Right in the middle of the next to last chapter of John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ (a chapter entitled “Loving Our Enemies”), he has a discussion of a topic I really don’t care to write about.
Most Christians know that Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” [Matthew 5:44, Luke 6: 27 and Romans 12: 14]. The idea is that we can overcome hateful people by showing them how to be good. Repaying hatefulness with hatefulness only sends the message that their bad behavior is acceptable. We justify it by mirroring it.
But what about evil people? What is the Christian (living under the “cross of Jesus”) to do about the truly evil people of this world? Are we supposed to love evil people and bless evil people?
Stott opens this discussion with the following questions: “Does the cross commit us to nonviolent acceptance of all violence? Does it invalidate the process of criminal justice and the so-called just war? Does it prohibit the use of every kind of force, so that it would be incompatible for a Christian to be a soldier, police officer, magistrate or prison officer? .
These are very difficult questions and each question could be the subject of a chapter by itself. I won’t address all of them in this post but I will attempt to comment on the Christian’s response to evil. Of course God knows that evil exists and God knows that man is capable of evil. With this in mind, God knows that we have to have some kind of response to the existence of evil in this world.
Stott draws heavily on Romans, Chapter 12 and 13 as he discusses evil. The words of Paul give us counsel about how to handle this ever present problem.
First of all, Christians are supposed to hate evil. Paul writes “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” Normally Christians think that love and hate are “mutually exclusive.” Love will expel hate and hate will expel love but what about evil? All the advice we receive from God’s word about love seems to ignore the “evil” word, which is the most extreme form of hate. Paul indicates that we cannot compromise with evil. It is not on the same plane with love. While good is the enemy of hate, evil in this world spoils all forms of good. God hates evil so we should hate it also.
Secondly, Stott points out that we should not attempt to repay evil. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not take revenge, my friends” writes Paul in Romans 12: 17 and 19. Revenge and retaliation are not approved by God for if we indulge in those activities we are merely adding more evil to this world. Responding to the evil of this world can even make a Christian evil. Why would God desire that? The worst evil was done to Jesus while He was on the cross and when He could have retaliated, He chose not to. He chose the route of peace.
Thirdly, evil needs to be overcome. Paul does admit in Romans 12 that evil needs to be overcome. The main question is how do we do this? Will blessing evil people work? Will praying for evil people work? Will finding a way to serve evil people work? The world says evil should always be repaid with evil or rather that evil should be repaid with extreme revenge or retribution. There have been so many movies churned out of Hollywood with that theme. For example, evil people harm a man’s daughter and what does he do? He punishes the evil people using extreme violence. The audience cheers his acts and he eliminates the bad people of the world (usually with minimal harm to himself). Finally, at the end of the film, the “good guy” ends up face to face with the leader of the evil people and you know what happens: the horrible person meets his end, gets his “just desserts” so to speak. We can imagine what God thinks about this. Stott says that when evil is repaid with evil, evil wins: we are increasing the world’s total of evil. He cites Martin Luther King who called this the “chain reaction of evil” as hate multiplies, violence increases and man descends into a “spiral of destruction.” What did Jesus’s response to the evil done to Him on the cross accomplish? It brought salvation to millions of people.
Ok, repay evil with no response…
But do evil people get off without suffering any consequences for their actions?
The answer is no, but the punishment does not come from man, it comes from God. This may make us crazy as we think of examples of evil people in the world who have power, wealth and worldly influence. Do we have to wait until their “last judgement”? Stott writes the evil people of this world “are storing up wrath against themselves, for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgement will be revealed.”
What about society; is it totally Godless? We have laws to deal with heinous acts. Those laws require punishment by the state. Paul’s words do not mean that people who do great harm to others should go unpunished; he is trying to say that it is harmful for Christians to have a direct hand in the punishment of evil people. Ordinary people should not take the law into their own hands despite the desire for revenge.
Where does all this leave us as we see evil abound in this world? My son lives in Memphis Tennessee and this past week a young kindergarten teacher was kidnapped while she was jogging. Three days later, authorities found her body. Yesterday a nineteen year old man went on a shooting rampage throughout the city, killing four and wounding three.
Real people have suffered there. Lives have been lost and families are now faced with horrible grief for their loved ones.
How should they respond?
I recall June 18, 2015, a story of a heinous act that brought me to tears, brought me to my knees. Emanuel AME church in Charleston South Carolina suffered a horrible loss. An admitted racist entered the church on June 17, while a Bible study was in session. He opened fire and took the lives of nine people. I was rocked by the act, but what transpired forth-eight hours later inspired me to be a better man. I heard the reporter tell of the family members who confronted the killer at his bond hearing.
They forgave him.
They did not excuse his actions, but
They forgave him.
Ethel Lance was murdered that night in the church. Her daughter Nadine Collier spoke directly to her killer: “I forgive you … You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
It was later revealed by news outlets that the killer expected the killings at Emanuel to trigger a response. He wanted the killings to start a race war. Little did he know that family members would react the way they did.
Possibly family members knew that spewing hatred was not the way to respond, wishing harm on the killer would do no one any good. Healing began at that bond hearing as the state took over the role of punisher. God will do His part in the killer’s future, at his judgement day.
Jesus prayed for His executioners. That inspires people to be better people. He forgave His executioners. He left punishment to the wrath of God.
Additional information for this post comes from USA Today Website “Five Years after Charleston Church Massacre: How “Emanuel” Reveals the Power of Forgiveness” accessed on September 8, 2022.