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;a] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 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 12:17-21, NRSV
‚You have to love people if you want to change them. Your influence only reaches as far as your love.’ Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Pedagogist and Social Reformer (1746-1827)
Sometimes I like to ask the congregation questions while I preach. One question I asked in two different congregations was: Which historical figures do you admire the most? And even though both congregations are quite different, I got the same answers: Mother Theresa. Mahatma Gandhi. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malala Yousafzai. Doctors without Borders. Jesus Christ. And: ‚My mother‘.
The question of course is if people had answered similarly in a different environment – in a sports arena, for example. But I thought it to be quite striking that, in a Christian environment, those were mentioned who are known for their selfless service and their non-violence. In all that the religious background doesn’t matter, as the examples of Gandhi and Yousafzai show; and ‘Doctors without Borders’ include many folks of all kinds of religious backgrounds as well.
It seems we admire people who somehow manage to influence their environment through love. Because we all know how hard it is to love, especially when we encounter resistance rejection, or even violence. How hard it is to serve without expecting any reciprocity. How hard it is to be open to what is strange to us. How hard it is to hold back when we feel we are being attacked. How hard it is to forgive.
Isn’t it quite naive to expect that the world will change for the better if we do good and resist evil? Don’t we make ourselves a target for ignorance, hate and violence if we choose love?
There were many reactions to the horrible attack on visitors of a Christmas market in Berlin this past Monday. Fear. Uncertainty. Grief. Anger. And there are voices who blame the ‚do-gooders‘ – those who believe in treating refugees, who had to escape unimaginable situations, with charity and dignity, with love – for the attacks.
For there will always be those few among the many who will repay good with evil; who are out to divide people and to spread terror. One violent attacker unfortunately makes an entire group of people suspicious – even though the vast majority of such a group has no violent intentions at all.
So does love fail? Are all those biblical passages that speak of love, and especially the word of Jesus about love, nothing but an expression of utopian expectations and naive follies? Does love, does charity mean that we end up being like sheep that are led to the slaughter?
I don’t think so. All those who have ever really loved in their lives know that love is complicated and hard. That one has to work to make love succeed. After all, ‘to love’ is a verb and thus implies a certain effort. Yes, love makes us vulnerable. Very much so. But what would the alternative be? Violence which begets more violence leads to hell on earth. Only love has the power to break this vicious circle of hate and violence. Maybe there would be more attacks without love. Maybe some hearts were transformed by the experience of compassion. Who knows?
But we can’t expect that love automatically leads to goodwill and peace. Ironically the powers of this world often feel threatened by love and strike back. Jesus died on the cross. Gandhi and Luther King Jr. were assassinated. Malala Yousafzai barely survived an attack that was supposed to kill her. ‘Doctors without Borders’ and members of other aid organizations are often the target of violent attacks.
We live in a world in which the power of the fanatics, the stronger ones, the more violent ones, the rich and international corporations seems to prevail. The power of egoism and egotism. In order to influence us and gain power over us, many resort to scare and intimidation tactics. But, as we all know: fear cannot really convince us of any philosophy or religion or opinion. We may tolerate the power of the one who happens to be stronger, but often we also feel resistance to the raw powers that are. In Berlin, the people continue to live their lives with an almost stubborn will to resist fear and terror. They are not intimidated.
Our hearts cannot be won by physical or psychological violence, but only through love, attention and acceptance. It is through love, attention and acceptance that people like Jesus, Malala, Mandela and Mother Theresa convinced people of their causes and were able to change their environment for the better. Through love, attentions and acceptance do we have the gentle power to influence others, to change their hearts, to overcome evil and live into the Kingdom of God. Even and especially in dark times.
This post is also available in: German