“Never pay back evil with more evil … Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” Romans 12:17-21 (NLT)
When one of my brothers hit me as a kid, I usually hit back (if I could catch them). I am sure I did my share of initiating as well. The funny thing was that I never wanted to hit them back less hard than they hit me. In fact, just to be certain that I hit them back at least as hard as they hit me, I would usually give the punch as much gusto as possible. I never wanted to under hurt. That tendency is why victims are not allowed to serve as judge or jury in the crimes commited against them. You might call it retaliation inflation.
Retaliatory violence is rarely lighter than the original violence committed. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek and when Paul urged us never to pay back evil for evil they were placing a check on our tendency to pay people who harm us back with just a tad more oomph than they used to hurt us. Retaliation is a form of exalting evil, a kind of Satan worship; a celebration of violence.
As a school kid I was pretty low on the popularity pecking order. I was short and shy – a dangerous combination in junior high and high school. One day Jimmy, a kid much taller but also unpopular, announced on the bus ride home to everyone that he would fight me at the bus stop. This, I assume, was to attempt to increase his status if only a little.
I was mortified. I didn’t want to fight Jimmy. Besides, I knew I could not win. So when he started pushing me a crowd gathered around. I sheepishly said I wasn’t going to fight him. He simply kept knocking me down and hitting me each time I got back up. Still, I refused to hit him back, more out of conviction that I’d never win than out of a noble sense of turning the other cheek.
The funny thing was that when it was all said and done Jimmy was the one who walked away totally humiliated, as if he were unable to even beat up a pipsqueak like me. He never had the satisfaction of proving his physical superiority because I never hit him back.
There is beautiful power in non-violent, non-compliance. Evil, abuse and oppression is exposed for what it is when the little guy does not fight back. There may be times when it is appropriate to remove yourself from a situation of oppression, but to fight fire with fire often simply solidifies and justifies the decision of the oppressor to use force.
Paul and Jesus go a step further than non-violence. They endorse the violence of love in the face of evil. When a Roman soldier pressed you into service, he was prohibited from forcing you to carry his gear beyond one mile. To carry it for two was to say, “I don’t carry your gear because I have to or because I am afraid of you. I carry it out of love, and because my Emperor’s rule of two miles trumps your Emperor’s rule of one mile.”
A story is told of a couple, who after years of trying to have children, finally bear a son as they enter their early forties. Their young son is the pride of their lives and cherished beyond imagining. At five years old the boy is brutalized and murdered by a mentally ill and tormented young man. Retaliation would be for this couple to kill the man. Justice would be for the man to be tried, convicted and sentenced in a court of law. Mercy would be for the couple to forgive the man. But Paul and Jesus suggest a way of love and grace which goes beyond justice and beyond mercy. The way of grace is when the couple adopts the young man as their son and seeks his restoration and healing.
This kind of grace has a way of not simply preventing evil from infecting and poisoning us to become evil ourselves, but is a way of overcoming, overpowering and subjugating evil through outrageous, even offensive, good.