The recording studio for this radio broadcast is only three or four miles from the site where the 1996 Summer Olympics took place. I am speaking to you from Atlanta, GA. Few of us remember the names of athletes who made their mark during those weeks of the '96 summer games. We can't recall the records that were set in different Olympic competitions that year, but we do remember the tragic incident involving a pipe bomb in Centennial Park, the one that killed one person and injured more than 100 others. Eric Rudolph, who spent five years hiding in the North Carolina wilderness before his apprehension, was responsible for the crime. He is currently serving more than four consecutive life terms for his role in both this Olympic bombing and several other women's health clinic bombings. We will not be seeing him anytime soon.
At his sentencing hearing, Eric Rudolph apologized for maiming innocent people. "I would do anything to take back that night," he said, this before two dozen victims and their families, all of whom had a range of different reactions to this man and his words.
The reason for noting Eric Rudolph's day in court has to do with the amazing response of two of his victims. The first was that of Fallon Stubbs, the 23-year-old daughter of Alice Hawthorne who was killed by the Olympic Park bomb. Ms. Stubbs, who was wounded by shrapnel from this bomb, offered Mr. Rudolph forgiveness. "Because of you," she said, I have become a tolerant person. Not for you, but for me, I forgive you. I look at you. I love you ... and if I cry," she added, "it's not for me. It's not for my mother. It's not for my father. It's [tears] for you."
The other victim to whom I want to call your attention is Memrie Creswell, a 37-year-old who was injured by Rudolph's bombing at the Otherside Lounge, a gay club in the Atlanta area. Said Ms. Creswell to reporters after the sentencing hearing, "He rolled his eyes when I said that I'm going to trump his evilness with love for the rest of my days."
Now I don't know where these women came up with the courage to speak these thoughts, or with the faith to embody these convictions. Maybe their courage and faith came to them as gifts of God, which is often how courage and faith seem to show up; they arrive wrapped up like gifts sent from heaven. Or maybe each of these women own well-worn Bibles, and they have read them thoroughly enough to be well acquainted with the 12th chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans. I'm not sure. Either way, though, their words are powerful for one simple reason: They fly in the face of the human temptation to retaliate.
Who hasn't been smacked in the cheek, assaulted with a nasty comment, or run over by a cheap shot ... and NOT been tempted to exact some kind of revenge? Even the sweetest and gentlest of people have been known to turn ferocious if they run up against some serious pain or anguish caused by another person's cruelty. If it can happen on the playground among first graders--which happens every day of the week--it can certainly happen among adults who have a special knack for rationalizing behaviors. Fighting back and responding in-kind seem to be basic human impulses when we are mistreated.
Most of us have a strong built-in sense of justice--at least, we know when we have been the victim of some injustice. So when we have the chance to implement a little justice of our own, any commitment to love we have can sail right out the window. Mind you, it's our own version of justice that we like to execute, and it often involves a pretty subjective application--one that's based on however we may be feeling at the moment.
But here is where we would be wise to loosen our grip on assuming that we know or understand perfect justice. Only God knows such things. And a bit more modesty on our part would go a long way toward recognizing God's far greater nose for justice. And then when we walk through life by faith, we would know to tread more sensitively and to walk more tenderly.
Maybe you've used the expression before or had it used on you, "I have my scruples and I'm going to stand on them." We rely on that phrase when we're getting ready to stand against someone. "Hey, I've got my scruple!" Most of us assume "scruples" here to mean "principles." To be scrupulous, we reason, is to be concerned with what is honest and right. "I am going to do what is honest and right and nothing less." But a scruple is really a sharp stone. You can look it up in the dictionary. The phrase "to stand on your scruples" comes from the idea of being bothered by the nuisance of a small sharp stone in your shoe.
That small stone in your shoe may feel problematic, but you stand there anyway. You stand there faithfully. "Standing on your scruples" means to stand firm. It implies--because of that little stone--that we are going to stand with sensitivity or with tender feet. Jesus teaches a kind of walk through life that involves tender feet and sensitivity ... not just a stubborn tromp believing that we are always right. Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew sometime--all three chapters--and you'll see Jesus' tendency to encourage tender-footed walking.
The apostle Paul lays out a whole set of scruples in our reading from the 12th chapter of Romans--little sharp stones in the shoes of Christian people that encourage us to walk with lots of sensitivity. Here are those scruples in all of their beauty:
Let love be genuine [says Paul]; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Paul follows up this beautiful little treatise on the Christian life with a searingly difficult ethic of loving or blessing our enemies. Catch this:
Bless those who persecute you [says Paul]; bless and do not curse them ... 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. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, given them something to drink ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Wow! Try this line of reasoning out on the National Security Team at the White House sometime or on the Pentagon brass. Can you imagine ever receiving more than a laugh from those who are in the business of conducting "military operations" if they were to hear "Bless those who persecute you?" Paul has effectively taken the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and after assessing its core principles, ruled out any use of revenge. Personal vengeance is excluded. It is forbidden. Now in its place, we might think Paul is ready to encourage some passivity. But, no. Instead of passivity, he recommends that we actively bless our enemies with kindness. Imagine that?! We bless them.
You didn't hear Romans 12 quoted by the President of the United States the night he went on the air to announce the death of Osama bin Laden. In fact, if you parsed the words of that presidential speech carefully, "taking Osama bin Laden out" seemed to be mostly about exercising vengeance for the suffering our nation incurred on 9/11. As I said, vengeance talk--even when we don't use the word vengeance--is often our first line of speech. It can also be our first line of action.
Critics of Paul say he is soft on justice, a bit naïve with so many ethical admonitions that lean toward kindness. But, actually, Paul is full of justice. All he is doing is placing the burden of who is allowed to carry out the revenge part exclusively in the hands of God. Both the Old and New Testaments pronounce the same idea as Paul gives us. "Vengeance is mine," says the Lord. "Vengeance is not yours to do with whatever you want!" You can read Leviticus 19 or Deuteronomy 32 or Jeremiah 51 or Psalm 94 or any number of other passages. All of them attest to God settling scores on that future day when all things will be made right. The score is not to be settled by human beings screaming for revenge. Only God has that responsibility.
Here's the really interesting kicker. If everything about you and me and our lives belongs to Christ, which is Paul's deepest understanding of the Christian life, then not only is revenge not our right or our possession to keep ... but even the wrongs we suffer do not belong to us. We are not to hold onto these hurts and wrongs as a basis for bitterness. No, they are not ours to keep. They belong to Christ. That's what Paul suggests, so turn them over!
Now in case you are wondering where the strength comes from to live in this way, Paul has incredible confidence in the power of love. What else would propel him to speak so compellingly in favor of blessing those who persecute? Author and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor comments in this way on evil inflicted upon us, "The only way to conquer evil is to absorb it. Take it into yourself and disarm it. Neutralize its acids. Serve as a charcoal filter for its smog. Suck it up, put a straitjacket on it and turn it over to God, so that when you breathe out again the air is pure."
I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms. Stubbs and Ms. Creswell used their courtroom encounter with bomber Eric Rudolph to try and disarm evil in some way. Their words suggest a desire to want to turn the whole mess over to God, so that they could again breathe in the pure air of a new future. Others in that tense courtroom may have disagreed with their choice to leave vengeful thoughts and actions to the Lord. And, of course, love shown to a victimizer is never popular. But these two women seemed determined, at least through their words, to keep the acidic effects of evil from further burning their lives.
The next time you see someone in a tough bind who acts as if love is just a warm, fuzzy glow don't believe your eyes. Especially when it comes to breaking the vicious cycle, where evil often seems to beget more evil, consider just how hard it is to love an enemy. It's incredibly difficult work, but Paul offers up the reminder that our Lord is looking for accomplices who are interested in breaking this cycle of hatred that so easily infects even the best among us.
Let us pray. O God of mercy and judgment, grant us the strength to do that which is so unbelievably difficult. Give us a new way to let go of revenge. Pull it from the clench of our fists. Help us to trust your greater wisdom on righting those wrongs that hurt us so deeply. We pray this through Christ our Lord. Amen.