Romans 12: Challenging Christian and Atheist America

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

St. Paul Preaching Christ Crucified

Christianity often is a challenge to Christians.  Just consider the words above from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:14).   For those who claim religion is a crutch, try supporting yourself on those words.  See if they make life easier in some way.

How many blessings have American Christians composed for their current enemies?

How many Christian politicians would dare compose such blessings?

How many Christians would vote for those who did?

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

(Romans 12:17-19)

What was St. Paul thinking when he wrote the words above?  Are we to allow ourselves to be persecuted?  What does it mean to treat with nobility those who do evil to us?

Are we to let Hitlers and Stalins and bin Ladens run rampant on the earth?   Murdering millions including children?

Certainly these teachings are not crutches for the weak.  They are rather hurdles and traps that give us little comfort in our decisions.  They do not support ideas of humans demanding retribution or revenge.

Christians will have to look elsewhere for that morality.  St. Paul allows for Christian martyrdom – the imitation of Christ, voluntary suffering – not Islamic fundamentalist “martrydom” which murders innocents and children.  There is no justice based on “an eye for an eye” here.  No just war theory.  No “holy” war.   There is an ethic here and a logic which is not a human demand for justice.  It is based in the logic of the Cross and of the Crucified God.

St. Paul sees in Christ God’s love which is unfathomable deep.   This is not human justice, but divine love.

Can we trust God to exact justice and retribution on enemies?  Are we willing to hand such justice over to Him and accept whatever He chooses to do?

No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;

for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

(Romans 12:20-21)

Christ taught us to give food and drink to the least of His brothers and sisters.  St. Paul says we should do the same to our enemies.

This is no crutch for believers to lean on.   It is a challenge to the very ground on which we stand.  We are not to heap fiery coals upon the heads of our enemies, but rather food and drink.  Or reversing the thought we are to heap food and drink on them.  Such love according to St. Paul will be experienced by them as being burned alive.

Replace armies with generous foreign aid to repay our enemies?   Will believers believe this will really work?

St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:14-21 do not make believers comfortable, do not make life more palatable for Christians, do not prop us up by making life easier.

They no doubt for some place burning coals on our own heads.   How many biblical literalists want these words of St. Paul posted in every courthouse or read by military chaplains to the troops or pronounced by our presidents in response to terrorist attacks?

Scriptures often do comfort the afflicted, but they also afflict the comfortable.

If we take St. Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart, who are the sinners and who are the righteous?  Agreeing to be a Christian, taking up the cross of Christ is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with weak knees, nor for the spineless.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;  

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.  

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;  

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(My note:  normally, 3 mornings each week I do Matins during which we read the Scripture assigned for the day according to the Orthodox lectionary.   Following the reading of the Scripture, we have a few minutes of silent meditation.   Romans 12 was the Epistle for today, and what I wrote above is the meditation I had while contemplating the words of St. Paul.) 

The Wages of Sin

“Having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 6:18-23)

“Sin is one thing but instinctive reaction or passion is another. These are our reactions: pride, anger, sexual indulgence, hate greed and so on. The corresponding sins are the gratifications of these passions: when a man acts and brings into corporeal reality those works which were suggested to him by his innate desires. It is impossible to exist without natural desires arising, but not to give way to them is by no means impossible.

Therefore, The Man (God) gave us instructions, as I said, which purify our passion and those evil dispositions which come from our inner man. He instilled into man’s inner conscious the power to judge good and evil; he woke it from sleep; he showed the causes from which sins rise and he says to us, ‘The Law says “Do not commit adultery”, but I say to you, do not entertain desire. The Law says “Do no murder”, but I say, do not give way to anger. If you do entertain a fleshly desire today and you do not commit adultery, it does not cease inwardly troubling until it whips you into action. If you are irritated and stir up anger against your brother, then you strike him, speak evil against him, then plot against him and so go forward little by little and at last you come to murder him.’ Again the Law says, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, etc., but Our Lord admonishes us not only to bear patiently the blows of one who strikes us, but humbly to turn to him the other cheek. And so the object of the Law is to teach us not to do to others what we do not wish to suffer, and therefore it cuts away our wrong-doing through our fear of suffering. Now the object must be, as I am always saying, to cast away our hatred, our love of pleasure, our vainglory and the rest of our unruly desires.

I repeat that the aim of Christ, our Master, is precisely to teach us how we come to commit all our sins; how we fall into our all our evils…Finally he shows us how we come to despise and disobey the commandments of God and adds the medicine that all may be able to obey and be saved. What then is the medicine and what the cause of our contempt? Listen to what the Lord himself tells us: ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest for your souls.’ There you have it in a nutshell: he has taught us the root and cause of all evils and also the remedy for it, leading to all good.”

(Dorotheos of Gaza in Discourses & Sayings: Desert Humor & Humility, pgs. 80-81)