The picture is from the Beslan massacre, the first week of Sept, ’04 – 172 school children butchered by Islamists, scores of adults cut down. I became a little unhinged, that week. No reason in particular, that I can think of. Something must have occurred that pierced to my heart, deep in my bowels though it is buried. But I would have it so: that those who cause such things should find their way to hell before another breath passes their lips. Blood thirsty? My thirst is more for justice, than blood. Is this unchristian? Is there no place for mercy, in my bilious heart? Should I not punish them with kindness, and so perhaps save a soul? But how can punishment ever be kind? And how could I hope for their torment? Such a riddle -- to punish enemies by acting kindly to them. Where could love fit, in this paradox?
We give our cloak to the stranger who has none, and we give our child bread rather than a stone. We do not take the bread from our child, or the cloak, and give it to the stranger. If we are to give him something, it is our own bread, our own cloak, not our child’s. If I can save only one child, of two, I will save my own. Someone else’s child dies? Tough world, isn’t it. But I have a concrete duty that outweighs theoretical considerations about philanthropy. If I’m not willing to bear up under the torment of such a callous decision, then I should never have been a father. Once in that role, so many things are no longer open to negotiation. That's why abortion is such a wonderful thing – it frees us from these tiresome obligations.
There is no paradox, here. It has to do with roles. As an individual, I am to forgive, and love. As a member of society, or as the head of a family, I am to protect. I’ve said it before – I will turn my own cheek, but never the cheek of a loved one. These decisions are matters of conscience, not of compulsion. So I think loving those outside of our power, but exacting justice upon those within it, is a biblical idea. If they are within our power, then our role is not that of an individual, but as a steward. That way, it isn’t personal. That’s the canker in the soul – the need not for justice, but revenge. Again, it’s a matter of roles.
As for heaping coals on the enemy’s head – his conscience – by acting kindly to him, I have no problem with that, either. It’s all very practical, and solid psychology. It’s like being sore after a really good workout – you enjoy the pain, because it promises progress. I will enjoy the remorse of someone who repents, or at least not regret it – they deserve this small torment, and it disciplines them, chastises them, toward right conduct. It’s like watching a child struggle to solve a math problem. I enjoy seeing that, not because I’m cruel – not very – but because it represents their honest effort. Like the travail of childbirth – the point is not the pain of the woman, but the new life it heralds. A necessary evil, and if necessary, then not evil. So, if I should happen to be kind to an enemy, and they are tormented by this into repentance, such a heaping of coals upon their unworthy heads is both justice, and mercy. Not a paradox – elegance, rather.
Is loving justice … love? There’s a lot of foolishness about the death penalty. I have no problem at all with a guilty but repentant killer being executed. Like that stupid, stupid movie “Dead Man Walking.” Almost unwatchable. Was he guilty? Then what’s the problem? Kill him. Love him, feel compassion for him, rejoice in his repentance, and kill him. There is nothing contradictory about loving someone you think should be executed. But maybe that’s just me.
The point in Paul’s scalding kindness isn’t to hurt his enemies – that’s just a friendly wink at justice. But the power of a compassionate response is transformative. We are not saved by Jesus talking about love, but by what he actually did, by the kind act of his self-sacrifice. It heaps coals upon my head and this pleases Jesus because it transforms me, as one through fire. Did Jesus sacrifice himself not out of love, but because of the pain repentance would cause me? Certainly not. And in any event, such pain is only that of a fretful child, inconsolable and ridiculous, and not to be taken seriously. Our compassion is not for the pain, but the folly. That’s what lies at the heart of love – a yearning for the ultimate good. Problem is, our sight is too weak to pierce so deep.