|Romans 12:17-21. Our relationship to our enemies: not retaliation but service.
When we are moved by the mercies of God, and when our minds have been renewed to grasp his will, all our relationships become transformed. Not only do we offer our bodies to God (1-2), and develop a sober self-image (3-8), and love one another in the Christian community (9-16), but now also we serve our enemies (17-21). These have already appeared in the guise of our persecutors (14) and are about to reappear as evildoers (17). In fact, the last five verses of Romans 12 handle the question of how Christians should respond to evildoers. Good and evil are contrasted throughout the whole context (e.g. 9, 17, 21 and 13:3-4).
The most striking feature of this final paragraph, if we add verse 14 which anticipated it, is that it contains four resounding negative imperatives:
1. ‘Do not curse’ (14).
2. ‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil’ (17).
3. ‘Do not take revenge’ (19).
4. ‘Do not be overcome by evil’ (21).
All four prohibitions say the same thing in different words. Retaliation and revenge are absolutely forbidden to the followers of Jesus. He himself never hit back in either word or deed. And in spite of our inborn retributive tendency, ranging from the child’s tit for tat to the adult’s more sophisticated determination to get even with an opponent, Jesus calls us instead to imitate him. To be sure, there is a place for the punishment of evildoers in the law courts, and Paul will come to this in Romans 13. But in personal conduct we are never to get our own back by injuring those who have injured us. Non-retaliation was a very early feature of he Christian ethical tradition (Cf. 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet.3:9), going back to the teaching of Jesus (E.g. Mt.5:39ff.; Lk.6:27ff.), and beyond this to the Old Testament Wisdom literature (E.g. Pr.20:22; 24:29).
The Christian ethic is never purely negative, however, and each of Paul’s four negative imperatives is accompanied by a positive counterpart. Thus we are not to curse but to bless (14); we are not to retaliate, but do what is right and to live at peace (17-18); we are not to take revenge, but to leave this to God, and meanwhile to serve our enemies (19-20); and we are not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (21).
If Paul’s first antithesis between good and evil was ‘bless and do not curse’ (14), which we have already considered, his second begins: *Do not repay anyone evil for evil* (17a). Instead we are to *be careful to do what is right* (*kala*, ‘good things’) *in the eyes of everybody* (17b), ‘or see that your public behaviour is above criticism’ (JBP). The reasoning seems to be that it would be anomalous to refrain from evil if at the same time we are not seen to be practising good. A further counterpart to retaliation follows, which is equally universal in its application (*everybody…everyone): If it possible, as far as it depends on you live at peace with everyone* (18). To refuse to repay evil is to refuse to inflame a quarrel. But this is not enough. We have also to take the initiative in positive peacemaking (Cf. Mt. 5:9), even if, as the two qualifications indicate (‘if it is possible’ and ‘as far as it depends on you’), this is not always possible. For sometimes other people either are not willing to live at peace with us, or lay down a condition for reconciliation which would involve an unacceptable moral compromise.
Paul’s third prohibition is: *Do not take revenge, my friends* (19a, *agapetoi*, ‘beloved’; he assures them of his love because he is calling them to the way of love). To this negative, Paul again opposes a positive counterpart, or actually two. The first is: *but leave room for God’s wrath*. Because the Greek sentence means literally ‘give place to wrath’. without specifying whose wrath is in mind, some commentators have thought it was either the evildoer’s (‘let his anger run its course, give in to it’) or the injured party’s (‘let your anger pass and not express itself in revenge’). But the quotation which immediately follows (‘*It is mine to avenge*’) shows conclusively that the reference is to God’s anger, and Paul has already made us familiar with this absolute use of ‘the wrath’ to indicate God’s wrath (eg 5:9), The RSV renders it ‘leave it to the wrath of God’. Paul goes on: *for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay, ‘says the Lord* (19b; Dt. 32:35). The word for *avenge* is *ekdikesis*, meaning ‘punishment’; it corresponds to the verb in verse 19, *do not take revenge*. Similarly the verb *I will repay* corresponds to *do not repay* in verse 17. It is used of God’s judgment, as when Jesus himself said that ‘the Son of Man….will reward each person according to what he has done’ (Mt. 16:27)