Romans 12: 9-end
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20 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.’ 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Our reading from chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the Romans marks a shift in style towards the end of the letter, where Paul’s focus shifts to being a pastor to the small community in Rome, guiding them in a set of values which will stand in visible contrast to the society around them…
What strikes me about the section we heard is how many commands Paul fits into those 12 verses! I counted 21, but I may have missed one...
In my memory I hear this reading in the voice of my geography teacher at primary school, who would often read it at the end-of-year service on the last day of the summer term. And he would plant one elbow on the lectern and lean over it and look at us all and bark those commands like an old Airedale terrier. In that school we were used to being told what to do, and so we listened obediently. And yet as I remember it, under the gruffness there was affection.
To be honest, all the “do this, don’t do that” kind of washed over us largely unnoticed. But the part which caught our imagination was the heaping of burning coals on our enemy’s head – that was interesting. I would imagine the large metal coal scuttle which sat to the left of my grandmother’s fireplace, tipping the hot contents all over my latest adversary – perhaps someone in my form, or more likely my younger brother.
Paul is quoting directly here from Proverbs 25. Give your enemies food when they are hungry, he says, an echo of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The burning coals give this teaching an extra edge, that by showing care for our enemies we can deliberately cause them a kind of pain. It seems to me that what he is describing is the pain we call shame.
Shame in this context I see as the glimpse of something morally unattractive about ourselves which had until then been hidden, masked by our heroic story.
When I think about this kind of shame I think of Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books. Harry loves Dumbledore, he is Harry’s hero. And he knows that Dumbledore loves him too, has been looking after him, sometimes from a distance, from the day he was torn as a baby from his parents’ embrace. Most of the conversations between them are positive, but occasionally, Harry disappoints. I found an example from the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, where we read: “A hot, prickly feeling of shame spread from the top of Harry's head all the way down his body. Dumbledore had not raised his voice, he did not even sound angry, but Harry would have preferred him to yell…”
Perhaps it is only from those who truly love us that we are open to hearing about our hidden failings.
And yet we must be careful with the word, “shame”, for it has a history, of being used as a weapon of power and control, especially in matters of gender and sexuality. I am not talking about the use of shame as a tool for manipulation in that way.
This idea also calls to mind a new podcast I have enjoyed these past two weeks on holiday, which I recommend to you. It’s called Nice White Parents. The author, Chana Joffe-Walt, starts from the observation that the most racially segregated schools in America are to be found not in the Deep South, but in progressive New York City. So she traces the history of one school and its district over a 70-year period, from the early 1950’s, when the Supreme Court delivered the ground-breaking Brown vs Board of Education judgement against segregation in schools, through to the present day. And what she found is generation after generation of Nice White Parents as she calls them, talking about and sometimes actively working for racial integration, while in fact engineering, by their behaviour, the opposite.
She uses an image which struck home to me. Imagine, she says, a man wandering through a department store, browsing here and there. Except he is not aware that he has a large ruck-sack on his back and as he turns to look at things he leaves behind him a trail of broken merchandise. This, she says, is us – she includes herself as a white parent – we are oblivious to the harm we are doing as we go about our privileged lives, confidently expounding our liberal values.
Hearing this I was reminded of the feeling of shame when someone has made me pause, pointing out some insensitive remark or action, where I had been unaware either of my selfishness or its destructive effect. No doubt there have been many more which were never brought to my attention.
So I reflect on the shame that those of us with power should and need to feel. And those in whose love we trust enough to be willing to accept from them our necessary exposure.
But when all is said and done, I don’t really buy Paul’s image of the burning coals. I don’t like the mixed motives implied: let love be genuine, he says, which means no ulterior motive – we love our enemies because we love each and all – because it is who God made us to be.
The image also suggests a short-term impact, whereas history tells a different story. All too often those cared for have no intention of changing. The famous 20th Century advocates of loving your enemy – Gandhi and Martin Luther King - emphasised its long-term effectiveness, but also its short-term cost. The exposure of power and its destructive impulses is a dangerous path. It is a path Jesus embraces for himself, a commitment which he makes increasingly plain to his disciples, in our Gospel reading, and which leads to his execution.
And yet there is an insight here, that love and truth will go hand in hand. If our love for the other is genuine – the word Paul uses means thorough-going, transforming every part of our lives - then it cannot help but invite us both into greater truth.
So I pray that God will give us all the courage to weave love and truth together, in our relationships and in our politics. To shed light on selfishness and injustice, recognising the cost of such action and that it is unlikely to show quick results, whilst standing with those who feel the cruel effects of injustice in their own lives, especially those in our own community of Holy Innocents.
I also pray that as we share this Eucharist together, we do so as people who are open to their pretences being exposed. For in reaching out for the bread of Christ’s body, we acknowledge our hidden vulnerability and our moral shame, our need of his redeeming love.