Year A, Pentecost 13
At several of the major Episcopal Church events I have attended, protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church have showed up. You have probably heard of them. They not only protest churches that open their doors to the gay and lesbian community, they protest at funerals of military personnel who have died in war. The signs they hold are incredibly hurtful and cruel, especially considering they are often appearing at places where people are grieving. People have learned that inciting this small group is a mistake for a variety of reasons. One of the most powerful responses I have seen is people dressed up as angels with large wings that provide a barrier between those at the funeral and the people protesting. These angels are essentially shielding people from these evil words. The angels don’t say anything. They just stand there. It is not only a powerful witness, it’s practical.
Our reading from Paul is part of his letter to the Romans. Often times Paul is addressing specific issues that have come up. This part of his letter seems to be more general advice. It’s kind of a list of what it is to be a Christian. In the beginning of the chapter, before our reading, Paul wrote that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern the will of God in our lives. If we are transformed on the inside, then our actions should reflect that transformation. In our reading for today, Paul tells us what that looks like—what it looks like to be transformed. “Love each other with genuine affection…work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Be patient in trouble and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them.” I think we can all agree this is good advice. While it is difficult to follow all of this advice all of the time, it’s definitely something we should try to do.
But Paul never likes to make things easy on people. After he provides this advice that would probably easily make it into any Chicken soup for the soul book, he takes it a couple steps further. “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them…Never pay back evil with more evil…Instead if your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” In other words, we can’t just ignore the mean people, we have to be nice to them. We have to bring them water and snacks!? That sounds crazy. How will they know they are wrong?
When we think of non-violent resistance, we often think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. While he was not the first to use this method of resistance, he was the first to use it in the United States on a large scale. The thing about non-violent resistance in the Civil Rights Era was that it often led to violence against African Americans and occasionally the white people who were supporting them. Some people got understandably frustrated. They were tired of getting beaten up and not responding in kind.
Martin Luther King knew the Bible and he knew Paul and I wonder if he was thinking of these words from Paul. Paul said that we must respond to evil with good. By doing so, “you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Have you ever seen pictures of the Civil Rights marches with non-armed people getting beaten by heavily armed police? It is horrifying. It is shameful. When people saw those images, it had a huge effect. Now, it is a travesty that it took those kinds of images to make an impact, but it is exactly what Paul was saying. It is why non-violent protest or passive resistance can be so effective. Shame can motivate people.
Yet, despite the fact that this was so effective in the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t think anyone should have to live through that. I wondered as I was reading Paul’s words what it looks like to repay evil with good. How could that possibly accomplish anything? Recently we have seen a lot of protests and counter protests end in bloodshed. Because of that, it makes sense that some people think the best response is no response…silence. However, silence implies complicity. Paul is not arguing for silence. He is telling us to respond to evil and to respond with kindness and love.
In researching this text, I saw a link to an article about a small town in Germany. This town had the misfortune of being the home of the grave of Rudolph Hess who was a deputy of Adolph Hitler. As a result, every year neo-Nazis march through the town. The town held counter protests. They attempted to stop this march through the legal system. They even exhumed the body and moved the headstone. The Nazis kept marching. In 2014, the town decided to try something new. Without the marchers’ knowledge, local residents and businesses sponsored the 250 participants of the march in what was described as Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon.” For every meter they walked, €10 went to a program called EXIT Deutschland which helps people escape extremist groups. The people of the town had tables with free bananas with a sign that urged the marchers to take the bananas so they could keep up their energy to continue to march and earn money to fight the Nazis. At the end of the march a huge banner read, “Thank you for your donation.” They even threw rainbow confetti. This method has spread to other small towns around Europe. I think Paul would approve of this method.
Most of the time, we are not faced with such obvious displays of hate. Typically, it is much more nuanced. Yet Paul’s words are still appropriate. It’s difficult. I know it is because I have a hard time with it. I get mad when people are rude. I get really mad. That’s not helpful. That has more to do with what is going on with me than what someone says or doesn’t say. What I have noticed is that when I have not dedicated time to my relationship with God–that is when it is most difficult to love others. Paul begins by urging us not to pretend to love others, but that we let our love be genuine. The only way we can have that genuine love for others is if we know what that love feels like. While God gives his love freely, it is up to us to embrace it. After we embrace it, we can embody it. Once we embody it…then we can share it with others, even the rude people. The angels with huge wings are awesome at blocking the cruel signs, but God’s love can do more than just be a barrier to hate. It can end it.