I believe in the power of cosmic justice. My problem is, I just don’t get to see it often enough. Once, I moved out of the left lane to let the guy tailgating me so closely I could not even see his headlights, let alone the front of his hood, pass me by. I grumbled at his rudeness and wished him troopers as he zinged past me at an ever increasing speed.
A few minutes later, as I crested a hill, I spotted blue lights on the side of the road. There, parked in front of the cop, was my tailgater – getting his just desserts.
“You can only be a jerk for so long,” I smiled and waved as I passed by. “Eventually, you get your comeuppance.”
Cosmic justice – where the universe evens the score between the nice guys and the jerks. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Those words always comfort me when I come face to face with the rudeness and often downright meanness of this world. When insults are hurled at me for whatever reason, be it my sexual orientation, my liberal views or my own often rude driving skills.
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” I sneer through my evil laughter. I’m leaving room for the wrath of God, who will get you, and that makes me feel, oh, so, good.
This is, of course, an example of how we all read the Bible – finding words and phrases that give us comfort in our own lives – disregarding the words and phrases that gather around those favorites we’ve plucked from the verse. As I read through Romans 12, I began to realize my error in looking lovingly on this phrase and turning it into my favorite epithet against those who may offend me. The rest of the passage deals not with vengeance – not with repaying evil for evil – but with love and how our love can overcome evil.
Right before my favorite phrase begins, Paul writes:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” -Romans 12:14-18
Huh? Wait a minute. Why is Paul telling us that God’s going to exact revenge on our enemies right smack in the middle of all this lovey-dovey talk? This is the danger of surgically extracting verses and using them against our “enemies” – perceived or real. When we read all the words before that favorite phrase – words instructing us to bless our persecutors, not act all high and mighty or claim wisdom beyond our knowledge – we can come to understand that while cosmic justice may be real – it won’t be on our terms. It will be on God’s terms.
How many times I have wished to see all the rude drives that tailgate or pass me nailed, but good, by a passing police officer – only to see them get away scot free – breaking the law with impunity and no consequences? I have to comfort myself with the fact that perhaps it will happen later – outside of my view – and they’ll get what they deserve.
But, what if that’s not God’s plan for them? What if God has a different idea of what will make for peace in this situation? Perhaps they don’t get caught speeding – but perhaps they are taught a lesson in another way. Perhaps God, through love and not punishment, leads them to see any error in their ways. Perhaps I’m wrong about their error. Perhaps they are speeding for good reason – a loved one is ill or some other emergency has put them in the fast lane.
What if I’m the one who is in error? What if I am the one who is in need of God opening a can of cosmic whoop-ass on me? What if that waiting trooper over the hill is meant for me and not for someone I’ve decided has offended me? Instead of rejoicing over that other driver’s misfortune – perhaps I should have wept with him – felt his pain for a moment, even if it may have been self-inflicted.
Paul counsels us “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The first phrase, “if it is possible” invites us to examine not the willingness of anyone outside of ourselves. Instead, “if it is possible” points directly at us – we are the ones who will decide if it is possible to live in peace. The second phrase, “so far as it depends on you” puts the ball squarely in our court. Peace in the world – even if it’s just peace in our immediate world, whether it’s in traffic, in the office, in the church, or at the corner store, won’t begin unless we decide to start it. It depends on each of us to make that first step – to begin the reconciliation – to stop being jerks in need of a cosmic smack down. The last phrase is the punch-line: “live peaceably with all.” That doesn’t just mean living peaceably with your neighbor, you niece, your nail tech, or your neurologist. That means, first and foremost, living peaceably with yourself.
Just as Jesus instructs us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves – we have to love ourselves first before we can even begin to treat our neighbors with love. The same goes for the idea of peace. If we cannot achieve a sense of inner-peace we will never, ever be able to live peaceably with anyone else.
John Dear writes:
“If we want to live in peace, we have to renounce our violence and embrace nonviolence as a way of life. As we choose a life of peace, we end the wars raging within our own hearts and root out every trace of violence. We let go of violent language, habits, manners, and jobs, and cease whatever actions, however subtle, that hurt or threaten others.” (Living Peace, p. 83)
That is similar to Paul’s advice after my favorite phrase on vengeance: “No, ‘if 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.”
If we let go of our violent thoughts against ourselves and others, and dedicate ourselves to making sure our enemy is well fed and not thirsty – suddenly the idea of God’s vengeance against them gives us no pleasure. Though our good acts toward them may “heap burning coals on their heads” and help them to reconsider their evil ways – we should not revel in the fact that our enemies – real or perceived – will suffer for their actions. Certainly, that suffering may be warranted – even needed for justice to be served – but if we want to live peaceably with all there should be a chance for reconciliation after the error. There must always be room for forgiveness. There must always be room for grace. If there is no room for ultimate redemption of our enemies – in either this life or the next – then grace is impotent and evil wins.
It is by living into God’s grace in this way that we “overcome evil with good.” James Mulholland and Philip Gulley write in If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person:
“My hope is that the more we live into this grace, the less sin can cling to our hearts. The more of us who know this grace, the less evil can do in our world.” (p. 196)
Living into that grace depends on me and on you – “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Make peace with yourself, accept God’s infinite grace, and watch peace break out all around you – even in traffic.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.