Wisdom can be found in many places, not all of them holy. In The Lord of the Rings, the great J.R.R. Tolkien made a profound observation:
“Many live that deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” (Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2)
Perhaps this is part of what Paul meant in Rom 12:19-21:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)
Now, I am not saying that this verse alone is a categorical case for nonviolence in every instance, because that’s not the context of what Paul is saying. He is, however, clearly saying in the entire Romans 12 passage, that Christians should be known for their peaceable behavior. He is particularly forbidding the Christ-follower to exercise vengeance or violent retaliation. He is also saying that it is God’s job, not ours, to mete out punishment for wrongs committed.
Of course, the King of Kings himself had a few things to say about how we behave toward our enemies too:
- Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)
- Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27-28)
- But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)
Rather than (necessarily) mandating nonviolence in all circumstances, these verses clearly speak to the issue of how we are to behave toward our enemies. There is a bumper sticker “out there” that says it pretty clearly: “When Jesus said ‘Love your enemies,’ I think he probably meant ‘Don’t kill them.’” Taken together with Paul’s statement, I think it’s pretty clear that exacting violent punishment on people because they have done us violence, is unacceptable in the Kingdom of Jesus.
Which is not to say that justice will not be done. Paul’s statement, as well as passage after passage throughout the Old Testament, make no bones about the fact that God will, in his time, exact justice (though it may not look like we think). But it is a duty God reserves for himself, not one that we may arrogate to ourselves.
This, interestingly, is the context in which the very next chapter, Romans 13, talks about the power of the State (the “governing authorities” in NRSV and NIV, “the higher powers” in KJV) being God’s servant to reward the good and punish the evildoer. This context is ignored by those who claim Paul is saying it’s OK for Christians to participate with the state in the meting of punishment. If we are not to return evil for evil, if we are to treat our enemies with love, then we cannot engage in the state’s violence upon them.
In fact, the “authorities” section of Romans 13 is bracketed on BOTH sides by commands of loving behavior, for from 13:8-10 Paul repeats the message, concluding “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (v.10). Remembering how Jesus defined “neighbor,” (Luke 10:29-37), that’s a pretty broad-brush command.
In summary, in the case of those who we define (or a government defines for us) as “enemies,” we have very clear marching orders, and dealing of death is not part of them. There are other issues regarding the use of violence, but they will have to wait for further posts.