These texts from Paul provide an excellent coda to our conversations about ethics, justice and the Christian life.
Although Romans is rightly considered Paul’s most important theological writing, he most of all pursues an agenda focused on how we live as Christians. Chapter 12 shows that Paul follows closely after Jesus in how he understands faithful living. Living should be shaped by God’s love and mercy, stand in tension with the morality of the cultural status quo, seek to build up communities to support one another in good works and embody Jesus’ call to love enemies.
At the core here we find a double challenge that summarizes the biblical vision: “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (12:9). No ethical relativism for Paul! But also no fighting fire with fire, no self-righteousness, no arrogance.
The “hatred” of evil leads to confrontation, to efforts to transform and heal. But the methods of confrontation, transformation and healing must not simply further the cycle of an eye for an eye until everyone is blind. As Nietzsche, of all people, wrote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process one does not become a monster oneself.”
Paul calls for genuine transformation. We start with love: Always seek the good, live ardently in the power of God’s healing Spirit, bless even those who oppose you, associate with the vulnerable and marginalized, practice humility.
And finally, do not seek revenge, do not respond to evil with evil, treat even your opponents with kindness. How does “heaping burning coals on their heads” fit here? I’d suggest it’s making it possible, with love, for those who treat you without love to “come to themselves” and turn back to love.
Paul concludes his teaching in chapter 12: “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). Indeed, confront evil; we could even say, fight against evil. But only with the method of love.
Col. 3:5-17 is an excellent complement to Romans 12. Here, too, Paul challenges his audience to turn away from the systems of injustice and brokenness that are part of our culture. “Put whatever is earthly to death” (3:5).
It is crucial that we recognize that when Paul writes “earthly” here he does not argue for a physical/spiritual dualism where what is bodily is bad simply because it is physical. Paul sees our bodies and spirits as integrated. What he opposes are the dynamics of idolatry, where we trust more in the things of the world than in the presence of Jesus’ Spirit. What Paul lists (impurity, evil desire, greed) are the disordered inclinations of life lived according to values of consumerism, lustfulness and nationalism.
That answer, again, is to follow the path of love. Be “renewed” (3:10) and put on a “new self” that embodies what it means to be “raised with Christ” (3:1). That is, the Jesus whose path of love led to his being killed by the Roman Empire was vindicated, raised from the dead. His way is shown to be God’s way — and, Paul insists, we are also part of that way when we trust in him.
And we notice something powerful and relevant that characterizes the renewed life: The divisions that separate people fall away (3:11)! One way to say this is that in Christ there is no “othering.” Think about how, throughout history down to present-day America, hostility toward “the other” is central in empowering unjust leaders and fueling nationalism and even consumerism.
Verses 12-17 echo Rom. 12:9-21. At the center of faith: “Above all, clothe yourselves in love” (verse 14). “Overcome evil with good” equals “clothe yourselves in love.” Nothing more need be said.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.