It is an axiom that evil exists in this world. However, we who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ find it disconcerting that evil exists within Christendom too. Our belief system tells us that God "has delivered us from the domain of evil and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Colossians 1:13). We are surprised when we see Christians act in evil ways because the essence of biblical Christianity is our transfer from the domain (reign) of evil to the domain (reign) of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ isn't evil, and one can't truly be in His Kingdom while at the same time delighting in living under the dominion of evil. To put it another way, it's impossible to love Christ and enjoy harming people for personal gain (I John 4:20). Evil doers are enemies to Christ and His people. It matters not that the evil doer proclaims to be a Christian; those who do evil are the enemies of Christ's Kingdom. The subject of this post is the answer to the question, "How should a Christian treat one's enemies?" The answer to this question is not nearly as simple as one might think.
Evil is not a nebulous, unidentifiable thing. Augustine wrote that evil is simply "the absence of good." However, Scripture clearly distinguishes between passive evil and active evil. For example, ignorance is evil, but ignorance is a passive evil until it becomes the result of sloth and intentional neglect, two active evils. A corporation will fire a worker who is slothful and negligent, but it will train a worker who is simply ignorant. When evil becomes active, justice must be pursued. Active evil is best described as "the pursuit of personal profit or pleasure by intentionally taking from or harming another human being." God doesn't punish "evil." He punishes the evil doer. Active evil is committed by persons. Scripture does not separate evil from those who commit it. Proverbs 7:11-12 declares:
"(11) God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day. (12) If he does not turn back, He will sharpen His sword (of justice)."Note two things about the above verse: (1). It is the person with whom God is angry, and (2). A person's lack of repentance from evil sharpens the sword of God's justice. That means the fall of the wicked is often quick and decisive. Moses said of the wicked one, "his foot shall slide in due time" (Deut. 32:35). When active evil occurs over a long period of time, God is simply sharpening His sword of justice. When justice occurs in due time, it comes swiftly, like the fall of a person who "slips" off a cliff, or like spider web which suddenly breaks over an open flame, plunging the spider into the fire (Jonathan Edwards).
Jesus the Messiah came to save the evil person from his evil (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is the greatest Interventionist who has ever lived (Matthew 18:11). He takes a selfish and self-absorbed person who is capable of the grossest evil, loves him, pursues him, and then turns him into an unselfish, others-oriented person who possesses and cherishes the values of Christ and His Kingdom. These values include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Therefore, a professing Christian who takes from or harms another human being is a contradiction to the essence of Christianity and a shock to all who name Christ as their King. Disgust, anger, and moral repulsion are all appropriate feelings toward evil perpetrated against other people, particularly when that evil is committed by one professing faith in Christ. When a person actively, intentionally, and repeatedly takes from and harms other human beings, the sword of justice must be sharpened.
It is self-evident that there are different degrees of active evil. What is not so obvious is that people often do not see evil within themselves. Even the most elegant and fashion forward human being can possess a heart that revels in one's own pleasure at the expense of anothers' pain. When a culture loses disgust over active evil it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own destructiveness. Heather Pringle, in her fascinating book The Master Plan, reveals how Hedwig Potthast, the mistress of Heinrich Himmler, once proudly showed her house furniture to a close friend, pointing out:
"...the chair made from the polished bones of a human pelvic girdle, and another made from human legs and human feet."Then Miss Potthast -
"...picked up a copy of Mein Kampf, explaining 'clinically and medically' that its cover was made from human skin" (Kindle Edition, pages 4369-4376).
Though the story of Miss Potthast and her friend is true, I would like to use it as an allegory for my evangelical friends who are bothered by evil within religious organizations. For much of the twentieth century, Christians worshipped together in systems of organizational structure that seemed to run efficiently. We worshipped God, served others, and trusted our religious leaders, never asking questions about the church's polished furniture. Since the rise of the Internet, God's people have found their voice, and things church leaders once proudly displayed for the praise of others (massive buildings, growing budgets, pastor book deals, and celebrity mega-ministries) are now being revealed by many as objects of personal, celebrity kingdoms built on the exploitation and harm of God's people. We Christians have been shocked at the evil we see in Christendom today.
How do we who love Christ respond to evil in this world? Even more, what is the appropriate
response to evil within religious institutions and faith organizations?
Two very dear friends of mine lead a ministry called Wartburg Watch. Dee and Deb are MBA's who have given of their time and energy, not to mention their incredible writing skills, to provide a safe reading environment for wounded Christians to heal. They have come under a great deal of abuse and name calling by leaders in religious movements because of their efforts to defend those Christians who've been wounded by religious leaders. These two women are unafraid to confront evil, and they have personally helped hundreds of people who have been harmed by abusive religious leaders who perpetrate evil for personal gain. In an enlightening and interesting discussion on one of their recent blogs, I engaged with some of my wounded brothers and sisters in Christ, encouraging all of us to continue to confront evil, but to avoid evil ourselves. I wrote:
I think we who’ve been muzzled and have found our voice, we who've been mistreated and now find ourselves on the right side of justice, we who can breathe out the collective expression ‘at last,' should do everything in our power to ensure we do not become joyful and celebratory in finding fault in the body of Christ. Rather, we ought to be saddened with the displays of grotesque and twisted contortions by our evangelical leaders, and we should remain resolute in confronting evil while not celebrating its presence or the downfall of our evangelical leaders.One of the commentators at Wartburg, Patrice, responded to my comments with questions of her own. She wrote:
"I’d like to hear how else we might righteously respond to exposures of long-hidden evil, especially in light of the Psalms, where (God’s people) openly delighted in the enemies’ losses. What does it mean to give the evil-doer the respect of his humanity while also rejoicing when he falls by exposure of his actions? How does that parcel out on comment threads? And I would enjoy a discussion about how and where we (Christians) are to apply the different approaches to our enemies: “turn your cheek” and “forgive seventy times seven” versus “leaving family,” “dividing the truth,” “knocking over money-changer’s tables,” etc…”The following is for Patrice and all other Christians with similar questions.
Government Rules Regarding the Treatment of Evil Doers
Jesus Christ distinguished between two kinds of kingdoms.
(1). There are kingdoms "of this world" (i.e. 'governments').
(2). There is the Kingdom of Christ which is "not of this world."
Jesus said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:37 ). The phrase "not of this world" is often misunderstood. Some Christians wrongly think it means Christ's kingdom does not pertain to anything I do in this world. Not so. The Kingdom of Christ affects every area of my life and pertains to everything in my life! What Jesus is saying is His kingdom is not patterned after the kingdoms around us. So, again, there are two kinds (or categories) of kingdoms: the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of Christ.
The first category, kingdoms of this world, includes every earthly reign of human government throughout the history of nations. From the ancient Assyrians to the modern Chinese, from ancient Greece to today's Turkey, from Hannibal's Carthage to Eisenhower's America, the governments of this world are designed to protect those who do good and punish those who do evil.
According to Romans 13, every human being has an allegiance to one of these governments. Each person is born "under' the dominion of an earthly kingdom and "subject to it" (Romans 13:1). Regardless of the form (i.e. democracy, monarchy, republic, dictatorship, etc...), each government is called in Scripture "a minister of God." The appropriate ministry of government, however, is a ministry of justice, not mercy.
Governments ought to punish those who practice evil for the good of others. Though justice does harm to evil-doers (imprisonment, isolation, death), all equitable punishment dispensed by the world's kingdoms occurs for the righteous purpose of preventing evil-doers from perpetrating future harm against others."If you do what is evil, be afraid; for government does not bear the sword (of justice) for nothing; it (government) is a minister of God, an avenger who brings punishment on the one who practices evil" (Romans 13:5).
When the Scripture says God "takes no pleasure in the death (punishment) of the wicked" (Ezekiel 18:32) it affirms that God takes no joy, no glee, no pleasure in the act of punishment. God makes no celebration, possesses no happiness, and experiences no delight in the equitable punishment of any evil doer. This principle is one of the reasons I wrote that Americans should not celebrate the death of Osama Ben Laden. Seek him out. Bring him to justice. Kill him, but be sad over the need to have to take the life of a human being because of the presence of evil in that life. Judgment is a grim necessity, not a celebratory party.
God never takes pleasure in the punishment of the wicked and neither do civilized people whose character reflects the good character of God. When a nation must partake in the righteous act of inflicting harm on evil doers in order to prevent future harm by those same evil doers against other human beings, there should be sadness. This is the concept of just war. This solemn sadness should particularly prevail within the hearts of evangelical Christians when we see justice applied in the bringing down of non-profits and ministries led by those who have covered-up acts of evil over long periods of time. No celebration. No joy. Only sadness. Approval of the act of of justice, yes; but dancing in the streets, no.
Scripture reveals the authority to punish evil doers is in the hands of God alone. " Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord" (Romans 12:19). However, God delegates authority to earthly kingdoms to impart judicial punishment for evil done, calling this governmental practice of punishing evil doers "the sword of justice" (Romans 13:5). Augustine points out that when a Christian acts as an agent of an earthly kingdom (ie. a soldier, a judge, or a peace officer), he may put to death an evil doer and not violate God's command "thou shalt not murder." Augustine writes in City of God:
"They who have waged war ... (who) have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill.'"When in the course of human history, an earthly kingdom or government begins to practice evil by infringing on the basic liberties of the governed, then it is incumbent and obligatory on the people to overthrow their earthly kingdom for the sake of the protection of human life and individual liberty. Our own Declaration of Independence puts it this way:
"Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends (of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government.... Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes,,, But when a long train of abuses and usurpations... reduces (the people) under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."It is therefore entirely within the mandates of biblical Christianity to work as an agent for one's government and be an instrument of justice, punishing the evil doer through war or other retributive acts of justice. Further, it is entirely within the rights, and possibly even falls under one's moral obligation as a Christian, to participate in the overthrow of a despotic government that intentional harms its citizens, as Dietrich Bohnoeffer sought to do in Germany in 1945, and American pastors sought to do in colonial America during the Revolutionary War.
Christians may fight just wars in this world as agents of government because Christians are to be subject to the human kingdom under which they live. This world's kingdoms exist as "ministers of God" to secure individual liberties and protect human life. Evil doers who steal liberties from people and take human life are to be punished for the good of this world as a whole. But again, when Christians act as agents of justice under the dominion of human kingdoms, there ought never be any celebration over the presence of evil or the necessary destruction of evil doers' lives or property. It is a solemn thing to punish those who commit evil.
Christ's Kingdom Rules for the Treatment of One's Enemies
Matthew 4:17). The word "kingdom" in English is a compound word - King and Dominion - Kingdom.
A great deal of utter confusion takes place when Christians misunderstand the nature of the Kingdom of Christ. Preachers try to make you think their ministries are His Kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Televangelists seek to convince you that if you give to their non-profit you are "giving to the Kingdom of God." Not true. You are giving to a non-profit. One would hope that every church and every ministry is working to advance the Kingdom of God, but ministries, church corporations and non-profits are NOT the Kingdom of God. The worst mistake we make as New Covenant Christians is misidentifying the domain of Jesus Christ. He was born in Bethlehem to be King. Where is His domain?
Jesus told his disciples in Luke 17:21 that "the Kingdom of God is within you." There is coming a day when the Kingdom of God will be around you (heaven on earth), but until then, during the time "His enemies are (being) made His footstool," the Kingdom of God is within you.
Remember, the Kingdom of God is of a different character than the kingdoms of this world. There are so many ways that Christ's Kingdom is different from the kingdoms of this world, but the main point Christ is making to His disciples is this: What is inside of you (i.e. "the Kingdom of God") is of a different character than the kingdoms around you ("the governments of this world").
When it comes to how an evil doer personally treats me, there are specific ways that "Christ in me" tells me to my enemy (i.e. the "evil doer" who perpetrates evil against me) as compared to how the kingdoms of this world SHOULD treat an evil doer. Listen to these Kingdom instructions:
"Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39).
"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God" (Romans 12:19).
"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles" (Proverbs 21:19).
"But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27).
"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times " (Matthew 18:21-22).
It is incumbent upon all of us who name Christ as Lord to realize that the greatest moral authority and effectual means to prevent evil from being perpetrated on others is the ability to overlook the evil done that is done to me. Or, let me put it this way, when the pain in my life is healed by the Balm of Gilead, then I can easily confront evil in this world for the sake of others, and not my own gain.
When the act of confronting evil is borne out of a desire for personal gain (healing), then the confrontation itself is in danger of becoming actively evil by seeking to take from or harm another human being for one's personal profit and pleasure. When I write about or confront evil out of my pain, I often do things that are unwise. I find myself in danger of developing a spirit or temperament similar to the self-righteous spirit of my abuser. Such struggles within often lead to celebrations when other people find themselves in loss or pain. This is a very subtle problem, but it is a very prevalent one, even within Christianity. Often, the abused becomes like his or her abuser. This ought not be in the Kingdom of Christ.
Here are some reflections on how Christians should respond to our enemies, including our own religious leaders, when they perpetrate evil against others:
(1). If an evil action is perpetrated against me personally I will display the fruit of the Spirit and never take personal vengeance on the evil doer, but will love him, confront him and hold him accountable for his sake and the sake of others who may be similarly abused as I. If a crime has been committed I will report for the good of society as a whole, while acknowledging the reign of Christ in my life and being willing forgive he who has wounded me.
(2). If an evil action is perpetrated against a person I know or love, I will do everything in my power to expose and to correct the wrong because of my obligation to love and serve others in their time of need. If a crime is committed, I will report it. If a person is bullied or silenced and otherwise has liberties stolen, I will defend the person encroached upon. I will protect and defend the vulnerable and defenseless, but I will always encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ who've been wronged to look to Christ for their healing and work toward justice for the sake of others.
(3). All the time I am confronting evil, I will never take a disposition of delight and glee in the downfall of evil doers. In fact, I will take no pleasure in the punishment of the wicked, just as my God does not, but I will be steadfast in my confrontation of evil in a desire to quench it for the good of others.
(4). I will always keep in mind that the government under which I am subject is of a different nature than the eternal Kingdom of Christ to which I belong. I will never confuse the two. I will never act as if my state, my nation, or my church is the Kingdom of Christ or vice-versa.
(5). To the extent that I allow my heart to take delight in personal vengeance I have lost my vision regarding the value of belonging to the Kingdom of Christ and waiting for the Day of Vengeance when He shall properly, accurately, and wisely make all things right.
I am not sure that this long and arduous post makes much sense to anyone else besides me, but after writing it, I am even more resolved to love my enemies personally. I will choose to overlook sins against me, but I will never turn a blind eye toward evil committed against others. In my help of those who have been wounded by acts of evil, I will remind the wounded that only the reign of Jesus Christ in their lives will bring true healing to them. To any extent they seek personal vengeance on those who have wronged them, they have misplaced their trust. My Kingdom purpose is to expose truth and confront evil for the sake of good in this world, but I will give love and grace to those who have wronged me as a demonstration to the evil doer of the deep and profound truth that it was my evil that wounded Christ, and yet God forgave me. It is the love of God that led me to repentance of my evil.
In summary: I must strive as a Christian to be an agent of justice for the good of others in this world temporarily, but when it comes to wrongs against me personally, I will always and only seek to be an agent of grace for my King eternally.
My God grant me the grace to love people the way He loves me.