Overcome Evil with Good

"If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you." (Proverbs 25:21-22)

This ancient teaching from Jewish scripture deserves to be heard today, because it tells us that we have the power of disarming our enemies by treating them as friends. Of course, being kind does not remove the weapons from the hands of our enemies, but it does remove their reason for seeing us as their enemy. This is what is meant in the scripture passage by the image of heaping hot coals on their heads. If we respond as neighbors, rather than as enemies, to those who fear us, their shame may burn away their anger and allow them to see us as neighbors.

Jesus may have had this scripture passage in mind when he taught his disciples: "You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for your Father makes the sun rise on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:43-45) And Paul quoted this text from Proverbs to encourage Christians facing persecution. "Do not be overcome by evil," he urged, "but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:20-21)

Although some Christians have read these words to require a pacifist commitment, most Christians have understood this passage as allowing violence in self-defense, if we act toward our enemies with mercy. But surely this teaching means that even as we defend ourselves, we must strive to minimize the suffering caused by any use of violence, and we must also seek a just reconciliation to the conflict. To achieve peace and justice on earth, which is the biblical vision of God’s reign, we have to offer friendship to those who see us as their enemies.

Americans must now embrace this wisdom in facing the threat of terrorism. For violent acts of self-defense may provide some protection from terrorism, but only good can overcome this evil.

We are called to have faith in this promise, in the moral order in the universe, in the power of God. Yet, we must not expect to overcome evil on our own. Our greatest challenge is to stop doing evil, so the goodness of God can work through us.

The truth we must now face is that we are so obsessed with the evil others are doing that we are unable to see the evil we are doing. When we see only our own goodness, but see those we fear as only evil, then we do evil. And until we see the evil we are doing, we cannot hope to overcome the evil done by others. Therefore, we must now acknowledge and repent of our own evil, so the power of goodness might do its work through us.

For Americans, this means renouncing all claims that our nation and our way of life represent God’s reign on earth, and also challenging those who make these false claims. We must say clearly now that the United States of America has not been chosen by God to rule the world. America is not the kingdom of God on earth.

Those who believe America is God’s chosen people have told the story of their nation using images from the biblical story of ancient Israel. Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict Moses leading the Israelites to freedom as the waters of the Red Sea drowned the pursuing Egyptian armies. Settlers in the New World claimed a right to destroy Native Americans, because the Israelites conquered Canaan and killed its indigenous peoples.

Yet, both Jewish and Christian scripture condemn self-righteous nationalism. The prophets of ancient Israel proclaim that God demands justice of all nations, and that Israel’s role is not to rule over other nations for God, but to set a good example so all nations will turn to God. The New Testament finds the rule of God in the faith of each person who resists the idolatrous claim of the Romans that their oppressive reign is God’s justice on earth.

The Bible judges love for our nation that puts national self-interest above faith in God. If Americans are to see themselves like the ancient Israelites, then Americans must demand that their country set a good example for the nations rather than wield power over them. 

Therefore, we must now resist the claim that American power comes from God and that the President is acting for God. It is evil to say that God is on our side and that all those against us are evil. This is idolatrous and contrary to the promise in scripture of God’s reign with justice and peace. Moreover, the claim that God is on the side of America makes enemies of people who disagree with what America is doing in the world, but nonetheless want to be our friends.

Terrorism is evil, and we are right to resist it. We are wrong, however, to believe that God will bless whatever we do to resist terrorism, simply because terrorism is evil. Our fight against terrorism must use means that are morally justified, and we must seek friendship with those who fear and threaten us and not merely their defeat or death.

What then are we to do? What practical steps might we take? How might we repent of our own evil and open ourselves to the power of God’s goodness?

First, we must demand that our political leaders refrain from identifying American security with God's will. Those who pray for God to bless America must not assume that whatever Americans do is the will of God. We will not be on the side of right by claiming to be the nation God has chosen to rule the earth, but only by doing what is right and setting an example of what a just and peaceful nation might be like. The prophet Micah said, "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) Those who are guided by the Bible must take this to heart and require their leaders to accept this responsibility.

Second, we must avoid identifying evil with those we identify as enemies of America. We must stop talking as though America is a good nation being threatened by evil nations. The Bible clearly teaches that evil is a temptation for us all. In Matthew 7:4-5 Jesus says, "How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye." (Mt. 7:4-5) This teaching reflects the message of the ancient prophets, who proclaimed God’s love for all peoples and not only for the Israelites. We must see the evil in what we are doing, if we are to help others overcome the evil they are doing.

Third, we must demand that the violence used to secure American interests not be identified as God’s judgment on those who have done evil. It is idolatrous to say that the use of American power is God’s justice on earth. We must not claim that those who suffer because of American policies and actions are being punished by God for the evil they have done or for the good they have failed to do. Even if we justify some use of violence as necessary for the defense of our country and its way of life, we must not claim that this violence is God’s will.

These are examples of the evil we must not do, if we would hope for the goodness of God to work through us in overcoming the evil of our world. Of course, if we lack faith in God, then we may believe that only our own goodness can overcome evil. But the Bible reveals that this is the great blindness of all those who believe they are acting with the best of intentions.

Today, Americans are tempted to believe that evil in the world can only be defeated by American power. This belief is evil. We may defend our country and also seek God’s reign on earth, but in doing so we must deny that American domination of the world is the reign of God.

Therefore, in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, we must help those without food and water to raise their own food and to access water they can drink. Funds now being spent on making war need to be spent to secure peace, to strengthen the rule of law, to educate children, to provide health care for families, and to sow the seeds of sustainable economic development.

We must end the war on terrorism, if we would end terrorism. We must "beat our swords into plowshares" (Micah 4:3) and seek peace by investing in other people, even in our enemies, in the hope that through the goodness of God they will choose to become our friends. This is the way of our scriptures. It is the way of God. Let it also be our way.

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016