Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Anniversary of September 11
Ineluctably, this week we come to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against targets in the United States. The hatred and evil of the attacks were stunning and heartrending, particularly for those intimately affected by injury and loss. The storm of effects carved, and continues to carve, the landscape of life for individuals, families, and communities. And now, this anniversary of the attacks raises afresh the complex challenges of remembrance and response. How do we remember and respond to such hatred and evil?
I contend that Romans 12:9-21 should frame and form how the community of Christ remembers and responds to the events of September 11. This passage from this letter of Saint Paul to the followers of Jesus in Rome begins with these words: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good….” It concludes with these: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In this week when the remembrance of those acts of hatred and evil is prominent in the hearts and minds of most in the United States, this passage is God’s grace to guide and shape the remembrance and response of the community of Christ.
Remembrance and response
How then do we – the community of Christ – remember and respond to such hatred and evil? How does this passage – Romans 12:9-21 – guide and shape the community of Christ as it remembers, prays, and acts in response to those events? In the truth and power of God’s Word in this passage, the community of Christ remembers and responds through genuine love and steadfast adherence to what is good, in order to overcome evil with good.
What does it mean to love genuinely and to hold fast to what is good, in order to overcome evil with good? The community of Christ loves genuinely and holds fast to what is good in the following ways, enumerated in the passage.
Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer. Contributing to those in need, whether fellow saint in Christ or stranger (for in Christ the stranger is always a neighbor). Blessing those who persecute the members of the community – blessing, not cursing. Rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep – acting in solidarity, compassion, and empathy to bear other’s burdens. Not repaying evil with evil, but doing what is noble in the sight of all. Doing all we can to live in peace with all people. Not seeking to avenge ourselves or others, but leaving the sorting of actions, consequences, guilt, and blame to God. Acting in great charity even to our enemies. In short: overcoming evil, and doing so with loving and good actions, not evil ones.
Transformation and renewal
How is it possible to remember and respond to such hatred and evil through genuine love and steadfast adherence to what is good, in order to overcome evil with good? It is possible through the transformation and renewal of our lives in the powerful grace of God.
This passage, from the last part of Romans 12, follows as the necessary or inevitable ethical outworking of the first part of Romans 12. A key statement from the first verses of chapter 12 provides the foundation for the ethical injunctions in verses 9 through 21, as summarized in verse 21 with the injunction to overcome evil with good. In verse 2 of chapter 12, Saint Paul exhorts the community of Christ, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Hence, we are not to be conformed to this world but transformed and renewed in our hearts and minds by the powerful grace of God. Because of the transformation and renewal of our lives in God’s grace, the community of Christ is framed and formed, enabled and empowered, to live in what God determines to be good and acceptable and perfect – as against what any particular nation, culture, or government determines to be good and acceptable and perfect.
Citizenship in heaven
This passage highlights the truth that our citizenship and allegiance are fundamentally and ultimately in heaven, not in the United States or in any other country. We do of course live in the United States. Our earthly citizenship in this country is profoundly significant for our lives – for the general shaping of our perspectives, emotions, and identity, and for our remembrance of and response to the particular events of September 11, 2001.
Yet our earthly citizenship and allegiance are not unmixed goods. Our earthly citizenship and allegiance – with their influence on our perspectives, emotions, and identity – are ambiguous and penultimate. They are always to be measured and qualified by our fundamental and ultimate citizenship and allegiance. They are always secondary and subordinate to our fundamental and ultimate citizenship and allegiance.
As citizens of heaven fundamentally and ultimately, in the power of God we are to be transformed and renewed in our whole lives, and thus conformed to the patterns of heaven, not to the patterns of this world. And in conformity with the patterns of heaven, we are to love genuinely, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, and overcome evil not with evil but with good.
The way of Jesus
This passage from Romans 12 does not indicate that it is easy to overcome evil with good. It does not specify when good will overcome evil, or how much effort it will take to overcome evil with good. The effort to overcome evil through genuine love and doing good may take much time and effort. It has already taken 2000 years. It may involve much suffering, even death. It cost God his only son. Yet, as we remember and respond to the terrorist attacks of September 11 as the community of Christ fundamentally and ultimately, this passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans clearly describes none other than the way of true discipleship for the community of Christ, because the way of hating and overcoming evil through love and doing good is the way of Jesus, and the way of Jesus in this world of hate and evil is the way of the cross.