Romans 12:14-21

Every businessman or woman has had the uncomfortable experience of not satisfying a customer. This happened a couple of years ago to publisher Justice Rain when a customer demanded a refund, which Justice did not believe was justified.

On top of that, the customer was rude and arrogant, which made him angry and that didn’t put him in a very benevolent mood. What do you think he did? I’ll tell you a little later. 

I know you’ve been there. We’ve all been there. What you want to do is give these kinds of people a double sized portion of what they are giving you. I bet some of you have followed through on those feelings. How did it work out for you?

Maybe you came away from such an episode saying, “I showed him who’s boss,” but this I know: you either made or kept an enemy. You burned some bridges.

Some people avoid the frontal attack, but they are very good at guerrilla warfare, better known as passive-aggressive behavior.

Some people hit back through procrastination, gossip, making intentional mistakes, disguising criticisms sarcastic compliments, withdrawing their presence, or they just stop talking to you.

You still get smacked; you just don’t see it coming as quickly. These tactics are painful; sometimes more than if someone had physically hit you.

We have all been tempted to hit back and we all have, either passively or directly, ever since we sat in the sandbox and a child hit us with a toy or threw sand in our eyes. It’s in our human nature to take revenge.  As a species, it’s one of the ways we have survived.   We have learned how to protect our space. “Don’t tread on me,” has become our survival motto.

Even though we were taught in the sandbox not to hit, we learned along the way that all bets are off if we are hit first. Sometimes children are even coached to hit back.

Not long ago a dad told me he’d taught his son that if he got bullied at school he wanted him to get in one good punch and hit that boy in the nose one time as hard as he could. “Then,” he promised his son, “you won’t have any more problems.” Maybe, maybe not.

Of course, the dad knew that in the eyes of the school administration, his son would be in just as much trouble for fighting as the bully. But this dad doesn’t want to raise a boy that feels defenseless and helpless. He wants him to grow and be a man. Part of being a man, for most men, is defending their space.

So when we hear stories of men doing the opposite of that, we raise our eyebrows a bit. I raised mine when I heard about the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914. During World War I, in the region of Ypres, Belgium, men in trenches were staring at one another across the Western Front.–a-football-story-1323451.html

As Christmas Eve approached, the Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees they had cut. Then the British could hear them as they celebrated by singing Christmas carols. (Ibid)

The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon, a few brave soldiers came out of their trenches and made their way into No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. (Ibid)

The artillery in the region fell silent. In a place where men were dying dozens of hours before, suddenly, the guns were silent. At one point, the men became friendly enough to play games of soccer with one another. (Ibid)

Henry Williamson, a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote excitedly to his mother. “Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha ha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvelous, isn’t it?” (Ibid)

Marvelous indeed, but the truce soon gave way to more bloody battles and the beginning of widespread poison gas use. Soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought. (Ibid)

Who ever heard of blessing an enemy anyway? Isn’t that just the craziest thing you’ve ever heard? Enemies are supposed to be destroyed, demonized, and defeated. Why would anyone ever want to bless an enemy? Doesn’t that just open us up to more heartache and make us more vulnerable to abuse?

Paul wrote a letter to Christians who were living in Rome, a place hostile to those of the faith. He wrote: “Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. ‘I’ll do the judging,’ says God. ‘I’ll take care of it.’ Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good” (Romans 12:14-21 The Message).

Now let’s think about this. If I bless you, it means that I am coming to the situation with some strength and some power. It means that I am not powerless. I cannot bless someone if I don’t have anything to give. I cannot bless people unless I have something that they need and cannot provide for themselves. It means that there is power available to me and it’s up to me to decide whether or not to use that power to harm you or to bless you.

People can do all kinds of things to us but they cannot take away our response to them. That is left up to us. We alone decide whether we will allow another person to make us into an angry, bitter person.

In Old Testament times, the law of lex talionis helped define the boundaries for people who had been hit. The law, which allowed them to hit back, was more commonly known as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The rule said that the punishment had to be equal to the crime.

So imagine the surprise of people when Jesus taught that when we are wounded by others, instead of reaching for the law of lex talionis, we are to reach for a higher law, which is the law of love.

As Christians, if we do not treat others differently when we are wounded than non-Christians do, then are we really any different? Unless we respond differently when we are hit, what difference does our Christianity make? Jesus is not saying that we should place ourselves in abusive situations or that we should continue to allow ourselves to be hit.  He is saying that there are other options than hitting back.

This is the reason Justice Rain thought a lot about how to respond to his rude customer.   He had a good idea about what was right and fair and it didn’t square with the customer’s demands.

Then he began to think about the difference between being right and being spiritual.  What was right in his mind was that the customer didn’t deserve any kind of refund. But the questions he had to ask himself were, “Is that spiritual? What does Jesus want me to do?”

Jesus’ commandment seeks to go above that law of an eye for an eye and deal with our enemies with grace and kindness.

Jesus’ words build on the teaching from an ancient Proverb: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” Proverbs 25:21.

The Apostle Paul uses this same proverb, these same words of Jesus to instruct the people in the church of Rome on how they should deal with their enemies.

The saying goes back to the days when a neighbor would go borrow a hot coal to use to get his or her fire rekindled.   The coal would be put in a pot and the person would carry the pot home on his or her head.

Imagine an enemy coming to borrow a coal and instead of sending back one coal, the entire pot was filled with hot coals. The person would walk back home amazed at the generosity, humbled and surprised.

So our kind words can have a neutralizing effect on them, like a heap of coal on their heads.

Enemies expect to be hit back. They expect retaliation. They brace for your next move and ready themselves for a frontal or passive attack.

What enemies aren’t ready for is kindness.   It catches them by surprise. It throws them off balance. They don’t know how to respond. While some might become more angry because they recognize that in your kindness you are demonstrating power which they’ve not been able to take away, for others it softens their hearts. It defuses their explosive tempers.   It makes some feel ashamed of their actions toward you.

One way to get rid of an enemy is create conditions that give the opportunity for that person to become a friend. “A Chinese sage once said, ‘I meet good with good, that good may be maintained; I meet evil with good that good may be created.’” (The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs, p. 926)

Randy Kanipe is the pastor of the First Methodist Church in Watkinsville.   Years ago he began teaching a non-violent style of martial arts to adults showing them how to take the violent energy of an attacker and neutralize the attack without ever hitting the attacker.   Randy taught people how to move into the conflict, surprising the attacker, and with skill place the attacker in a position with certain pressure holds so his attack is neutralized.

One day Randy got a call from the school principal where his middle school son attended. He wanted Randy to come to the office to have a conference with him and his son.   When he arrived, the principal told Randy that his son wasn’t in any trouble because he never threw a punch. He wanted him to know that his son was being bullied by another boy and he wasn’t quite sure what he did, but he subdued the boy and would not let him go until a teacher arrived.

Randy asked his son what he did and his son told him that when the boy attacked him, he placed him in a suppression hold until a teacher arrived.  Randy asked him where he learned to do that and he said, “I’ve been watching you teach the adults in class.”

That’s when Randy knew he could teach the same techniques and philosophy of non-violence to children.

We don’t have to hit. We don’t have to retaliate. However, that doesn’t mean that we are weak. It doesn’t mean we don’t have actions at our disposal to neutralize the aggression of others. We don’t have to run. We don’t have to be afraid.

It doesn’t mean we will not be wounded. It does mean we can be righteous. It does mean we have a chance to change the world.

Jesus is saying that’s what kindness does to an enemy.

In fact, it takes way more strength to show kindness than it does to hit back.

Publisher Justice Rain really didn’t have it in his heart to do anything kind for the rude customer that demanded a refund.  He wasn’t feeling any love in his heart for this person, and why should he? This person had become his enemy.

However, he understood that Jesus wants us to be obedient even when our heart’s not in it. So not only did he refund the customer’s money; he gave the customer 10% MORE than what he had demanded.  (Ibid)

Three days later, Justice’s wife answered the phone.  The customer who had demanded the refund was on the phone and was very distraught.  He didn’t know what had come over him to make him be so rude. The customer wanted to know if they would please forgive him and let him order from them again in the future.  (Ibid)

Now does this always happen when we feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them water when they are thirsty?

The life of Jesus reminds us that we can get killed for our love and kindness.

However, even if our enemies don’t become our friends, we can live at peace with ourselves and in communion with our Lord for having been obedient to Jesus. We will have done everything in our power to maintain peace and unity.

So remember this: even when you don’t have it in your heart to love those who have wounded you, then just kill them – with kindness. The outcome of that kind of approach will reap much greater rewards than hitting back.