‘Ask God to bless those who persecute you—yes, ask him to bless, not to curse. Be happy with those who are happy, weep with those who weep. Have the same concern for everyone. Do not be proud, but accept humble duties. Do not think of yourselves as wise. If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody. Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God’s anger do it. For the scripture says, “I will take revenge, I will pay back”, says the Lord. Instead, as the scripture says: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them a drink; for by doing this you will make them burn with shame.” Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.’ – Romans 12:14-21
At church recently we were praying for the persecuted church, and were asked to pick out a reading to share; this was mine. There are obviously terrible, inexcusably evil things happening in the world but we just cannot stoop to revenge, or even wishing revenge (in my church homegroup the same week we read Matthew 5; ‘do not murder but do not even call someone worthless…’. Some of these words of Jesus are quoted in the Romans passage). This obviously applies to personal relationships; we see the vicious cycle revenge creates even in the school playground. It isn’t much of a leap to apply it to our own communities and stand up against racism and revenge attacks on refugees and Muslims here in the wake of reports of recent terrorist attacks around the world. But I honestly think it applies on every scale, even to international politics.
These words were not written in a safer world; they were written to Christians being persecuted so horrifically the existence of the Church itself was under threat. Read the stories of the early Christian martyrs, and you’ll hear of the most disgusting acts of brutality, much of which was even state-sanctioned. If these words applied to that situation, they apply now.
We are taught to overcome evil with good. No-one is pure evil – everyone is human. The acts a person does may be pure evil, we see plenty of examples on the news. But the perpetrators are still human. Jesus does not leave us room to hate them or wish evil back upon them. But He does leave room for them, as for all of us, to turn away from their wrongs, be saved, and become people who actively work for good. Killing an enemy is inconsistent with this.
Ultimately revenge doesn’t even work, it just spawns more revenge, even if it pops up in a different form. We can’t kill an enemy into submission; we create anger, martyrdom, and desire for revenge against our own revenge. We increase hatred and division, causing our enemies to want even more to wipe us out when all they see of us is our revenge and hatred and ungodliness. Revenge makes martyrs, fuels anger, and can stir up the wrath of an entire community when it accidentally or deliberately falls on the innocent. Even when well targeted, people rarely recognise the taste of their own medicine; more often, it simply fuels their sense of self-righteousness and justifies more violence in response. Again, I genuinely think this applies not only to personal relationships but also to international politics. Revenge, call it what you like, has the same multiplying effect. It’s easy and produces temporary results, but the long-term effect is increased hostility, suspicion and hatred.
It is an evil that can defeat us all. We can’t eradicate evil by violence; even if we wiped out all our enemies we’d still not have world peace. We’d have to eradicate our friends and ultimately ourselves too for that to work, as we’d find anger, hatred, violence and division springing up there too; the problem is the human condition, not a particular people group or ideology *.
Revenge doesn’t work. The only way to peace is to identify and resist revenge. To do the hard work, catching and bringing to justice wrongdoers, using restorative justice wherever possible but locking up those still a threat to society. To go after their communities and associates with love, not aggression. To always allow the possibility of redemption. No-one is talking about sending in the drones to bomb Paris to kill the terrorists behind the latest atrocities there. We don’t respond to terrorism that way at home; we launch a huge policing operation to capture and bring to justice those involved. Why not in places like Syria, other than for lack of resources? Why not catch, try and lock up those who are genuinely, directly dangerous, and try to overcome evil with undeserved love..? Behave in such a way that no one wants to wipe us out, or that shames those who do..? Work against military action, towards peace building, charity, restorative justice, and standing up for freedom for all religions and against any form of discrimination, including islamophobia.
Right now I don’t think we have the right resources put into the hard work of peacemaking to make it possible straight away on an international scale. We’re left with an immediate choice between doing nothing or using violent force, and I honestly don’t know which is worse, to allow innocent people to suffer or to save lives short term at the expense of justice, and risk inflaming the situation still further and producing yet more refugees. But it does seem clear to me that whatever we choose to do now, we need to think seriously about resourcing peacemaking and policing as much as or even more than the military to be able to respond to terrorism properly in future. With a military-style budget behind it, we’d then have a better third choice that looks infinitely better than doing nothing, yet is much more likely to cool situations and bring lasting peace.
Ultimately, don’t we follow a God who responded to our own horrific evil against Him, not by taking revenge against us as He easily could, but by allowing us to take revenge against Him? Jesus has given us the ultimate example of peace-making to follow.
* Let’s not forget, Christian extremists are also committing atrocities against others in some places, even though it’s not being covered by the news…