Conquer Evil With Good
Once again, we are challenged in this Sacred Scripture passage with a whole new way of thinking and acting in the world. I can imagine that these words were as stunning to the Romans who heard them firsthand as they are still to us. The Roman world was no less violent or capable of unwarranted injustices as ours is today. Remember, when Paul writes this the crucifixion is still a vivid in the memories of living witnesses. And it would not be long before Roman emperors would begin ordering persecutions against this new Christian religion. Even still, Paul, who has already undergone tortures for his faith, writes:
ʺDo not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if our enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.ʺ (Romans 12: 17-21)
This is not a wisdom from this world, is it. Indeed, the wisdom of this world would call these words insane, irrational, and foolish. The fact of the matter is that many of us would probably agree with the world when it comes to the horrendous violence and injustices that are going on in the world around us. We would say, after all, that we have a right to defend ourselves from those who would do violence against us. We would say, as the world so often says, ʺThey don’t understand anything but force.ʺ ʺGet them before they get us.ʺ
We have our philosophical and moral arguments to back up our arguments too, like ‘just war theories.’ There are also the identifiable ethical philosophies to call upon. For example, there is the utilitarian ethic that argues that, ʺThe ends justify the means.ʺ This ethical position does not concern itself with whether a particular means is either moral or immoral, good or bad, until the consequences begin to arise. This is the most common ethic in the world today. It is appealed to by business, by politics, and to defend all kinds of social behaviors. Then there is the ethic known as the Natural Law, which states that in every case, every means chosen to achieve a morally good end must also be morally good. Of these the closest one to the Law of God is the last one, the Natural Law. But even it is not as demanding as what Paul writes under the influence of the Holy Spirit here in this passage. Let us look at the passage bit by bit.
We, generally, have no problem with the verses about feeding the hungry and giving something to drink to the thirsty. These are relatively easy things to agree to and to do. We remember here what Jesus told the disciples in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel verses 34-46. ʺAmen, I say to you, whatever you did for the least brothers of mine, you did for me.ʺ (Matthew 25: 40) We understand these actions as being ʺdoable.ʺ If, that is, the hungry person, the one who is thirsty, is not our ‘enemy.’ In our human weakness or lack of faith, we can get caught up in the attitudes of self-concern that would prevent us from doing these things. We might even be tempted to be self-righteous, thinking that their condition is due to their own fault, not mine, or that they deserve what they get. We know what happens as a result of this kind of thinking and acting too. ʺAmen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.ʺ (Matthew 25: 45-46) When we experience the other as our ‘enemy,’ we don’t even put them in the category of being one of the least of Jesus’ brothers. They are beyond the pale. They do not even deserve to be considered among the human race.
ʺThe enemy.ʺ That is the troubling element of this passage. The enemy and the evil that we associate with that term. But here Paul, writing in the Spirit, tells us what God wants of us in these matters. He writes: ʺRather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink, for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.ʺ This is in reference to his earlier admonition to not seek revenge, to leave that to God. Why? Because, in seeking revenge, it is our soul that is in danger of damnation. Rather, he encourages us to, ʺbe concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.ʺ In treating the enemy as a human being and never losing sight of that fact, he will burn with the knowledge that he or she has failed to do so with you. That might cause an unrepentant soul to burn further with unquenchable resentment. On the other hand, if the soul of our ‘enemy’ burned with the shame of having failed in his or her humanity, might that become the cause of his or her repentance, and his or her turning to God? That, I suspect, is the wisdom of God here. In treating our enemy in the way that Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, suggests, might be God’s way of saving that person’s soul through our actions.
That is what is meant by the final verse, I believe. ʺDo not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.ʺ God is challenging us to refuse to give in to evil, to sink into the same pit with it, but rather, to remain above evil by remaining faithful to our true, good, God-given human nature. In doing so not only will our own souls be saved, but we may very well become the instruments through which God saves another soul. With God on our side we can do this, if we remain faithful to Jesus commandment to love one another as he loved us, even if it means that we must suffer, or even die. But if we do suffer and die honoring the commandment of love, we can be assured that we will be welcomed into the heavenly kingdom. Here again is another proof that we are saved by, selling everything (especially our egos), picking up our crosses, and following the only one worth following, Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Prince of Peace. What a glorious thought that is!