“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:2
I’m sure all of us have been sickened this week by the news of the brutal murder of Lee Rigby, the 25-year-old soldier from Manchester, who was hacked to death near his army barracks in Woolwich, South East London. Reading some of the details last night and about the British government’s decision to place an additional 1200 police officers on the ground around London death, I was reminded both of the painful truth about my own heart and of one of the great truths in Jesus’ teaching.
These additional officers are being placed around centres of Muslim worship, transport hubs and other major meeting points primarily to ward off the potential for revenge attacks against the wider Islamic community. And it’s very hard to argue that this not a sensible move. I don’t even live in England. For much of my life I’ve had a pretty unloving attitude towards England. Growing up I regularly threw stones at members of the British army who came from England (sorry!). Yet, nonetheless, I am outraged by this barbarity. The printable sentiments flowing through my head yesterday and today have included such things as ‘How dare they!’ ‘How dare they bring their doctrine of hatred and murder to this part of the world!’’ How dare they take an innocent life with a butcher’s cleaver!’ ‘I’m so glad they caught them.’ ‘They got exactly what they deserved!’ It’s been a graphic reminder to me of just how deeply the power of hatred has been able to sink its claws into my life despite all that I have learned and loved through my encounter with God’s grace.
No doubt I’m not alone, and void of the rescue of this grace, no doubt there will be many right now who are demanding no less than reprisal and retaliation. Those who also have a following will be sharing their bile and doing all they can to whip up their hearers to go and deliver what is deserved not just to these men but all of ‘their kind.’ It’s frightening how easy it is to conjure up mental images of angry men (or women) calling those who will listen to ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!’ – though, of course, such application of the scriptures utterly misses both the original point of those words and what Jesus has to say about them.
In Exodus 21:24 the purpose of the phrase ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was not to justify retaliation but to limit it. Amongst God’s people punishment for crime was to be proportionate to that crime and no more than that. For example, as Exodus 22:1 shows, if I stole your ox you were not entitled to burn my home to the ground and kill all of my family. You were certainly entitled to compensation but not to whatever you felt like. Retribution was to be in line with wrongdoing. Thus ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ When it comes to Jesus’ teaching about this, it is equally fascinating to me that even this idea of fairness is no longer our standard. Matt 5:38 makes it very clear that we have been given an even higher calling than simply that of justice. I love Stanley Hauerwas’ comment that whatever Jesus intends here when he tells us to love our enemies, it probably means we shouldn’t kill them!
But amidst the broken clamor of my reaction to yesterday I have also been reminded again of the genius of Jesus’ teaching and this life that God has now called us to. How on earth do we go about breaking these cycles of hatred and violence that surround us, not only in our world but in our communities? How is it that we can act to lay the foundation for a better, more reconciled, future for ourselves and for others? Amidst the horror of these tragic images from London, I have been reminded that Jesus says that it is by refusing to return violence for violence and hatred for hatred and instead responding with a determination to love. It is by deciding our response to those around us not by what has been done to us by the sons (and daughters) of men but by what has been done for us by the Son of God who has loved us and given himself for us. (Gal 2:20) The Apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans chp 12:17-21:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
When we speak about the ‘war on terror’, they key question for those of us who are followers of Jesus is ‘Whose terror are we speaking about?’ Are we at war with Islamic terror or all terror? Are we fighting against the hatred of the ‘other’ and of ‘them’ or are we fighting against our hatred too? When we return hatred for hatred, violence for violence, revenge for provocation, all we do is feed fuel to the fire our enemy has set amongst us. Evil for evil simply continues the circle of conflict and enables it to loop once again. Our violence in revenge, our hatred in return, our acts of terror against their acts of terror can only, and forever will only, fan the flame that burns against us both. In the light of Jesus’s teaching, I think it is clear that we will never overcome the terror of Jihadist Islam by committing acts of terror ourselves – especially against those within the wider Muslim community who are as innocent and as truly horrified by what has happened as we are. Our own history, never mind that of other nations, surely makes equally clear that such acts are doomed to accomplish only the opposite of what they intend.
Perhaps, then, as we think about how to respond to this latest evil, we should consider another verse from Exodus whose proper meaning is absolutely without ambiguity. In Exodus 22:21 God tells his people this: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Whether the heritage of our own slavery was in the physical land of Egypt or only in the metaphorical land of our sin, it is surely clear what our attitude and approach to the Islamic community (indigenous and non-indigenous) in our midst is to be. We are to love them. We are to treat them with kindness and respect. So in our prayers for London, and in our own actions in response to this awful act, let’s seek another breaking of conflict’s vicious cycle. And in the face of this latest display of evil, let us display our determination to testify to the power of good.