“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1Peter 3:9). “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Having just heard from our Lord Jesus Christ, St Peter and St Paul, we can be quite certain of the truth of these words. It may be, however, that we hesitate to put them into practice, finding them not only impractical but downright inconvenient—and perhaps even a bit irksome, if we dare to be honest about it. Yet I think we may have to conclude that the sorry state of today’s world (including our own inner worlds) has very much to do with the neglect or refusal to incorporate these inspired words into our world-view and daily behavior.
Sure, there are some apparently cogent arguments for not living according to these words, and there may in fact be certain beneficial objectives that could possibly be obtained without explicit reference to them. But the goal of the Gospel is not merely a happy, secure, comfortable earthly life, or an “end justifies the means” approach to achieving our objectives. The goal is nothing less than eternal salvation, which was won for us by the ultimate sacrifice of One who loved his enemies, blessed those who cursed Him, did not return evil for evil, and overcame it with good.
Since I derived the title of this reflection from Romans 12, I’d like to take a closer look. This single chapter is kind of a compendium of Christian behavior (as is Colossians 3 and a few other rich chapters of the New Testament). If we had no Scripture but Romans 12, we’d still have a pretty good idea of how a Christian ought to live. “Present yourself as a living sacrifice to God… Do not be conformed to this world [or, this age]… we are one body in Christ… Let love be genuine… serve the Lord… be patient in tribulation, persevere in prayer… Repay no one evil for evil… live peaceably with all… never avenge yourself… overcome evil with good.” Perhaps some of these seem like too-general counsels, but the practical applications will become clear—when the inner attitude of blessing and charity, and the commitment to doing good, come what may, are firmly in place.
All change, all transformation, has to begin with individuals. Corrupt people cannot purify a corrupt society. So we—even though imperfect—must nevertheless strive for the perfection the Gospel enjoins, and labor to put into practice the words of the Holy Scriptures. “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’” writes St Paul. He was not wearing rose-colored glasses; the very fact that he mentions vengeance and wrath means he is quite aware of the evil and injustice in the world. But what God is saying here is “Vengeance is mine—not yours.” When there must be retribution for evil (and let us be aware that not all injustices will be fully redressed before the Day of Reckoning), God has his ways of doing it, and we trust that He will. We can make ourselves available to co-operate with Him—but never to second-guess His wisdom or try to take the reins from the hand of the Almighty.
Paul goes on: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.” So, if you want to heap burning coals on your enemy’s head, fine—just don’t do it by actually heaping burning coals on his head! Do it by overcoming evil with good, for thus they will be put to shame before God. Our goal should not be to utterly destroy our enemies, for God desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1Timothy 2:3-4), so we ought to desire their enlightenment, change of heart, and salvation.
Again, this sounds quite impractical in real-world situations. But just what is the real world? Is it that which is presented to us by the media? Recall a bit of the famous speech from the old movie, Network: “But, man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us … We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night … We’re all you know! You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here! You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality…” We form opinions about world events without really knowing what is going on, relying on the TV or the papers. Perhaps we can’t always know what goes on behind the scenes. But the Gospel applies whether we have all the details straight or not. We must exercise both charity and discernment, always listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit to guide us to the whole truth in any given situation—to guide us also in the way of responding to the serious issues of our time according to God’s will. Many have, sadly, conformed themselves entirely to this world, this age, so full of deception and manipulation of people and events in order to preserve the interests of the high and mighty—but the Magnificat reminds us that God is planning a great reversal of the accepted ways of this world.
The logic of the Kingdom of God is not the logic of this world. Paul has made that clear in the first two chapters of First Corinthians. Jesus confronts the confusion and treachery of a fallen world with the wisdom of the Cross. Thus his response to the evil in the world was not mass destruction but sacrificial love. That’s because there is a hidden power in love (that He Himself has hidden there), which is stronger than the violence of hatred and revenge. Few want to believe that, because people are afraid that the way of the Gospel might not be instantly effective. They don’t want to risk looking weak or vulnerable, since the logic of this world says “might makes right.” Jesus wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses, either, when He said, “Father, forgive them.” Rather, He was wearing a blood-stained robe. He knew precisely the extent of their evil and malice, for He bore it all in his own body and soul. Jesus did not shrink from speaking the hard truth to evildoers, calling them to change their ways—but He did it without hatred, without forceful imposition.
Hear what Dostoevsky says about the power of humble love: “At some thoughts one stands perplexed—especially at the sight of men’s sin—and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that, once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it. Every day and every hour, every minute, walk around yourself and watch yourself, and see that your image is a seemly one. If you pass by a little child, and pass by spitefully, with ugly words or wrathful heart, you may not notice the child, but he will see you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenseless heart. You may not know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him, and it may grow, all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself an active, benevolent love. Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is hard to acquire; it is dearly bought; it is won by slow, long labor… (The Brothers Karamazov).
Our ability—or our lack thereof—to bless, to love, to forgive, to refrain from violence, will have a “ripple effect” for good or evil throughout the Body of Christ and even the whole world. The greed and lust and aggression that are in the world today began with unrighteous movements of individual hearts, with bad examples, seeds of evil secretly planted, and the careless words by which we all shall be judged (see Matthew 12:36-37).
The transformation of the world into a place of peace and righteousness can only be a work of divine grace, a work that begins in the hearts of people who refuse to repay evil for evil, and who choose to overcome evil with good. The Bible should not be absent from the negotiating tables of world leaders. Things will never change, really, when merely human solutions, however well-intentioned, are proposed or implemented. “Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do the builders labor” (Ps 127). That is because there is only one Creator and Lord, and his world functions optimally only according to his design and will. All the ingenuity of man will end up producing only suffering, chaos, despair and death if it is not submitted to the guiding power of the Holy Spirit. It cannot be any other way, for “the world is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24). And the way that the Lord wants us to deal with the evil that sin has unleashed in his world is to overcome it with good.