9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20No, ‘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.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Although Roman Christians would later face fierce persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero, Paul’s letter to the Romans was written before this fate. As a result, the evil he is addressing is not of an outside force seeking to defeat the Christians but, rather, of the subtler, though perhaps just as dangerous, pressure of their own neighbors, family, and friends.
The suffering that Paul addresses is a suffering caused by the experience of Roman Christians finding themselves on the “outside” of their social circles due to their new religious beliefs that forbid the worship of idols. Family members, co-workers, and neighbors who had not converted to Christianity did not understand and did not approve of the new behaviors of their Christian counterparts who refused to attend public events, many of which were deeply integrated with this sort of idol worship.
This experience of their neighbors and families not understanding where Christians are coming from in relation to public discourse and current events seems to be something we have never escaped. While the issue today may not so clearly be idol worship, Christians who seek to follow the commandment to love, for instance, often find themselves on the other side of their families, co-workers, and friends when it comes to current social and political issues.
In the wake of recent white nationalist activity in the United States and renewed public outcry against hate speech, Paul’s words to the Romans are as timely as ever. In the midst of the human temptation toward disparagement or retribution, this discourse on love provides a timely call to what Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians as a “still more excellent way” (12:31).
To be clear, Paul’s exhortations to “love one another with mutual affection” (12:10) and to “Live in harmony with one another” (12:16) leave no room for debate—hate speech is wrong. Not only wrong, hate speech is evil. It is an expression of the ultimate disconnection of one human being from another or from other groups of human beings.
Hate speech is the result of the offending individual’s failure to recognize the image of God in another and, as a result, is a separation from God in oneself. Inasmuch, then, as evil is the absence or deviation from God, hate speech is quite literally evil and ought to be condemned as such.
The law of the land in Paul’s day and, indeed, in Jewish tradition allowed a certain amount of retribution in these sorts of situations. Evil was not—and is not—to be left unanswered. And, indeed, Paul agrees that evil must be answered: silence is not the answer.
However, rather than “repay anyone evil for evil,” as actions (though tempting) like leaving dog poop in anticipation of a potentially hate-filled rally may seem to do, Paul exhorts us to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17).
In the midst of the hate-filled, divisive rhetoric in which we continue to find ourselves, is there anything that can be considered noble or good in the sight of all people? How might Christians, called not to be silent, but rather to respond to hatred with goodness, promote this kind of love and harmony?
In contrast to retributive responses to hate speech and marches in other towns, the small town of Wunseidel, I think (perhaps unknowingly) put Paul’s commands into action. In response to a neo-Nazi march to be held in their town, a group of organizers gathered pledges of financial support to an organization against Nazism for every meter the neo-Nazis walked.
As the neo-Nazis marched, they encountered writing on the street thanking them for raising so much money to fight hate. The organizers even set up water tables along the route to “thank” the marchers, a lovely spin on Paul’s command, “if [your enemies] are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” (Rom 12:20).
In this shift to direct parenesis after extolling the Romans community to use their spiritual gifts, granted by God, in order to discern what is right (Rom 12:2), Paul is not commanding passive submission to the evils of this world, but rather commending a still more excellent way.
In this excellent way, Christians are called not to ignore despair, but to help sow joy in its wake; not to condone hate, but to be all the more zealous in their own loving in its face. The politics of overcoming evil are about neither ignoring nor condoning evil, but rather, fighting it with the strongest power possible—love.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.