Vengeance has a way of sneaking into our lives, doesn’t it?
It starts during the morning rush hour, when you stop at that stop sign at Kasold and Harvard, and the car pulls out in the wrong order. “They were there. You were there. They were there….wait, it’s not their turn!” You lay into the horn and go anyway, feeling rather smug when they slam on their brakes. That felt good.
It continues later in the day, when someone posts a political post. Another political post. And you decide that you simply cannot take their soapbox anymore. So you click Friends. Find their name. Delete. “Are you sure? You bet I’m sure.” Click. That felt really good.
Vengeance continues to build and build throughout the day, and throughout our lives. Retribution at work for those co-workers who botched your project. Revenge against your spouse when they didn’t follow up on their end of the household chores.
And it builds and builds and builds, until you find yourself wishing a painful and merciless death against 1.6 billion proponents of a religion that is different than yours.
That’s where I was fifteen years ago tonight.
Perhaps you were, too.
After the towers fell, there were plenty of emotions as we sat for hours and hours in front of the TV. There were feelings of horror, to count the lives lost in such a terrifying way. There were feelings of pride, to see the first responders and hear their stories of bravery and courage. There were feelings of anger and rage, at the perpetrators and those who cheered them on. I found myself wanting vengeance upon them, and those who had anything to do with them, even the religion that they shared.
Of course, in the fifteen years since, those emotions have been replaced by more rational thoughts:
I was reassured in the days after 9-11 by President Bush and his visit to a Muslim mosque, where he stated “Islam is peace.”
I have read again and again the statistics about the danger of an Islamic terror attack – that the average American is more likely to die by a refrigerator falling on them than at the hands of an Islamic terrorist.
It is clear that terrorism comes from the fundamentalist fringe – left wing, right wing, Muslim, Christian – not from the average proponents of any faith.
And yet, in that moment, my yearning for vengeance was strong.
So, I went to church. As did many of us a few days later. I was thankful that I did not have to preach that morning, as I don’t know what I would have said. But I knew what I wanted to hear. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear what I needed to.
I needed to hear a way to grieve – I was given a way to fight.
I needed reassurance that God was bigger than this – I was told that America was bigger than this.
I needed a sermon of hope – I got a political pep rally.
Thankfully, then, and over the last 15 years, the Apostle Paul has given me what I need. For he delivers the sermon that I needed – and still need – to hear. Of course, it was not given first to me, but to the Jesus-followers of the Roman church, because it became clear to him that they needed the same sermon. Paul had not visited the church in Rome, unlike most of the letters that he wrote. He did not know anyone there personally, but he knew of their struggles.
He knew that they were in the heart of the Empire. The Roman church was trying to build a community in a place where they were the minority. The emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome some years earlier, and he would not have distinguished between traditional Jews and the Jewish Christians who followed Jesus as their Lord. Coming back into Rome, now, they were even more the minority than they were before, and they struggled how to create an alternative community to the Empire that surrounded them. Into this community come the words of Paul:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.* Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 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.’ 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.
Into this community on the cusp of answering vengeance with vengeance, Paul delivers a sermon of harmony. He didn’t know anyone in the church. But he knew human nature. He knew what we are likely to do. When we are defeated, our tendency is to yearn for vengeance. Our own history replays this again and again:
The Germans had been defeated in World War One, and yearned to make Germany as great as it once was. From that broken spirit came a yearning for an enemy, and a yearning for vengeance, and a yearning for someone to blame. And Hitler and the Nazis did just that. And out of their anger and despair and desperation, ordinary Germans were more than ready to call the soldiers to turn in their neighbors or even flip the switch in the gas chamber.
We as Americans were defeated at Pearl Harbor. And it didn’t take long for us to yearn for an enemy – someone to blame. And so, we looked for every Japanese baker or schoolteacher or child and forced them into internment camps. We forced innocent people into cages because we chose to perpetuate the cycle of vengeance.
When defeated, we yearn for vengeance. But Paul tells the Roman Christians not to play the vengeance game because you cannot win. He quotes a Psalm about pouring burning coals on the head of your enemy. At first, it sounds like he is offering a way to exact revenge, but, of course, the whole passage is kind of saying the opposite. Instead, it seems to me that he is saying that those who choose that cycle of vengeance choose a losing game. It doesn’t work! It’s like getting a face full of coals. And deep down, we know this to be the case. A couple of minutes after we honk our horns and wave our arms, we feel like morons for our road rage. When we get labeled as the “jerk” at work because of our revenge, we regret it. And what Germans don’t look back with regret? What Americans are proud of the internment camps? Even now, fewer and fewer Americans are proud of the retribution that we unleashed on the Middle East after 9-11, or the discrimination upon Muslims here at home. At the end of the day, the cycle of vengeance never works in the way that we think it will in our minds.
And so, Paul gives us a new way to live. The Wednesday evening Two-way conversation group struggled with passage. It sounds like a great way to live, but, boy is it hard! How do we live lives of forgiveness when vile perpetrators do evil things to children? How do we “live in harmony with one another” when our grandchildren won’t have anything to do with us? How do we “bless those who persecute you” when they have committed such acts of terrorism and violence against us? It feels more than a little overwhelming, doesn’t it?
But that is when we together arrived at the good news. Trying to do all of this isn’t our job! Of course, it will take intentionality on our part, but it is not our work. It is not our innate feelings of forgiveness or love that makes this community a reality. It is not our hard work or discipline or perfectionism that makes us loving people. It is God’s gift of grace that makes it possible! N.T. Wright says it this way: “God’s people are loved by God and thus don’t have to take matters into their own hands.”
Paul moves us from the lens of vengeance…to the lens of love. Jesus invited us to see the world through the lens of love. Of forgiveness. Of hospitality. Of trust that God is going to take care of us, which means that it isn’t up to us to police the whole world – from the intersection to 1.6 billion souls around the world. When we trust that God is caring for us, it is so much easier to let go of the lens of vengeance, and see one another as children of God.
It is a lesson that Phyllis Rodriguez learned the hard way. Phyllis was out on a walk fifteen years ago today when she got a call from her son Gregory, who worked in the twin towers. He explained that there was an accident in the other tower and it was being evacuated, but he was safe. Of course, that was before the other tower was hit as well, and ultimately Gregory would not be safe. He and over 3,000 other people died in the attack, and it tore Phyllis to pieces.
As a grieving mother, she was invited to meet together with other grieving family members, which is where she met Aicha. Aicha was a mother like her, who was also grieving the loss of her son. But for a very different reason. You see, Aicha was the mother of Zacharias Moussaoui, sometimes called the 20th 9-11 terrorist. Moussaoui was convicted of being involved in the plot to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And so, Phyllis sat across the table from this woman…and she found that she had a choice.
She had been defeated. No one could blame her for pointing her grief and her rage and her hatred at this woman. No one would judge her if she did. But as Phyllis looked across the room at Aicha, she saw the eyes of a woman who was grieving the loss of her son, just like she was. She saw someone who was hurting, just like she was.
And so, Phyllis began a conversation with Aicha. A conversation that led to a relationship. A relationship that led to a deep friendship. A friendship that continues to this day, as they travel together and talk about the power of forgiveness. Of love. Of trust. May Phyllis be an example today of who Paul has called us to be. Who Christ has modeled for us to be. May we set aside the lens of vengeance and take up instead the lens of love.