country.
This service is sponsored by the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network, of which Scott and I are the chair and vice-chair. Our network has described itself as ‘a community of Christians who believe that violence and war are incompatible with the teaching of Jesus’. We don’t have all the answers about how that basic principle should be applied, but there is no doubt that we want it to inform everything that we do and say about war and peace. We’re glad to connect with lovers of peace in all faiths and traditions, and we are especially concerned to direct the attention of Christians to some of the teachings in our Scriptures which are often neglected today: I’m talking about the words of Jesus and his early followers about nonviolence, about loving our enemies, and – as we heard from the Apostle Paul a moment ago – about not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good.
When the issue of nonviolence and love of enemies comes up, people inevitably raise questions like ‘What should Canada do about ISIS?’ ‘What should we have done about Hitler?’ and so on. And of course this is nothing new. In the fourth century A.D. the question St. Augustine was wrestling with was ‘What should a Christian empire do about the barbarian invaders?’ In the eighteenth and nineteenth century Christian pacifists in England would have been confronted with the question ‘What should we do about the murderous French?’ And of course the same sort of question was asked on both sides in the First and Second World Wars.
I don’t mind having those discussions, but I think that for most of us, if we’re not careful, they can sometimes function as a distraction from the personal question: ‘What should I do?’ How can I put into practice the teaching we heard from St. Paul tonight: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’? Not Canada, not the government, but me? What does it mean for me, in practical terms, when I meet my neighbour who looks different from me, who has different beliefs than me? What about when I am insulted, attacked or persecuted in some way? How can I respond in such a way as not to add to the sum total of evil in the world, but to advance the cause of good instead? This is where the rubber really hits the world, and this is where the individual can make a difference.
I don’t know if any of you here will remember Jim Fixx’s book The Complete Book of Running. Jim Fixx was a running guru of the 1970s and his book was very popular. Here’s one of my favourite stories from that book:
At a recent meeting attended by several hundred specialists interested in scientific aspects of the sport (many of them runners themselves), a psychiatrist told of an incident in which a solitary runner was heckled by a carload of teenagers. The runner overtook the car at a traffic light. Holding a steady pace, he took one heavy step on the car’s trunk, another on the roof, and a third on the hood – leaving three great dents to mark his passage.
Fixx doesn’t say what happened next, although we assume that the runner took off down a side street while the teenagers were fuming helplessly at the traffic light! But Fixx concludes his story by saying, ‘The assembled specialists gave the story a standing ovation’.
I laugh whenever I read that story, and I would probably have joined in the standing ovation. I can sympathize instinctively with the runner’s annoyance, and his desire for retribution. It’s something we’ve all felt, and will probably feel again too.
But while we’re laughing, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the suffering that this human drive for vengeance causes around the world. Let’s think about Israel and Palestine, where for half a century bombing has been followed by retribution which has been followed by more retribution over and over again, with no side willing to break the cycle for fear of being thought weak by the other. Let’s think about 9/11, and let’s remember that in the minds of those who perpetrated this unspeakable atrocity, their action probably was an act of retaliation for the evils they felt the West had inflicted on their societies. Let’s think about Northern Ireland, where over thirty years of violence had its roots in actions which happened centuries ago. What was particularly tragic about that situation was that the perpetrators claimed the name of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ and invoked the name of Jesus to bless their violence – the same Jesus who refused to take vengeance on his enemies, and who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. This tragic story plays itself out again and again in our human experience, because there are almost always survivors who feel the need for revenge, and so the story goes on, as people pay back evil for evil, over and over and over again.
Our scripture reading for today deals directly with this issue of paying back evil for evil. The Apostle Paul is writing to Christians in the city of Rome in the middle of the first century A.D.; the church in Rome is probably quite a small community at that time, and it certainly has no power. State-sponsored persecution of Christians probably hasn’t happened yet, but it’s only a few years in the future. Very likely, individual Christians have already faced some personal attacks and insults because of their refusal to participate in the worship of idols and the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. Possibly, although we can’t say for sure, some have already been injured or killed in those attacks.
Paul is trying to help these Roman Christians put the teaching of Christ into practice in their lives, even in the face of persecution. Central to this, of course, is always the command to love. ‘Let love be genuine’, he says in verses 9-10. ‘Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour’. In the next chapter, he’s going to tell them to ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments’ “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; you shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13:8-10).
But we often misunderstand what Paul is saying here, because we’re familiar with his vocabulary but we aren’t familiar with his dictionary. To us, the word ‘love’ primarily describes a feeling, but in the Bible it doesn’t. The word Paul uses in the original language describes actions; it’s about doing what’s best for the other person, helping them, being a blessing to them, no matter how we feel about them.
I was a teenager in England in the 1970s, and my morning job was delivering newspapers. Newspaper delivery works a little differently in England than it does here; deliverers are employed by a newsagent’s store, not by an individual newspaper. I was the relief boy; it was my job to get to the store by about 7 a.m. and then fill in for anyone who was sick or otherwise unable to work that morning; if no one was off sick, I helped out around the store until about eight o’clock. So I got to be good friends with my boss, Ian, and we often waxed philosophical as we were sorting newspapers behind the counter.
One morning when I got there, the papers were full of stories of a bombing in London the day before; IRA terrorists had planted a bomb in a pub, and a lot of people had been killed or injured. Ian and I were reading the stories, and then he said to me, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian like you, because you’re supposed to love your enemies, and there’s no way I could love people who did things like that”.
Well, I was young, and I didn’t really have an answer for him at the time, but I know how I would answer him now. I would say, “If love is a feeling, then you’re absolutely right; there’s no way I can sit around and work up a good feeling toward people who do those kinds of things. But in our Scriptures love is about actions, not feelings, and that’s an entirely different matter”.
How does Paul describe love in our passage for today? He does it by quoting from the Book of Proverbs: ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (12:20). This is something I can do; whether I like someone or approve of what they’re doing or not, I can get them a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I can spend time with them and listen to them. I can be there for them when they’re going through difficult times. I can remember at all times that they are a human being made in the image of God, and I can treat them as God treats them; as Jesus says, ‘He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45).
So this is the basic principle Paul gives us: love your neighbour as you love yourself. Love them in action, whether you feel like it or not, because in doing so, you are imitating the God who created both you and them.
He goes on to apply this specifically to the issue of those who injure us, and he tells us first of all not to take revenge. Verses 14 and 17 say, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil’. One of my vivid childhood memories is the phrase ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’. If I heard it once, I probably heard it a thousand times, because my brother and I were always fighting each other! My Mum would say, “Don’t hit him”, and I would reply “He hit me first!” Up would come her finger and she would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”
Paul gives a simple and direct reason for this command: in taking revenge we are usurping the role of God. ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”’ (v.19). God alone knows all the details and all the motives of the human heart; God alone is the one who can be trusted to act with perfect justice and mercy. To take it on ourselves to take revenge is to claim to be God, and it’s a fundamental principle of the life of faith that God is God and I am not!
But our response is not just a negative one, the absence of revenge. Rather, we’re to be proactive, taking the initiative to love and do good to those who hate us. And so as we’ve seen, Paul says ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’. In other words, take a look at this person who hates you. What needs do they have? Is there some way you can be a minister of God to them in their need? As William Barclay says, ‘The only real way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend’. This is the way we’re to take the offensive against our enemies; not with the sword or the gun, but with hands that serve and hearts that love. Paul sums it all up by saying ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (v.20).
A moving story about this comes from the era of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. At one meeting early in their work, the Commission gathered to reach a verdict on a particularly brutal case involving an elderly woman. A group of white police officers, led by a Mr. van de Broek, admitted their personal responsibility in the death of her eighteen-year old son. They acknowledged shooting him, setting his body on fire, and partying around the fire until the body had been reduced to ashes. Eight years later, the same officers took the woman’s husband into captivity. The woman was forced to watch while the officers doused her husband with gasoline and then ignited a fire. The last words her husband spoke to her, in the midst of the blazing pyre, were ‘Forgive them’.
Now the time had come for justice to be served. Those involved had confessed their guilt, and the Commission turned to the woman for a final statement regarding her desire for an appropriate punishment.
“I want three things”, the woman said calmly. “I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.
“Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can be a mother to him.
“Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. And, I would like someone to come and lead me by the hand to where Mr. van de Broek is so that I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real”.
As the elderly woman made her way across the silent courtroom, van de Broek reportedly fainted, overcome by emotion. And then the silence was broken when someone began singing, ‘Amazing Grace’. Others soon picked up the words of the familiar hymn, so that finally the entire courtroom was joining in song.
The person who started the singing, of course, had identified the reason why we are to act in this way. God is a God of amazing grace, who has chosen to forgive us, not to take vengeance on us. The Christian faith teaches that God is the best of fathers to us; well, then, as children of God, we are called to imitate what our Father does.
This is our calling as members of the community of faith. So let us pray tonight for strength to live this out in the little actions of our daily lives, not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good, so that the world will see in us the face of the God of love.