Only ten days to Christmas and Sydneysiders were shocked and horrified by the hostage-taking in Downtown Sydney in Martin Place. Our hearts go out to the families of the two hostages who died. The evil that shook the world on 9/11 has now reached Australia.
In dark times like this we find the advice of political leaders and the voices of commentators intent on being helpful, only take us so far. Indeed, when we are confronted with such events, we find that the words of the Bible speak into our lives with wisdom and power.
Retaliation? So it is when we turn to Paul’s Letter to the Romans that we read:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (12:17).
In Romans 12:14-21, Paul sets out four counter-cultural prohibitions expressing the same theme in different words: retaliation and revenge are absolutely forbidden to the followers of Jesus.
Yes, there is a place for the punishment of evil-doers in the law courts, as Paul goes on to say in 13:1-4. But in personal conduct we’re never to get our own back by injuring those who have injured us. Non-retaliation was a very early feature of Christian ethics.
Paul’s ethic is not simply negative for his injunctions include a positive command. We are not to curse but to bless (12:14). We are not to retaliate, but to do what is right and to live in peace (12:17-18). We are not to take revenge but leave this to God; meanwhile we are to serve our enemies (12:19, 20). We are not to be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.
We are called upon to do what is right – good things – in the eyes of everybody. After all it would be inconsistent to refrain from evil if at the same time we’re not actively doing good.
So, in verse 18 we read: If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. To refuse to repay evil is to refuse to inflate a quarrel. But this is not enough. We also have to take the initiative in positive peace-making, even if it is not always possible. Sometimes other people are either not willing to live at peace with us, or they lay down a condition for reconciliation that involves an unacceptable moral compromise.
This does not mean that justice will not be done. Paul continues: 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.’ It is God’s work to avenge, not ours. He will judge, and he will judge justly. The reason personal retaliation is forbidden to us is that judgement is God’s prerogative, not ours.
In the final verses of this remarkable chapter (12:19-21), Paul balances two ideas. We are to leave any necessary punishment to God and get busy in serving our enemy’s welfare. So, we read: “Vengeance is mine says the Lord…” but then, “If your enemy is hungry, feed them…” Our personal responsibility is to love and serve our enemy according to their needs, and genuinely to seek their highest good – thus heaping coals of fire. The coals are intended to heal, not to hurt, to win, not to alienate – in fact to shame them into repentance.
Pray. When you feel angry, pray. Turn the anger into prayers to the one majestic God who is not only all-powerful, but merciful and good, just and victorious.
Paul draws a vital distinction between the duty of private citizens to love and serve the evil-doer, and the duty of public servants – law-makers and judges – as official agents of God’s justice, to bring the evil-doer to trial, and if convicted to punish them. Both principles are seen operating when Jesus died on the cross. On the one hand, ‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate’. On the other, ‘he entrusted himself to him who judges justly’.
John Stott comments:
‘It is even better to be positive, to bless, to do good, to seek peace, and to serve and convert our enemy, because if we thus repay good for evil we reduce the tally of evil in the world, while at the same time increasing the tally of good. To repay evil for evil is to be overcome by it. To repay good for evil is to overcome evil with good. This is the way of the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.’