(The second of two posts on Rom 12:14-21.) More movie musings: in 1980, the year I entered seminary, 20th Century Fox released the movie My Bodyguard. The basic story was fairly predictable: new kid in school runs afoul of the local toughs and is terrorized by them; parents and administrators are irrelevant and ineffectual; kid takes matters into his own hands and beats the bullies.
Along the way, Clifford, the new kid, befriends and then hires another student, the sullen and secretive Linderman, as his bodyguard. Everyone’s afraid of Linderman; he’s reputed to have killed his own brother, but nobody really knows what happened. As the plot escalates, the leader of the toughs, Moody (a teenaged Matt Dillon, in one of his first roles), hires his own bodyguard in retaliation. In the climactic scene, the two bodyguards slug it out (Linderman, of course, wins), and then Clifford has to take on the bigger Moody. At first Clifford is clearly outmatched, and Moody taunts him. But with Linderman urging him on from the sidelines, Clifford suddenly breaks Moody’s nose and the bully slinks away in defeat.
Confession: mature seminarian that I was, I wanted to cheer when Clifford landed that punch.
Part of me identified with the kid. I was almost always smaller and younger than my classmates, and did get picked on from time to time. But only occasionally. There was usually some older or bigger kid that would stick up for me. In the sixth grade, I even had what my mother called my bodyguard. We were a wildly mismatched pair: the geeky little Asian kid and the six-foot Scandinavian one, playing tether ball out on the blacktop. I let him wear my baseball cap–it sort of perched on top of his head–and no one messed with me.
It’s not just a matter of my personal history, though. There’s something right about wanting the bad guys to get their comeuppance. In a just world, they should.
But there’s also something wrong. In movies like this, the bad guys tend to be one-dimensional characters. All we know of them is their mean, cruel, or sadistic side. The screenwriters know that if they go too far in showing Moody as a complex or even tortured human being, there will be no cathartic payoff at the end, and the audience will leave the theater feeling cheated. We want our moment of revenge; the studio banks on it. We’re supposed to identify with the hero of the story, and then rejoice when the hero beats the snot out of the bad guy.
Paul gives us a different view of things:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom 12:19-20, NIV)
Talk about delayed gratification. You mean I don’t get to take revenge myself? Well, at least I know that God will eventually beat the snot out of them. So, kill ’em with kindness, eh? That’s the plan? Make them feel ashamed that they ever did me wrong? I guess that works. I can think of lots of people I’d like to dump burning coals on.
I don’t think that’s what Paul meant.
Scholars are generally agreed that the image of burning coals points to an Egyptian repentance ritual. The idea is not that by being nice to our enemies we will shame them. Rather, we are called to be compassionate, even to our enemies, in the hope that they will be helped toward true repentance.
What Paul says here is an extension of an earlier thought: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom 12:17a, NIV). We are to be people who stand resolutely on the side of the good, shunning evil. That means, negatively, that we shouldn’t do anything that would cause others to question our ethics, even if we can rationalize it away as justified payback. On the positive side, we should be genuinely helpful to our enemies–feed them, give them a drink–because they are people with needs like any other human being.
Paul thus stands in the tradition of his master Jesus:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matt 5:38-41, NIV)
In the kingdom of heaven, the Old Testament law of retaliation (Jesus is citing Exod 21:24) is transcended. We have to remember that the “eye for eye” principle was actually a vast improvement on lawless forms of revenge: you take out my eye, I take out your whole family. At least it tried to make sure that the punishment would fit the crime. The irony is that in a sinful world, a principle that should rein in human vengefulness ends up justifying it instead–You did that to me? Well, then, I get to do this back to you. Let’s see how you like it.
Those who follow Jesus are to stand for something different. In God’s scheme of things the final determination of right and wrong, reward and punishment, belongs to him alone. It’s true that we’re called to work for justice, even to long for it. But when we’re the ones who have been offended, our moral sensibilities are predictably skewed. We perceive our enemies as cardboard caricatures so that we can be the heroes and heroines of our own stories.
We want to get back at those who have done evil to us, and to have that satisfaction now, in this lifetime. It can be the bully who made every day at school a nightmare, or the person who took half a second to cut me off on the freeway. I’m outraged; I want them to get what they deserve! At least, that is, until I remember that by God’s unfathomable mercy, he’s letting go of his righteous vengeance by not giving me what I deserve.
Paul says we are to let go of vengeful desire; we are not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21). Quite simply, we are neither the best nor the most righteous judge of another’s evil, particularly if we ignore our own. God’s work is to bring justice; our work is to always do what’s right in the sight of all (Rom 12:17).
And if possible, to do it without breaking any noses.
Lord, there are times when I want to strike back, to do violence in word or deed. Help me to see myself and others as you do, and to trust that justice matters to you, even when everything seems to be going wrong. Teach me to stand resolutely for the good, and to genuinely and compassionately love even those who have hurt me, while I wait patiently for the future that you’ve already established. Amen.