By Michael Fitzpatrick
Reading from Romans, 12:9-21
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “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.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
People have taken to the streets to protest the evils of systemic racism. Here, St. Paul says that those of us who are Christians have a unique responsibility to overcome evil with good. How can we do this?
Some people believe that St. Paul and Jesus are of very different minds. But almost every teaching of Jesus has a corollary in St. Paul, and vice versa. St. Paul echoes Jesus here in proclaiming a sacrificial life of love: Live for others out of zeal for the Lord. Does this even include enemies? Jesus and St. Paul agree: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
We are also to rejoice and mourn with others. Right now we are mourning with our fellow citizens our nation’s violence toward communities of color. We all ought to mourn, to be angry. In the logic of love, to persecute my neighbor is to persecute me.
But how are we to react to the persecutors? “Bless, and do not curse them.”
This goes against almost everything in our fallen human nature. Do not repay evil for evil, St. Paul says. Do not seek revenge; let God have the final word. Not that we wait for the day of the Lord to seek justice; the next chapter, Romans 13, tells us that humans and governments can be instruments of God’s righteous justice. But we are to meet violence with an active love that is undeserved — not with hate, sentimentality, or inaction — so that through it, we might be instruments of God, that he might renew the heart and mind of the persecutor.
We cannot demand of others to live by the law of Christ, but let those of us who do follow Christ reflect on how we can bring the “more excellent way” into our protest and our work for justice.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Stanford University and a student leader for the Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford. Michael attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA.
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