This morning’s text from Romans reads sort of like a laundry list: Let love be genuine and mutual, hate evil, hold fast to good. Show honor, do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit. Have hope, patience, and prayerful perseverance. Act with generosity and hospitality. Bless, rejoice, weep, live in harmony, do not seek revenge, feed enemies, overcome evil. Phew! That’s a lot of stuff to do.
However, Paul’s list is not a disjointed set of expectations. It has a theme—what love looks like in the lives of Jesus’ followers. This love isn’t only, or primarily, a feeling. This love is a verb. Christ-like love takes action in ever-widening circles—love for friends, family, church and community, love for strangers and enemies.
I recently watched the film Just Mercy, which is about the life and career of attorney Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has spent thirty years defending prisoners on death row in Alabama. I was intrigued by how Stevenson related to those who considered themselves his enemies. A local court denied Stevenson’s first attempt to win a new trial for Walter MacMillian, a black man convicted of murder on the basis of false, coerced testimony. Stevenson appealed to the Alabama supreme court, which ruled that MacMillian must be given a new trial. At this point, Stevenson went to the home of the District Attorney, Tom Chapman, and rang his doorbell.
The interaction was tense and hostile. This was not the first time Stevenson had appealed to Chapman about MacMillian’s case. Stevenson ignored the prosecutor’s threats explaining that he came by because he was hoping that Chapman would join him in a motion he planned to file, a motion to dismiss all charges against his client. Chapman screamed at Stevenson to get off his property. The two next met in the courtroom. Stevenson stated his case for the dismissal of charges. The D. A. got up and began to his refutation of the motion. And then he paused. With an uncertain look on his face, he asked to approach the bench. He said to the judge, “Your honor, I am troubled.” Finally, he turned to the whole courtroom and declared that he would join the motion for the charges be dismissed.
Stevenson’s treatment of Tom Chapman is a powerful example of Paul’s teaching about love for enemies. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” The sort of love Paul describes is certainly not about warm feelings. I do not think that Stevenson liked Chapman. He loved Chapman in a confrontational way. He loved him by pointing out his hypocrisy. He loved him by holding him accountable to a shared moral compass. He loved him by expecting that this adversary would eventually choose to do the right thing. Loving enemies is not a purely self-giving gesture. It is also an act of self-care. The truth is, seeking revenge traps us in an ever-escalating cycle of violence that is dangerous for us and everyone around us. And loving enemies is a strategic choice, as we see in Just Mercy. By appealing to the conscience of his enemies, Stevenson achieved more than an isolated win. He opened space for real change. He initiated a monumental shift in entrenched dynamics of power.
This part of today’s text from Romans is difficult: “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’s troubling that the author of Deuteronomy presents us with a God of wrath and revenge and that Paul chooses to quote and reinforce this teaching. I do believe that when we collaborate with evil, there are natural consequences. And God is not morally neutral. God makes judgements about what is right and wrong and holds us accountable. God urges us to repair the harm we’ve done and to change our ways. And yet, I would not describe this posture of God as “wrathful” or “vengeful.” I would argue that Paul is simply incorrect. And that our reading of the Bible has to be done in a holistic way. What is the prevailing message? And is any particular passage aligned with that message or out of sync with it? There are many more passages in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament that portray God as merciful, kind, and full of steadfast love and forgiveness. I believe that is the real biblical God. At the same time, I find this verse interesting, because despite its problematic characterization of God, that’s not the real point of its rhetoric. The point is: taking revenge is not our job, as humans. People of faith and conscience must choose a different way forward.
Paul draws advice from the book Proverbs about what to do instead of repaying evil for evil. “No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Nobody quite knows where this imagery comes from or what it means. My guess is a heap of burning coals on the head is a metaphor for the heat and discomfort an enemy might feel when their conscience is awakened. Showing respect for an adversary’s humanity and human needs may cause them to feel a sense of distress about violent or destructive behavior and motivate them to consider changing their minds and their ways.
Paul’s final words offer a summary of his teaching on the ways of love. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Our congregation’s theme statement for the coming year acknowledges that we are navigating multiple global pandemics, interconnected evils that threaten to overcome us and the earth itself: “COVID-19, climate change, and racial injustice.” For myself, the effect of these pandemics is a persistent sense of sadness and stress. I am aware that these feelings are manifesting themselves in destructive ways: as irritability in my interactions with my family; as tension and pain in my body. On this very personal level, it’s tempting to give in and give up, to allow myself to be overcome. I know I need be intentional instead about choosing what is good for me and for those around me.
We face the challenge collectively, too. An article in the latest Christian Century magazine by Episcopal priest Martha Tatarnic caught my eye. “What if Covid-19 changes nothing?” she asks. She writes:
“We’ll be different after this”—we have said this in response to 9/11, to mass shootings, to floods and hurricanes and forest fires, to the slaying of unarmed black men by police. And then we keep operating as if each of these events hasn’t clearly spoken into the business-as-usual of our lives and demanded a response.
Tatarnic notes that she views these times as apocalyptic. She explains:
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan was once asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. His insightful response reflected the conviction of his Christian faith: “I am not an optimist or a pessimist. I’m an apocalyptic.” Christians have always been invited to consider apocalyptic thought as fundamentally hopeful. It is a stripping away of the lies we tell ourselves, a revealing of what is true—and then it is a call to change. It is the affirmation that we have the God-given capacity to turn our lives away from the lies and back toward the truth. (July 29, 2020 issue)
The truth is, despite all evidence to the contrary, we are made for love, the active and all-encompassing sort of love that Christ models and gives us the power to live. We are made for love as a daily practice that infuses all that we do and think and say. Love that is genuine, honorable, ardent, full of zeal, and hospitable, even to strangers; love that is generous, prayerful, and empathetic; love that stands in solidarity with the joys and sorrows of others’ love that feeds enemies and quenches their thirst; love that is faithful to our humanity and the humanity of our adversaries; love that shifts power dynamics and makes change; love that, despite all odds, overcomes evil with good, in both mundane and miraculous ways. Amen.