Justice Against the Oppressor–What to do with Imprecatory Psalms

Another gem of a passage from Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, offering perhaps the most satisfactory discussion of the issue of imprecatory psalms and forgiving enemies that I have yet read:

“The oppressed Christian who discovers Jesus’ solidarity with him must take account of one respect in which Jesus in his suffering prayed differently from the way the psalmists prayed.  Jesus prayed for his enemies’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34), thus practising his own teaching (Matt. 5:44).  The psalmists never did this: their attitude to their enemies is consistently unforgiving.  They pray for God’s judgement on their enemies (Ps. 10:2b, 15), sometimes in the form of solemn and extensive curses (Ps. 69:22-8; 109:6-20).  But such prayers are not unknown in the New Testament (Rev. 6:10).  They need to be accorded a kind of provisional validity, which does not excuse any Christian from the duty of forgiving enemies, but does help us to understand what is really involved in forgiveness.  Jesus’ demand for forgiveness of enemies does not, we might say, simply revoke these prayers, but takes a step further beyond them.  We have to appreciate what is valid about them before we can rightly take, as followers of Jesus must take, that further step.  

First, these prayers spring directly from the psalmists’ demand for justice.  Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, whose demand was for the judge to vindicate her against her adversary (Luke 18:3), the psalmists’ primary concern is positive—justice for the oppressed—but they cannot envisage this without its negative corollary—justice against the oppressor.  Nor, in concrete situations of political injustice, is it often easy for us to do otherwise.  Our prayers in and about such situations are not superior but inferior to the psalms if they do not manifest the psalmists’ thirst for justice and anger at injustice.  As John Goldingay writes, ‘If we do not find ourselves wishing to call down a curse of divine magnitude on some perpetrators of evil, this may reflect our spiritual sensitivity, our good fortune in not being confronted by evil of such measure, or it may reflect our moral indifference.’  Love and forgiveness of enemies should not be invoked to sanction an easy and careless disregard for justice.  The force of Jesus’ command to love enemies is lost if we forget that it presupposes real enemies, and makes no attempt to pretend that they are not enemies.  Love and forgiveness of enemies are authentic only as the costly and difficult step beyond the psalmists’ valid demand for justice.  

Second, the psalmists’ prayer for justice serves in principle to protect their concern for justice from degenerating into vindictiveness, even if it does not always do this in practice.  The prayer is essentially for God to execute justice, and draws the psalmist, beyond feelings of personal vindictiveness, into a desire to see God’s justice prevail.  Admittedly, it is possible for talk of divine justice to be used in the interests of personal revenge.  But the believer who is genuinely open to God in prayer is subordinating his own judgement of the situation to the standard of God’s righteous judgement. . . . 

Third, the referring of the situation to God’s justice is the first step towards love and forgiveness of enemies.  In expressing to God their rage against their oppressors and their desire for vengeance the psalmists are at least submitting and yielding those wishes to God, even relinquishing them to God.  Personal vengeance can be renounced, because one’s cause has been entrusted to the just God who claims vengeance as his own concern (Deut. 32:35-6; Rom. 12:19). . . . In the course of repeating Jesus’ demand for love of enemies—blessing, not cursing them (12:14), not retaliating (v. 17)—he [Paul] forbids his readers to avenge themselves (v. 19a), but does not require them to renounce their concern for justice.  Rather this can be left in God’s hands (v. 19b). This then frees them to treat their enemies forgivingly and to welcome their repentance (v. 20).  Where those in the grip of personal vengeance msut be frustrated, like Jonah, when repentant enemies are spared judgment, those who have committed vengeance to God can promote and rejoice in the compassion by which he at once safeguards and surpasses justice.  They can pray for their enemies’ forgiveness.” (pp. 65-67)


Counsels or Commandments: The Protestant Line through the Heart

In his Loci Communes, Philipp Melanchthon turns at chapter 8 to address “the Distinction of Commandment and Counsel,” which as mentioned in my previous post, has been growing on my mental radar of late as a key player in my ethico-political ambiguities.  Most intriguingly, though, Melancthon turns specifically to consider this distinction in terms of the lawfulness of private property, an issue I have been reading and writing on for the past several months.   

My bold, tentative thesis that emerges from this brief passage: it was the Protestant dissolution of the tension between the commandments and counsels that naturalized the moral justification of private property and thus paved the way for the development of the capitalist principle of absolute private property rights, in which one’s freedom to do entirely as one wished with what one owned preceded and relativised any legal or moral claim that could be made on one’s property.  Bold thesis, right?  (If you have any idea what I’m talking about, at least.)  I’ll sketch out the background of the distinction of commandment and counsel, and the Protestant reaction to it, in this post, and in the following one, I’ll develop how Melancthon applies it to the question of property.

So, let’s take a tour through 1,500 years of Christian ethics. 

Before the coming of Christ, we have the moral law, which is, as the WSC so eloquently puts it, “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”  Scholastic thinkers identify the Ten Commandments also as a summary form of the natural law, engrained in mankind from creation, and in principle knowable (though not necessarily successfully known) by all men.  The principles of natural law serve as the basis not only for moral living, but for political justice.  We see this in the Old Testament, where the civil laws of Israel are given as elaborations and case-law applications of the basic principles of the moral law.  

Enter Jesus, saying, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you,” and issuing a new set of moral norms that seem to go beyond those of the Old Testament (and of natural law).  Now, we can hedge and qualify and say a lot about how the Sermon on the Mount, for instance does not overturn the Law, but fulfills it–it continues and intensifies the original trajectory, rather than simply contradicting it.  But be all that as it may, it does seem to go further in its call for holy living.  Where the old law (and the natural law) permitted–or indeed, one might say mandated–a just use of force in repelling force, Jesus seems to call us to a love that overcomes evil with good, that turns the other cheek.  But does this mean it is no longer permissible to defend ourselves, for instance?  Certainly the earliest Christianity carried with it a strong radical, perfectionist edge, but as it settled down to life in history, and grappled with the responsibilities involved in running a Christian state, the tension began to be felt quite sharply, the impossibility of using the evangelical law as the law for everyone.  

The neat solution devised (this is of course very oversimplified, glossing over a millenium’s worth of debates) was the distinction of commandments and counsels, which said, more or less, that although it was perfectly lawful and not sinful to live in accordance with the basic principles of the moral/natural law, it was even better, if possible, to follow the “counsels of perfection”–the extra moral demands of the evangelical law.  Melanchthon summarizes the definitions:

“A commandment is so called because it speaks of necessary obedience.  Everything that is contrary to the commandments is sin, and this brings eternal punishment if man is not converted to God.  A counsel is a doctrine, not a commandment; it does not demand a work, even though it praises the work as blameless and useful.” 

Three points of the evangelical law in particular were singled out by the medievals: non-violence, renunciation of personal property, and celibacy.  The monastic orders observed these, but most laymen were not expected to, and of course the political realm was not expected to operate according to these principles, but according to the natural law commandments.  This resulted in two levels of Christianity–first-class Christians, who observed the counsels, and second-class Christians, who observed merely the commandments.  Both were legit, but one was holier than the other.  Of course, it is not difficult to see how neatly this tied in with the emerging two-tier paradigm of nature and grace, with natural law governing laymen and the political sphere, and the law of grace governing the full-time Christians, so to speak.  


An unsatisfactory situation, no doubt, and one against which Luther forcefully reacted, rejecting the distinction between commandments and counsels, and insisting that all Christians were the same, and were bound to the same standards.   A short paragraph in Melanchthon’s discussion give some insight as to why: 

“First, it is obvious that our works cannot merit forgiveness of sins; so also are our works not perfection, for in this weak life we are still far from fulfilment of the law, and much sin, doubt and disorder remain in us, as Job 9:2 says, ‘No man is justified before God.’ Therefore it is empty blindness when men extol their own works as perfection, as if such works were a complete fulfilment of the divine law, and as if such holiness were higher than commanded works.”

In other words, since man is not justified by works, then what could it mean for the counsels to be better than the commandments?  They couldn’t contribute any justifying merit, and since for the Reformers, justification is the central question, there’s no sense in the distinction.

The Anabaptists took Luther to be saying, more or less, that all were bound to follow the counsels, and the commandments were out (although they did not accept celibacy as one of the counsels).  However, Luther quickly became alarmed by the radical, perfectionist, and legalistic direction that this led, and rejected Anabaptism as a false understanding of his teaching.  In his later work, he basically re-introduced the commandments/counsels distinction, but this time, internally and individually, instead of outwardly in the Christian community.  It was a line through the heart of each Christian, not through the Christian community.  All Christians were called to live outwardly in accord with the commandments, but to have their inner attitudes governed by the counsels.  All of this development thus far I have traced, more or less, in my series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount, which I never finished, but of which we could perhaps consider this a continuation.

The magisterial Reformation, following the later Luther, basically jettisons the counsels of perfection from the socio-political sphere, and lodges them merely in the inward motions of the Christian heart.  So, for instance, you not only may, but ought, to fight back with force (deadly force if necessary) against an aggressor, but with charity in your heart toward him all the while–you must use your outer fist, while turning your inner cheek.  What this means is that the laws of political ethics become not a baseline for preserving order, within which a fuller social ethics can be fostered by the Church, but become themselves the only standard of social ethics.   


A couple examples may clarify.  For Augustine, the laws ought to permit killing in self-defense, but Christian ethics ought not to allow it.  In On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, he turns to discuss the subject.  Intriguingly, his opening opens the door to take the later Lutheran route, but promptly shuts it:

Augustine: First we ought to discuss, I think, whether there is any lust in the case where an attacking enemy or an assassin in ambush is killed for the sake of life, liberty, or chastity.  Evodius: How can I think that men lack lust for the things that they can lose against their will?  Or, if they cannot lose these things, what need is there to go as far as murdering a man for them?” 

Augustine, in common with Luther, recognizes that the key moral problem is of the inward lust, but whereas the magisterial Reformers at this point would answer Evodius by saying, “No, we can  act in this way toward the enemy without any accompanying lust in our hearts, but preserving all the while charity toward the aggressor and acting out of mere concern for justice,” Augustine concurs with Evodius–the outward action is the expression of the heart.  He and Evodius then go on to develop a careful justification for why, given that the action of violent self-defense is itself wrong, the laws may still justly permit it.  The magisterial Reformation, however, will conclude that not only should the laws permit such, but because they permit it, and are an expression of the natural law when they do so, that it is therefore morally right to use violent self-defense, and–here’s the kicker–morally negligent not to do so.  

Another example: Augustine famously argued in his letter to Macedonius for clemency toward convicted criminals.  While acknowledging that there was genuine justice in the penalties prescribed by law for criminals–including capital punishment–Augustine argued that nevertheless, it was even better and more Christlike, to pardon them if possible, and he maintained that the Church had a duty to intercede for such pardon and work for it.  In Bk. 4, ch. 14 of his Loci Communes, Peter Martyr Vermigli took Augustine to task for this argument in no uncertain terms, mounting a vigorous and unequivocal point-by-point refutation.  The gist of his argument (about which I have been planning to post for a year now; hopefully I will have a chance to discuss it fully in a later post) is that, since the laws are just in requiring the full penalty, based as they are on the natural law and the Old Testament, it would be unjust and therefore wrong for the magistrate to do anything other than impose the full penalty.  And it would therefore be unjust and wrong for any clergyman to exhort the magistrate to impose anything less than the full penalty of justice.  All of Augustine’s arguments drawn from the teaching of Christ Vermigli considers irrelevant–this evangelical law pertains only to the inward disposition of the heart.  So the magistrate must of course act with full charity and non-judgmentalness in his heart, but this should not in any way affect his actions.

This, I take it, is the fundamental move of Protestant ethics and political ethics, and, understandable as it is in reaction both to the Catholic two-class system and the Anabaptist legalism, I can’t help but consider it a very unsatisfactory move.  So, let’s turn in the next post to see how Melancthon develops this with respect to property.

Three Possible Objections (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 6)

When I considered possible objections or qualifications to my “A Christian Answer to Coercion,” I realized that these questions led quickly into a dense thicket of some the thorniest questions of Christian ethics.  Without trying to resolve these fully or offer answers to how we ought to act in every conceivable situation, I will try to address three particularly important objections, without being more laborious than necessary:

  1. Doesn’t this response amount to quietism, leaving coercive structures in power?
  2. Even if we shouldn’t fear for ourselves, isn’t it legitimate to act out of fear for others?
  3. Isn’t there such a thing as legitimate self-interest?  If so, doesn’t this mean that a certain amount of fear and a certain regard for my own well-being is part of an appropriate Christian response to would-be coercers?


So first, haven’t we left the coercion of kings and corporations unchallenged?  By saying, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to demand our tax money, we’ll give it to you freely!” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to threaten to fire me, I’ll work hard freely” don’t we simply leave the power structures in place, to continue demanding, oppressing, trampling on people?  Even if I myself am so holy that I don’t care how much I’m trodden on, don’t I thereby invite the powers to tread on my weaker neighbors and co-workers?  This is a powerful objection, as it appeals to love.  If I love my neighbor, I will resist the would-be coercer–not for myself, but for my neighbor’s sake.  To be a quietist who simply let coercive structures do their thing wouldn’t be Christlike–he challenged such structures in defense of the defenseless.

Two points may be made in response.  First, willing service is not mere quietism; it is not only morally right, but often the most effective way to resist the coercive powers that be.  “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  The simple act of fearlessly and voluntarily doing good to the oppressor, when they are desperately trying to intimidate you and elicit a fearful response, is a dramatic act of subversion, which knocks the sword out of the oppressor’s hands, unmasks the emptiness of his power, and may even bring him to repentance.  So fearlessness is in itself a powerful response to coercion.  

Second, when a further response is required, fearlessness is a necessary prerequisite for such a response.  We should love our enemies, but not to the point where this requires us to stop loving our neighbors; thus Jesus did not just yield to the Pharisees’ wishes, but openly opposed them and spoke out against them on behalf of the weak and despised.  However, this challenge was so effective because Jesus was not himself afraid of them; he had no fear on his own account.  So, while there will be times when certain government or corporate policies must be opposed for the sake of those who will suffer from them, our opposition will be far more effective if it is clear that we fight not for our own rights, or out of fear of our own suffering, but from love of neighbor.  Conservatives will argue that higher taxation will hurt everyone, including the weakest; the argument may or may not be sound, but if it is, it would be far more effective if anti-taxation rhetoric was not couched so often in terms of “leave me alone,” “I want my rights,” “It’s my money!”


With the discussion of love of neighbor, another challenge arises: shouldn’t I be moved by fear for those I love?.  Perhaps I cannot loose coercion’s hold on myself so easily as it seemed above.  Let’s return to the initial classification of motivations given in Part 2 of this series to see how this might be the case.  There we noted not all “fear” is selfish fear; fear for another’s well-being can be driven by love.  At the time, it seemed that we could easily enough say that, being subordinate to love, this kind of fear was simply an element of love.  But if fear can be present even in love, how can perfect love cast out fear?  If I love others, it seems that coercion does not disappear so easily; perhaps I don’t mind if the SS officer points the gun at my head, but what if he points the gun at my wife’s head?  

But I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything.  All fears are to be relativised by our fear and love of God; thus no one should be able to coerce me by fear for another’s well-being to do what is wrong; I will fear God more and still disobey.  Likewise, if they are trying to get me to do something that is not in itself wrong, my response should be motivated by desire to do what is right, and their attempted intimidation should be irrelevant.  Fear prompted by love of another is not in itself wrong, but if it leads us to act in a way contrary to the love of God, it is revealed as the product of distorted, wrongly ordered love.  


A third objection might appeal to the notion of “legitimate self-interest,” a popular theme not only of capitalism but indeed of centuries of the natural law tradition.  I am to love my neighbor as myself, not against myself–it is perfectly legitimate and morally upright to have a certain concern for my own survival and well-being, and thus to act in my own defense.  Because of legitimate self-interest, it is not always wrong for me to fear for my own safety, and to act to protect myself.  If someone tries to kill me, I am not required just to stand there and say, “Well, I’m not afraid of you, so go ahead and kill me”–I can legitimately try to run away, right?  After all, the apostles fled Jerusalem when they were being persecuted there.  On a more mundane level, if a thief comes into my house, can’t I defend my possessions?  And if so, if a government demands too much tax money, can’t I try to defend myself against it?  

This is a fair objection.  What I said above was, more or less, that Christian should respond to coercion by voluntarily giving the would-be coercer what he wants, as long as it wouldn’t be immoral to do so, and if it would be, then to refuse fearlessly.  But if a certain degree of self-interest is legitimate, then wouldn’t it be “immoral” to act carelessly against it?  E.g., Wouldn’t it be immoral not to preserve my life if possible, and not to preserve my possessions if possible?  

I confess that I am not altogether sure what to do with this objection, since I am not altogether sure how far I think “legitimate self-interest” extends.  Certainly I think that, if are to think in terms of rightly-ordered love, then self-interest cannot extend to the point of depriving another of what I am seeking to protect for myself.  Thus I cannot seek to kill another merely to protect my own life; but if I can protect my own life merely by escaping, without doing harm to another, then I ought to.  This would suggest that if I could protect my possessions merely by withholding them when they are illegitimately demanded, I ought to.  All of which would suggest, for instance, that I would be perfectly legitimate to oppose heavy taxation, and avoid paying if possible.   But this argument seems to have led us into direct contradiction of Romans 13, at least as I have read it.  It also seems to contradict, “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” (Mt. 5:40).  But that command seems absurd, especially in light of the examples of economic bullying we’ve looked at–does this really mean that, whenever someone tries to intimidate me into buying or selling something, I would have to respond “in love” by doing as they asked, and doing more than they ask?  This seems absurd.  


A closer look at the context of commands like “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” readily suggests an answer.  Self-abnegation is not a goal in itself, so I do not have to act against self-interest anytime anyone wants me to do something for them.  Rather, I think that the concern is to avoid and overcome conflict.  If someone demands something from me in a way that I cannot refuse without generating conflict, and if their demand has negative effects on myself alone, then I ought to willingly yield to their demand, and try to go above and beyond, to overcome their evil with good.  However, if someone wants something from me, but I can reasonably refuse without conflict, then I may take self-interest into account and refuse their demand.  This explains why it is that, if the government seeks to coerce me to to pay exorbitant taxes, I should willingly yield, but if a business uses one of the more subtle forms of coercion we explored above, to try to take advantage of me and get me to buy a product, there’s no reason I have to buy it.  (Of course, I still ought never to return evil for evil, e.g., by trying to rip off a store that I know is trying to rip me off.)  Thus, there does remain an important distinction in this regard between many forms of political coercion and certain forms of economic coercion, but, as we have seen earlier, it does not lie where many imagine it.


These answers do not provide a comprehensive account of how we ought to respond to all coercive situations.  Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely saying “‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so just love God and love very oppressor and there will be no reason to fear.”  We always have to take into account all kinds of questions about what is being demanded of me, why, what will happen if I acquiesce, what will happen if I refuse, etc.  

None of these complications, however, should change our fundamental posture when faced with intimidation and coercion.  We should seek to cultivate a faith that fears God above all else, and which thus cannot be easily swayed by worldly fears.  We should seek to cultivate a love of God, neighbor, and even enemy that strives to do good even to those who don’t deserve it, which thus heaps coals of fire on their heads, and renders their coercive sword powerless.  

Other Posts in This Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere

A Christian Answer to Coercion

Giving Our Enemies Blood to Drink

How are we to think about violence in the New Covenant?  What does it mean to love our enemies?  In a recent exchange with some friends on Facebook, they argued (Biblically) in defense of the idea that we can take pleasure in the killing of our enemies, at least, assuming those enemies are actually wicked, and thus deserve to be killed.  I sought to emphasize that, whether or not this was appropriate in the Old Covenant, Christ’s command to love our enemies, and his example of sacrificing himself for them, demonstrates that we are to grow up out of such attitudes.  Even if killing enemies is something that must sometimes be done, for the protection of the helpless, it must be done in a spirit of regret and grief, always desiring the best, not the worst, for the one who is slain.  This was part of the response I received:

“First, Jesus makes himself out to be pretty ruthless in his own parables. In the Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, he calls himself a hard master and ends by commanding the execution of his political enemies before his face. No shyness there.

Second, Revelation makes him out to be the same way and tells us how his martyrs see their martyrdom. In chapter 6 the martyred saints cry out impatiently to God for justice. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are told to wait just a little while longer. Their blood is then soon avenged and God’s praises are sung for it. There is no remorse or pity or hesitation when it comes. See 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 16:5-7, and 19:1-4. I will quote from chapter 16: “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”

That’s new covenant stuff. What Jesus does, when he comes back in all his glory, is akin, mechanically speaking, to what the Marine Corps does. He sheds blood. Lots of it. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Jesus isn’t that nice. We don’t need to be, either.”

This problem is not quite as simple as we would like it to be.  In involves reconciling two clear and seemingly contradictory pictures we have in the New Testament.  On the one hand, we have a clear picture of Jesus as coming to die on behalf of those who are his enemies, to receive all the evil they can throw at him and to overcome in love, and teaching his followers to do the same.  On the other hand, another picture, more familiar from the Old Testament, clearly remains: that of a righteous God who must judge His enemies, and whose righteous judgment we are to hail and rejoice in.  The saints in Revelation have done both: they have followed Christ and received martyrdom for witnessing to their foes, and yet now they call for Christ to come and judge these foes, and rejoice in that judgment.  How can we love our enemies and desire their salvation, while also desiring or at any rate rejoicing in their destruction?

Ultimately, this comes down to very fundamental theological questions about we reconcile God’s justice with his mercy.  When we look at only one side of the matter, they can appear to work well together–God’s justice consists in his merciful intervention on behalf of the oppressed.  But then we find that this means being very unmerciful to the oppressors, which bothers us…and even if that’s necessary, it doesn’t seem like something we should be happy about. 

I won’t try to answer the fundamental theological questions about how justice and mercy relate in God himself, but I’ll try to make sense of the question about how we’re to respond to and imitate both.  First of all, we could argue this way: there is a difference between on the one hand, accepting the righteous judgments of God as in fact righteous and praising Him for them, and other the other hand desiring and rejoicing in them before they happen.  Indeed, on one level, we are to learn to praise God for all that happens, even, for instance, the death of a loved one, trusting that His will is right; on the other hand, we do not thereby take joy in the prospect, and we pray that God’s will might be otherwise.  To praise God’s justice once it has manifested itself in the destruction of the wicked is to accept that God’s will is always right; but to desire to see the wicked destroyed and to rejoice in the prospect of that destruction seems contrary to Christ’s commands that we are to love our enemies, and seek their good and their conversion.  Could we distinguish this way–we don’t desire the deaths of the wicked, but if they are slain, we rejoice that God’s will is done?

It would be nice if we could solve the problem this simply, but I don’t know that it is that simple.  Certainly in the Old Testament, there is plenty of praying for the destruction of the wicked, and as my friend pointed out, this does not disappear entirely in the New Testament–the martyrs in Revelation do not merely praise the judgment that has already happened, but actively call upon God to enact His vengeance in Rev. 6:9-11.  Does the Sermon on the Mount then merely mean that we are not to take vengeance ourselves, but we are still to secretly desire vengeance against our enemies, and call upon God to enact it?  This interpretation, however, runs counter to the standard interpretation which tries to rescue the legitimacy of self-defense from the Sermon on the Mount–”Jesus doesn’t really mean not to resist evil, or to accept the violence of the wicked against us, only that we should be willing in our hearts to do so, free from all malice and vindictiveness.”  Is Jesus talking about heart, outward actions, or both?  To me, it seems it must be both.

The tension we are wrestling with also appears in Romans 12:19-21: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselvesm but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.  Therefore, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him: If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Interpreters have been deeply divided on this passage for centuries, and the hinge is what we understand by “coals of fire.”  The majority of interpreters have understood this as a metaphor for “burning shame” or something along those lines (and there are good reasons for such a reading); others, however, have insisted that it must be divine judgment, as the most natural reading of the image would suggest.   The latter then read the passage as saying, more or less, “Do not take vengeance on your own account, rather, do good to your enemies so that you may heap up more judgment against them, so that God can let loose on them in his wrath.”  The former, however, insist that such an attitude turns the doing good into a wicked hypocrisy, and doesn’t sound like overcoming evil with good at all; the reminder to leave vengeance to God is not then to be understood as desiring that vengeance upon the foe, but rather, of leaving the matter to God’s vengeance in confidence that He will be more merciful than we would be inclined to be.  

Perhaps we could settle things with a distinction like this: we must seek the good of our own enemies, not seeking vengeance upon them and instead desiring their good, but we may and should desire the destruction of God’s enemies.  It is not for their own sake that the martyrs in Revelation desire vengeance, but for the vindication of God himself.  I think we certainly want to affirm something like this, however, this still leaves us unsatisfied.  Shouldn’t we desire the conversion of even God’s enemies before we desire their destruction, and aren’t we to lament if destruction is left as the only alternative?

Such appears to be the attitude of Jesus.  My friend pointed me to the example of Jesus harshly commanding the destruction of his enemies in several parables, and while clearly this is present, we must not forget the grief with which Jesus anticipates this destruction.  We musn’t forget powerful passages such as these: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34) or “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).  Jesus brings judgment upon those that will not repent, but hopes for another outcome, prays for another outcome, and grieves that they will be slain, even though He himself will be the agent of that slaying. 

Our attitude, it seems, cannot be any different from this.  We desire the death of the wicked only as a we desire the amputation of a diseased limb; we would much rather that the limb be healed, and we grieve at the prospect of amputation.  But if it will not be healed, we accept the amputation, and in a sense, rejoice in it.  Living this out in practice seems difficult, but it seems that we must seek a mindset something like this.


There is a related question on this whole subject that deserves some investigation, and through which we can perhaps draw closer to an answer to this first question: to what extent can we see ourselves as agents of God’s wrath?  (The original question on Facebook, I should clarify, was whether we could rejoice not merely in the death of enemies, but in our own slaying of them.)   In the past, I have drawn something like the following distinction: there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God is a God of peace, and there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God reserves that right to Himself.  I don’t really see how to reconcile the former with the Bible.  I have tended to lean toward something like the latter, although never absolutely.  I have argued something like this: the reason we can accept things like the purge of the Canaanites in the Old Covenant but can insist that we can no longer kill in this way is because we no longer are delegated with the task of exercising God’s judgment.  The wicked deserve God’s wrath (although he often shows mercy), and in the Old Covenant, God calls upon the people of Israel to be instruments of that wrath.  However, when Christ came, God as man, the Judge judged in our place, he took upon himself the task of judgment, and inaugurated the final judgment.  Henceforth, God no longer delegates to us men the task of executing His wrath, but calls on us to leave that to him.  

But I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with this paradigm, because it suggests that we have been demoted, rather than promoted, in the New Covenant.  Rather than maturing and being given more responsibility, we hand back to God responsibility which He has entrusted to us.  Peter Leithart suggests the opposite paradigm in the final chapter of his forthcoming book, Defending Constantine:

“The first covenant, the covenant with angels, was a childhood covenant.  Swords are sharp, and fire burns, and so long as human beings were in their minority, the Lord restricted access to dangerous implements….With the coming of the conquering Seed of the Woman, the sword and fire of angels are given back to a man, to Jesus.  In union with her husband and head, the church is a warrior bride, called to carry out his wars in and with him….In fact, we receive weapons even more powerful than the weapons of a Samson or a David.  We have the Spirit of the risen and exalted Jesus, the Last Adam who has eaten from the tree of knowledge, and our weapons are not fleshly but Spiritual, powerful for demolishing fortresses and destroying speculations raised up against the knowledge of God.  Our armor is righteousness, truth, faith, salvation, the Word of God and the gospel of peace.”

Perhaps this points us towards a solution.  We still fight Yahweh’s wars for him against his enemies, but love is stronger than death, and now that Yahweh fights against his enemies by sending his Son to die for them, so we fight them by dying for them.  We overcome them by loving them, and their overcoming is their conversion, not their death.  These lines get blurred even in Revelation, where the sword that proceeds out of the mouth of the Son (19:15) tantalizingly suggests the Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, and where the blood from the chalice given to the wicked to drink seems to recall the shed blood of the Eucharist.  Of course, there is still vengeance; I don’t think we can get around that.  But this vengeance still falls first of all on the Son who bears it for his enemies, and who laments when it rebounds back upon them.

 If we ever do find ourselves having to slay the enemies of our God, first of all, we’d best make sure that they really are his enemies, and not just our enemies.  And second, we must recognize this as a failure in some sense, a failure to have brought them to reconciliation before the final wrath of God’s judgment comes.  When that day of judgment comes, we welcome it as a display of God’s righteousness, but in the meantime, we try to make sure that as few opponents of God as possible remain to fall under it.

This is not a complete answer, of course, but it seems to me to help us get in the right direction.  I welcome any input or challenges anyone has on these questions.