"Overcome Evil with Good"

Romans 12:9-21

Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Some events are so riveting that they are not only etched in our minds forever, but we can clearly recall exactly where we were when the news reached us.  Some of you remember what you were doing on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, when you heard that Pearl Harbor was being attacked.  Many of us remember where we were when the news from Dallas told us that President Kennedy had been shot.  I suspect most of us can remember where we were ten years ago today when news reached us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Many of us witnessed the second jet smash into the south tower creating a huge fireball.  Like many of you, I remained glued to the set for hours.  I held my breath in disbelief when the first tower crumbled.  I can still picture the debris shooting out like the legs of a spider and falling to earth.

There was chaos and confusion as we learned that we were under attack.  A report came in that the Pentagon had been hit and no one knew how many other passenger jets had been hijacked and transformed into lethal weapons on a mission to kill and destroy.

The horror of that day lodged in our minds because we watched it unfold in real time and we identified with the victims.  Most were ordinary people doing a typical days work at their office or flying somewhere for business or to visit family.  There are so many tragic stories of people whose lives ended far too soon and so many people still in pain, struggling to cope with the death of one they loved.

Horror was not the only emotion evoked by the tragedy.  We were also awed by the courage of the firefighters and police officers who dashed into the burning buildings to rescue others, but lost their lives when the buildings toppled.  Later we discovered the bold actions of the passengers of United Flight 93 who prevented their plane from furthering the death and destruction.  The somber stories of suffering and the remarkable stories of self-sacrifice continue to strike chords deep within us.  It's why we pause for moments of silence, why we remember the victims in prayer, why we pledge to perform special acts of kindness and why we build monuments in their memory.  They remind us how noble it is and how essential it is for human beings to make sacrifices for the good of others.

Ten years ago today, when we watched the twin towers fall, we were stunned.  We could not believe that the north and south towers of the World Trade Center could collapse in a heap of ash and rubble, vaporizing most of the 3,000 people trapped inside.  But disbelief quickly turned to outrage.  We were determined to strike back at those who inflicted such a deadly blow on us.

All of us carry different memories of 9/11.  One of mine was a man in the streets of New York City a few hours after the towers crumbled.  He was screaming, "We should be killing someone!  We should be bombing someone!"  He personified what many of us were feeling - a desire to avenge the deaths of innocent people and to strike back to teach our enemy the lesson: If you mess with us, you'll pay for it.

Sadly, many Americans were so frightened that they embraced simple solutions.  They imagined all Muslims to be of one mindset.  They equated the word "Muslim" with the word "terrorist" which is as accurate as saying that Greg Jones is of the same mind as Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who burned the Koran.

Every religion has its extremists and moderates, but the media's craving for sensational stories elevates the extremists to the front page and we begin to think they are the norm.  Worse, some ferret out passages in the Koran that seem to justify violence - something that can be done in the Bible just as easily - and ignore the fact that the two greatest commands in Islam and Christianity are identical -

We are to love God and we are to love our neighbor.  Unfortunately, not every person of faith takes to heart the command to love our neighbor.  Fear prompts some to retrench and to view people of other religions, ethnic groups and nations with suspicion.

Fear and suspicion cultivate an excellent breeding ground for extremists who justify terrorism against those who do not see the world as they do.  It can create a single assassin such as Anders Breivik, the Christian fundamentalist who gunned down young people in Norway.  Or, when fear and suspicion harness already angry and despairing young men, it can unleash a deadly organization like Al Qaeda.  Following 9/11, fear, anger and an intense desire for revenge fueled the passions of many Americans.  Unfortunately, it continues to sway the thinking of many.

Baylor University professor, Greg Garrett, says that "earlier this year, one of his favorite students in a creative writing class told him that she thought she could empathize with any kind of character: an abusive father, a drug addict, a serial killer.  Then this student paused for a moment, reflected, and said, 'Except a Muslim.  I don't think I could identify with a Muslim, because they represent everything I hate.  Our experiences are completely alien to each other.'"

Professor Garrett "was shocked.  This was not an angry student, an unintelligent student, or an uncompassionate student.  He asked her, 'Do you know any Muslims?'  She looked at him as though he had asked if she knew any serial killers."1

               In every land, there are certain groups of people who become the targets of those in power.  
Despite the words on the Statue of Liberty - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." our nation has a long list of people who have been persecuted - Native American Indians, Irish, Italians, Africans, Catholics, Jews, Japanese, Germans, Hispanics.  Today, Muslims top the list.
               As Christians, how are we to respond to terrorism? With Islamophobia?  In today's passage from Romans, Paul gives us some tips when he identifies some of the marks of a true Christian.  
He says, "Hate what is evil."  He calls on followers of Christ to resist and reject the things that lead to destruction.  It is a warning to be on guard against violence - but also, selfishness, jealousy, greed, prejudice, arrogance, and all that poisons and pollutes us.  To help us resist evil, Paul declares, "Hold fast to what is good."  He wants us to grab hold of what is right and true and life-enhancing.  He wants us to love God, ourselves and others.  He wants us to be kind, merciful, generous, faithful, just and respectful.  And one way Paul says that we can resist evil and cling to what is good is to persevere in prayer.  Paul knows we must be involved in warfare.  But Paul is not talking about a physical fight with other people; he's talking about the spiritual war we must wage within ourselves.  He's talking about overcoming the temptations that lead to destructive behavior.
               Then, in verse 14, Paul puts before us one of the greatest challenges in all of Scripture.  The monumental challenge is this: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them."

This verse, coupled with Christ's call to turn the other cheek, have led some Christians to become pacifists.  I am not a pacifist.  I believe that there are times when it is necessary to use force to stop people who are intent on killing and terrorizing.  But I also believe the wisdom of our faith, that revenge is very dangerous.

Justice requires that people who do evil must not be allowed to widen their circle of darkness.

People intent on violence must be stopped.  But revenge can warp our sense of justice.  Revenge can lead us to indiscriminate killing by blinding us to the distinctions we must make regarding who is the enemy and who is not.

Desire for revenge lures some into thinking that all Muslims are extremists intent on killing us.

Desire for revenge justifies what we did in Iraq - killing over 100,000 civilians - a countless number of them children.  It has been very disturbing to me to hear practically nothing from Christians in terms of sorrow for all the innocents we killed.

Revenge deludes us into believing that teaching our enemy a lesson by inflicting enormous pain will show them who is boss and make us safer.  But revenge fuels a cycle of violence, triggering increased hostility and leading to further acts of revenge.

We must be vigilant in stopping terrorists and disrupting their networks.  But simultaneously, we must be working to win the hearts of those who have not allowed anger and despair to drive them into the same camp as the radical extremists.

            One positive sign in the past ten years has been the increase in the number of interfaith dialogue groups.  The number of Presbyterian congregations involved in interfaith                                           dialogue has doubled since 9/11.  Our own Muslim-Christian Dialogue group has led to new relationships and better understanding.                                                                                 understandings.

Interfaith dialogue is not simply a hip, liberal thing to do.  At this point in the history of our planet, interfaith dialogue is absolutely critical to the future of civilization.  We must better understand the visions of people who adhere to faiths other than Christianity.

Interfaith conversations almost always help people discover common ground.  It comes as a surprise to some people when they discover that every major world religion has a similar saying as the Golden Rule, to treat others the way you want them to treat you.  The Prophet Muhammad said: "None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself."  The three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all teach that we are to love God and we are to love our neighbors.  We share some of the same stories and beliefs.

Engaging in conversations with people from other faith traditions also helps us sweep away stereotypes and to learn to trust and respect people from different religions.

I do not believe that all religions are basically the same.  They're not.  There are some distinctive differences.  But we can still have fruitful conversations with people with whom we differ and we can build friendships with people of other faiths, if we will learn to respect one another.

A colleague, Presbyterian Pastor Scott Black Johnson, tells about his seminary roommate who would occasionally umpire baseball games. As an ump, he would allow batters to cuss and swear all they wanted.  They could say anything in the book; anything except for one word.  They could not say the word "You."  A batter could say "Bleepity bleep, bleep, son of a bleep."  And the umpire would look the other way.  But if the batter said, "You bleepity, bleep, bleep, son of a bleep," he would toss him out of the game without hesitation.  Saying "You" switched the conversation from a gripe about the fairness of the call to a personal attack.2

Isn't that why our country is so divided these days?  Instead of respecting those with whom we disagree and struggling to find common ground, too many opt for character assassination.

In the late stages of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he described the Southern rebels as human beings like everyone else.  An elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, upbraided him for speaking kindly of their enemies.  She said he should only be thinking of destroying them.

And Lincoln, whose faith was dear to him, replied, "Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"3

In the final verse of today's passage, Paul gives us our marching orders.  It ought to be our mantra every morning when we rise and throughout the day: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."  The Koran agrees.  In it, we read: "Repel evil with the most beautiful goodness."4

Christ calls on us to heal the wounds of the world.  We must do everything in our power to better understand people of different faiths, to build relationships on the common ground we share and to work together to make the world a more just, free and peaceful planet for all.  The future of civilization is at stake.



  1. Greg Garrett, "Fighting Islamophobia with Information," on the Patheos website, August 17, 2011.
  2. Scott Black Johnson, "No One Shall Make Them Afraid," January 23, 2011.
  3. Scott Atran, "Demonstrations, Hopes and Dreams" on Krista Tippett's radio program, On Being, February 10, 2011.
  4. The Koran 23:96.