From today's reading from Paul's letter to the Romans:
[I]f 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.
I used to wonder about that whole heaping burning coals on your enemies' heads thing, which is made almost indecipherable when read within the whole sentence. One heaps burning coals on one's enemies' heads by being kind and generous to them!
I used to think that this meant that you'll shame your enemies by doing this. You will make them feel horrible about themselves and make them sorry for what they did. The point was to make them feel bad, really bad. To make them sorry, sorry, sorry.
And maybe that's what Paul mean, but I don't think so. I think it's not about making sure "you'll be sorry you did this to me." Because that keeps me bitter; that keeps me imprisoned in my bitterness. No, I think it's about changing my notion about vengeance. I think it means that I should let go of my desire for the enemy to feel bad as a result of my own hurt...so that I will not be overcome by evil myself. So that I will not be eaten up by bitterness and a desire for revenge. I just don't think St Paul is suggesting that I go about feeding my enemies by cooking up a pot of soup, mumbling murderously as I stir, and banging it down on the table in front of them, saying through clenched teeth and with clenched fists, "ENJOY!!!" And then they eat while I am livid with rage.
As long as I want to hurt someone back for hurting me, then I am succumbing to evil myself. I am just doing the same thing, keeping the cycle going, tit for tat and all that. Paul challenges me to break that cycle, to overcome evil, by substituting my desire for vengeance with a desire for the well-being of all God's children. Jesus says, if anyone is thirsty, let them come to me. Some of those who are thirsty are my "enemies." And so, if my enemy is thirsty, and I am a follower of Jesus, then I am to give that enemy something to drink. Paul may well be suggesting that I just let go of the whole thing about enemies and give that over to God. It's God's job to judge, not mine. My job is to feed the lambs and the sheep, even if I don't like them.
And so, I am left feeling that I have to give up any desire to heap burning coals on anyone's head and replace it with a desire to be lifegiving, to be forgiving, to be hopeful and generous. And to feel my own life coming back, greening up, when I shed my desire for punishing people,
even "punishing them with kindness."
Of course, this brings up the doormat question. Are we just supposed to lie down and let people run over us and take advantage of us and all that?
There's a difference in having healthy boundaries, in calling someone to account for a transgression, and punishing people for those transgressions and ill treatments. I find that many of us are afraid of "confrontation," and so we will not stand up for ourselves or others who are being badly treated until things get out of hand and then someone else (the law, some authority figure) will step in and take charge.
But really, we don't have to make everything a confrontation. We can simply say, "I don't like the way you are treating me or her or him. It's not ok for you to do that here. In our community, we don't do this." That's not being run over, and it's also not ratcheting things up into a full-blown fight. There are ways to stand up for ourselves and for others that fall well short of inciting destructive conflict.
And so, I read it again. If my enemy is thirsty, feed him. If my enemy is hungry, feed her. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let that good take up the space in my life that I am tempted to fill with a desire to punish him
and the bitterness that wishes her harm.