Then, again, such massacres have become common; so common that over time they shock us less and less. In fact, we live in a world regularly rocked, savaged, by absolutely horrible and violent things that people do to others. Sadly, often the violence runs rampant in the name of religion; and always because the perpetrators assume a superiority over others.
Whether based on religious, political, racial, or cultural grounds, the perpetrators assume they are above others, justified in hating others, and willing to strike against and kill the others. The perpetrators dehumanize others, demonize others, and then seek to destroy others. In their wake are dead victims, traumatized survivors, and angry members of the various communities drawn together in outrage over their violence and killing.
When these senseless and cowardly killing sprees occur it is hard not to cheer the killing of the agents of terror or trauma. It is hard not to desire additional retaliatory responses cloaked as “protective measures” against unknown future attacks. And it is perhaps hardest of all to imagine the perpetrator’s families and friends who would never countenance what they did and must now brace themselves for a barrage of hateful responses that profile them and view them as potential threats that should be neutralized before “they strike again.”
How will followers of Jesus distinguish themselves and express their identity as image-bearing human beings in the process of full recovery, conforming ever more gloriously to the likeness of Jesus their Messiah? Here are a few counsels from the Apostle Paul (see Romans 12:1-2, 9-21).
To begin, we must decide whether we really are who we claim to be. We claim to be in Jesus Christ, recipients of the mercies of God, and handed over, submitted to God entirely—like a sacrifice laid on an altar. We claim to be “dead” to the life we lived before “the sacrifice,” and alive now to a new life that is good, pleasing and fully aligned with God’s will and way. Which means we cannot give ourselves to retaliation and we cannot help but give ourselves to reconciliation. This means we are reconcilers, not retaliators (see 12:1-2).
In the face of the worst perpetrators of terror, therefore, we sincerely love. In love, as an expression of love, we hate what is evil. Not people who are evil—that would make us hate everyone, including ourselves, since no human being can claim full immunity to evil.
But we can hate “evil.” And we must hate what is evil the way our Lord did, by loving sincerely, by devoting ourselves to the other, honoring the other, praying for the other, beginning with those near to us but extending outwardly as well and as widely as we have opportunity see (12:9-13).
We hate what is evil the way our Lord did, by blessing those who persecute and curse us, whether the persecution is tangibly directed toward us or virtually directed by violent attacks on others that raise the threat level in our hearts and minds. We bless by entering into the lives of others, celebrating their joys and mourning their griefs—as if they were our own (12:14-16).
Most of all, in love we hate what is evil the way our Lord did, by not repaying anyone evil for evil, but by doing the right, by pursuing peace, by renouncing revenge and leaving that completely to the only One in position to judge and make it right (12:17-19).
Finally, in love we hate what is evil the way our Lord did, by serving, helping, caring for the enemy, real or perceived. If they are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty give them something to drink. This way, the Apostle insists, “you will pile burning coals on their heads,” (12:20).
How are we to understand this strange expression: piling up burning coals on the head? Here is my take: In a culture that values hospitality and mutuality deeply, where one good favor deserves another, and one slight justifies the same in return, Paul commands a subversion of the cultural norms by sacrificial love.
The expected way to treat the enemy is to retaliate, to strike back, to do unto them as they did to you, only more. But Jesus and his followers enter into the culture and do unto others as they would have others do toward them. So, they offer the enemy hospitality and kindness and help. In so doing, they invite the enemy to do what the enemy should do—return the favor.
Indeed, in so doing, the followers of Jesus turn the cultural tables on the enemy by “obligating” the enemy to do what he or she does not want to do, to return the favor. In so doing, they offer the chance, by accepting the risk, to end the cycle of violent and vengeful payback. They will not be overcome by evil; rather, they will overcome evil with good (12:21).
On the basis of this reading of Romans 12, will we be agents of retaliation or reconciliation? In response to the terror attacks in New Zealand or anywhere else, in response to the painful and traumatic ways we or our loved ones are sometimes treated, are we retaliators or reconcilers?
Here are some action steps.
First, recognize the assault, as atrocious, painful and unjust as it is. No denials or soft-pedaling here is required or helpful.
Second, repent for any and all traces of the same in our hearts–that surface upon hearing and considering what they did. This may surprise you, but here again no denials or dismissals will be helpful. Many of us want to pay them back, to make them suffer, and more. Followers of Jesus can at least recognize that this is not the way of Jesus, and to walk in this way—to seek payback—will lead to a departure from Jesus’ way. Which means we no longer follow.
I know, this is hard.
Third, renounce retaliation as our response. When Jesus was slandered, slapped, and scourged he did not retaliate, and would not respond as he’d been treated.
Fourth, relinquish all the weapons by which we would pay-them back—the real or imagined or proxy paybacks. Our words, our thoughts, our physical actions, our use of social media, our influence, our guns … whatever.
Fifth, receive the help and grace of Jesus to choose and pursue his way. Here, let us ask, seek, and knock, expecting to receive, to find, to walk through open doors.
Sixth, make whatever reconciling responses that are possible to make. These would include: deliberate and sustained prayer for the enemy as well as imagining/envisioning his or her need and responding accordingly as possible. Again, we may have limited opportunity, but we can enter into passionate prayer for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done in relation to all concerned.
Seventh, trust that we are “piling the coals high upon their head”—that is, breaking the system of expected pay-back by paying back in a different way. We are paying back good for evil, and hopefully “obligating” the enemy to act according to the system—to pay back in kind, which in this case will be good.
Now, do I really think this makes sense or is even possible? Yes, I think so. But, you say, what if it doesn’t work?
You will never know until you try. It may take time, so initial signs may be misleading—how long did it take you really to understand God’s love, Jesus’ sacrifice, and the benefits of following/trusting Jesus’ way? Then also, commit to our faithful Creator and Redeemer. Trust what Jesus has done, beyond what we can now see. Trust that fruit will follow. Perhaps you’ll never see it fully but it will follow. That is what faith involves.
Of course, we will need Calvary love and sacrifice, the most costly there is, and then we will need resurrection power to do such things. And, that is exactly what Jesus offers us.
Will we be retaliators or reconcilers?