Evil for Good Evil for Evil Good for Good Good for Evil
It is ironic that the psalm from which we get the phrase “quiet in the land” is a rather boisterous, fist-shaking poem. The writer urges God to fight back on his behalf, to contend with those who contend with him. Psalm 35 almost sets the mold for other psalm writers who plead for vindication against ruthless enemies.
Mennonites from past centuries who latched onto the “quiet in the land” motif were perhaps more aware of this ancient life-situation. They could identify with Israelites who were persecuted “without cause” and who struggled with a new morality that required bold trust in a God who would take care of all outcomes.
Psalm 35 mentions how the enemy had rendered “evil for good.” When I first spotted that, I thought, “Why that’s the reverse of rendering ‘good for evil’ as in Romans 12:21.” Then I remembered how the Bible also speaks of rendering good for good and evil for evil. And thus we have the four renderings.
Rendering, as reflected in the word rent, has to do with a giving back. Sometimes a rendering seems like an unjust payback, as in the case of those who “hate without reason” and “devise false accusations against the quiet in the land.” The middle two renderings, on the other hand, are understood as well-deserved paybacks. Looking further into the Bible, we will come to see how the fourth rendering (good for evil) is qualitatively different from the others on several levels.
The story of David and Abigail, reminiscent of an old western movie, helps to illuminate the four renderings. It falls after the Goliath story but before Saul’s death (1 Samuel 25). David has been leading a mercenary band that’s been hanging out near the sheep lands of Nabal. David figures that his men could get in on the shearing-time festivities since they had provided protection for the local shepherds, and so he sends in messengers with his request.
David’s hope for hospitality reveals his thinking about good being returned for good. It’s a conventional exchange. Jesus touched on it in the Sermon on the Mount: I invite you over for Sunday dinner and you should invite me over for a Sunday dinner. But Nabal does not see it this way. “Why should I give my bread and meat to men coming from who knows where?”
When David learns of this he says, “Put on your swords!” In other words, “If he’s going to spurn our request, then we will render his reply with violence.” Evil for evil always seeks legitimacy whereby a harm perceived to be unjustified is met with a harm perceived to be justified. “They’ve got it coming to them!” In this ancient context, “an eye for an eye” was actually instituted to restrain a disproportionate rendering of evil for evil.
One of Nabal’s servants gets wind of David’s reaction and alerts Nabal’s wife, Abigail. He testifies that David’s men were “very good to us,” suggesting Nabal’s partial responsibility for the impending disaster. Abigail, losing no time, arranges for a truckload of food to be given to David. She also goes in person to parley with David, riding her donkey behind all the food. Nabal knows nothing of this.
At this point the text shifts into David’s thinking when Abigail enters the canyon. “What a waste of time to protect Nabal’s flocks,” he mulls. “He has paid me back evil for good.” At the extremity of his reaction David says, “May God be as rough on me if by morning I leave alive one male of his household!” It’s hard not to think of how this mindset may still operate in the same region today.
Abigail has risked entrance into this zone of high-pitched violence. She halts the advance of the mercenaries, and delivers a diplomatic speech revealing two amazing qualities: shrewdness and vulnerability. He first words are startling: “Let the blame be on me alone.” She puts herself on the line. “Don’t pay any more attention to that wicked man Nabal. He’s just a ‘fool’” (the meaning of his name, hence, pun intended). She then talks about David’s coming kingship, and how he will not want the “burden of needless bloodshed” on his conscience.
On one level, Abigail is relying on a good-for-good scenario, wanting to appease David and prevent a bad outcome. Her virtue of shrewdness is clearly focused on a good end. As in many cultures, the food gift invites reciprocity. But it is her speech, including flattery about David’s future, that tips the scale of David’s mindset and defuses the escalation of violence.
On a deeper level, then, a good-for-evil dynamic is at work. Here we see how Abigail’s virtue of vulnerability is sensitive to the means, regardless of outcomes. The fact that she is willing to take the blame for the situation is her way of absorbing all the dysfunction of the previous miscommunications. “Let’s forget the previous downward spiral of evil for evil. Let’s imagine a better outcome for all involved.”
Abigail has, according to John Paul Lederach, the “moral imagination” to envision an outcome of relational unity. Lederach calls such imagination “the art and soul” of peacemaking. Violent responses arise because people can’t imagine any other method. But Abigail can see a shalom outcome, and, in her own personhood, she becomes the responsible catalyst to bring about this unity.
People with moral imagination are keenly aware of how good communication is the medium of third way resolutions beyond the conventional fight-or-flight ways. Before David says anything, Abigail speaks of how God “kept” David from “needless bloodshed.” She presents a positive future outcome in past-tense language as if it had already happened. Imagine the effect of this on David.
In the wake of such moral goodness – such communication that widens the imagination to a better future and such response-ability that absorbs and nullifies the ill-effect of prior cycles of violence – David praises God and blesses Abigail for “keeping” him from needless bloodshed. (He also accepts the goodness of the bread, the wine, the roasted sheep, and all the raisin and fig cakes.)
Abigail returns to a drunk Nabal. Next morning she tells everything. The news triggers a stroke; ten days later he dies. David praises God for all the outcomes, but also for keeping him from “doing wrong.” Abigail’s moral imagination has been contagious to David. Such imagination is woven with a radical trust in the God who oversees outcomes and invites us into means and methods that fit with God’s character.
It is interesting that this story is sandwiched between two stories where Saul is pursuing David to kill him, and in both incidents David takes the moral high ground by restraining himself from killing Saul. Here we see David operating out of a redemptive mindset. But the Abigail story drives home the point that even David can relapse into the conventional evil-for-evil mindset, thus requiring a mediator to help transform the situation.
As Abigail was not overcome by evil but overcame evil with good, bearing the faults of Nabal in her own self and sharing the gifts of food, we too are invited to not “repay evil for evil” in our relationships with others. This largely boils down to matters of communication. We are asked to forgo communication responses that build walls and practice communication responses that build bridges.
I didn’t mention it before, but Psalm 35 is attributed to David. The choice to be silent, to not strike back in retaliation, fits with the plea, “Lord, do not be silent!” A similar psalm of David (38) describes how he is both deaf and dumb in the face of enemies who use damaging communication. “I await for you, O Lord; you will answer.” Perhaps his trust, embodied through restraint, was reinforced by Abigail’s moral imagination.
The New Testament, of course, notches up our understanding of returning good for evil. It is not simply a matter of non-violent strategy to get a certain outcome, nor is it simply a matter of non-resistance for the sake of our own personal integrity. Both of these come into play, but the primary focus is doing good in the face of evil for the sake of the other. It is salvific. It is the ethic of agape love.
Jesus gives us the archetypal mold for rendering good for evil. In concert with God who takes the bridge-building initiative to bring relational unity, and doing this ‘in-person’ through Jesus, we see how Jesus, throughout his ministry, embodied the character traits of agape love and vulnerability which, through his death, became salvific for us.
Peter captures this well (1 Peter 2). “When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate.” Jesus, faced with violence, did not sin. “Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Again, the God of all outcomes. “And he bore our sins in his body.” What sins? Specifically, our self-centered sins of rendering evil back to others in thought, word, and deed. Jesus absorbed such sin “so that we might die to sin” and live according to God’s ways.
Rendering evil for good shows a disdain for ethics. Rendering evil for evil or good for good shows a regard for conventional ethics which most societies normalize. All three involve strong human-initiated efforts to control the outcomes for both the giver and the recipients.
Rendering good for evil, however, shows a deep trust in kingdom ethics. It is no longer a matter of payback, but a matter of overcoming. In contrast to the former three where trust in God (to dispense justice or wealth) is lacking, this fourth rendering requires full trust in God’s character. Far from being passive, such trust frees us to take risks as we place ourselves in situations where we become the transformative element in evil situations.
Through Jesus, who was silent before his persecutors, we meet a God who is not silent. Through Jesus we meet a God whose means and ends have full integrity. As we continue in the legacy of “the quiet in the land,” let us seek to render good for evil in all situations with risk-taking love for the sake of others.
Ted Lewis participates at the Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Ore., where he also works for Wipf & Stock Publishers and is a restorative justice mediator and trainer.