This is the last of our 'Be the Man' series, looking at the distinctives for 21st century living as Christian blokes. On one level it is about how you channel your testosterone - in a world thats says "someone bashes you - you bash them" Paul calls for something radically different. He calls for believers to be like Jesus and live Active Non-Violent Opposition. Note this is active - it is not simply letting people walk all over you, but making a stand on a non-violent way different to the normal world.
We will look at the passage verse by verse, but not linearly. Instead we will read it as a "chiastic structure", a ring structure that works inwards to a central heart and then back out again (see this graphic). V14 pairs with v21: bless not persecute matches do not be overcome by evil but instead overcome evil with good. Note the Greek work 'overcome' can also be 'conquer' - we can conquer evil with our good, being a people of blessing. It hits me that persecuted Christians typically don't pray against their persecutors, but pray for them. In a much smaller way I have practised this myself - with an annoying colleague who has upset me I have disciplined myself to pray for their blessing: "Lord make them the best they can be, may they thrive in their work ...". This is taking an active stance.
V15 pairs with v20: rejoice or mourn accordingly, i.e. go with people, understand their world and what they are going through and walk with them through it. This is to be like God, who walks with you through your stuff! V20 then says feed or give drink to your enemy accordingly, effectively the same as v15. But of course it is one thing to go with your friend, quite another to do that with your enemy - this is challenging stuff!
A side note on the "coals on head" (quoting Provrbes 25:21 - 22) and the "room for God's wrath" (quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). This sounds tricky to us, almost against the spirit of the passage and grace concepts. Yet it is the same as we often see in the Psalms, technically called "Imprecation". This is speaking out harsh things on an enemy, BUT crucially leaving the actual action to God. Maybe God will find a different way with grace, but in any case once voiced we leave it to Him and think no more about it.
V16 pairs with v17-19, but v16 can be split into a, b, and c to form one mini-block, and 17-19 then forms another (complementing) mini-block. V16a says live in harmony with one another. Harmony has no room for pride. In fact it requires you to lower yourself (16b), and in turn this means conceit is out of the question (16c).
Note the Greek for 'conceited' has a concept of 'self-elevation'. In our culture typically a man self-raises, but we see that Jesus self-lowers! Jesus came incarnate, i.e. active lowering, putting Himself on the same level as humankind. In the 1700s (the same timeframe as the Countess) there was a group in Europe called the Moravians who experienced a powerful move of the Spirit. This led some to witness to black slaves on the plantations. They were so moved by the Spirit that they were prepared, if necessary, to themselves become slaves that they might do this witness!
Note in v16 the two 'do nots' of a and c surround the centre of active lowering (a mini-chiasm). Then V17 pairs with V19 (do not repay evil / do not take revenge) to form a mini-chiasm also, with v18 'live at peace with everyone' sandwiched in the middle. Paul is realistic, saying 'as far as it is possible with you'. You can do your bit, but you cannot guarantee the other person will be won over. Do your bit and leave the rest to God.
V17-19 complements V16a/b/c nicely. At the very centre of these mini-blocks we have 'do not be conceited' and 'do not replay evil with evil'. This forms the central heart, the epicentre of the whole passage. We can all do a lot worse than to make our hearts such that we do not self-elevate or try to fling back evil.
So with this structure it is a beautiful passage. And history gives us examples of people who have practised this theory of active non-violent opposition. We have mentioned the Moravians, and there are also the Mennonites who are out and out Christian pacifists. Today it is the Mennonites who are the leading peacemakers - running courses on conflict resolution even for secular audiences. The film 'Hacksaw Ridge' showed the true story of Desmond Doss who in WWII enlisted to be a front-line medic but made a stand to never hold a gun. More recently Norman Kember, a UK baptist peace activist who went to Iraq to promote peace and dialogue. He was captured and held hostage for 4 months. Ironically he was rescued by the SAS - which he still muses on today - but in that operation not a single shot was fired. Finally in recent history there is Martin Luther King, the American baptist race relations activist - with the film Selma showing non-violent protest in operation.
These people were all activists - taking action, not simply lying down. I will close this series suggesting that Active Non-Violent Opposition may be the most manly thing you ever do! It certainly provokes the question and challenge:
Key Qn: [OUT] Where is God needing you to handle people differently
Challenge: Offer peace, not revenge
Now evil comes, and seems to come in waves, like the sea rolling in. Yet the call to Christians is to not just let that evil come, but to live a different way, a strange/peculiar way. Though the waves come, the Kingdom of God will endure and prevail. It does it through on-the-ground Christians who at their core are not conceited, not repaying evil with evil. Instead they are engaged in active lowering, looking for harmony rather than revenge, going with people - even with their enemies. They are a people of blessing who will conquer evil with good.