“Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . Don’t be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12
I’ve been wrestling with how to respond to Charlottesville and especially to the alt-right event in my city (San Francisco) this weekend. The easy thing would be to be overcome by the evil demon of hatred for the lunatics that wave confederate flags, don riot gear, and carry weapons and shouting “Jews won’t replace us!” That’s what my lower nature wants to do, repay hate with hate, even though Jesus prohibits it. That’s the definition letting evil overcome me, i.e. come over me, seep inside me and ruin me.
Jesus said labeling people “raca” gets us into trouble with God and with one another (Matthew 5). It’s an Aramaic word that is probably best translated “empty” or “worthless.” Jon Carlson said, “When we insist that others are ‘raca,’ that others are empty and worthless because they’ve given themselves over to evil, we don’t defeat their evil. We actually endanger ourselves, feeding into the very destructive tendencies we wish to overthrow.” That’s what it means to be “overcome by evil,” when we take on their evil by hating them with the same hate with which they hate us.
I preached on this Romans verse yesterday on the street in the Tenderloin. Most of our friends there are black, and to have this white middle class preacher tell us all to cool our jets and not return hate with hate borders on impudence to be sure. Easy for me to talk!
But talk is cheap. That is, unless it’s backed up by action. And the action Paul prescribes is doing some “good.” That’s how, instead of being overcome by evil, we overcome it––with good.
In response to the Nazism of his day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Nazis, wrote:
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.”
So what would constitute a “good” response to the nationalistic, racist venom that courses through the veins of our neighbors? How can we avoid being bitten by that same deadly serpent and at the same time act in such a way as to distribute an antidote to those who are already sickened by it?
Of course we’re all going to be led by the Spirit to do different things. But I don’t see how we can do nothing, say nothing, and be a bunch of Christian “nothings” at a time like this! Catherine of Siena said, “Preach the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.” I’ve also heard it said that, “It takes many tiny candles to overcome the darkness.”
The first candle we who love God should be lighting is the prayer candle. Prayer has to be our first strategy so that we begin with God’s heart. If we don’t start there, we’ll find ourselves “repaying evil for evil” and end up paying more than we expected. We can’t afford to go off halfcocked and eventually be overcome by the evil we hope to overcome.
Beside private prayer, one of the corporate prayer gatherings I’ll be joining to this weekend is at the Jewish Shabbat service here. They’re opening it up to the interfaith community and I figured, who better to pray with than Jews at times like this!
But we have to do more than pray, right? I’ve always said, “As you’re praying row towards shore.” So, pray, but don’t just sit there and wait for the wind to come. Break our your oars and put your back into it!
Martin Luther King and Abraham Heschel walked next to each other during the famous Selma march for justice. “This too is God’s work,” Abraham told Martin. “I feel like my feet are praying.” So pray with your heart and with your feet. Marching or speaking or standing or voting can all be a prayer.
Pray on your knees and pray with your feet, but pray. Our country needs it more than any time in my brief life. Pray
We shall overcome, we shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day