One of the things I enjoy most about the modern world is the ability to see lectures pretty much from all over the world. I have generally loved to attend public lectures at university and similar places because it stimulates my thinking and can get me to consider things from a different perspective than I had before. My penchant for public lectures (and the discussions afterwards) may be one of the reasons I date so infrequently. It’s honestly not that common to meet people who think an evening of, say, thoughts about the implications of Plato’s Republic for foreign policy sounds like a great way to spend an evening, so I often find myself attending lectures like that alone. Of course, COVID has done a number on attending public lectures, but has made it possible to “attend” lectures online, often from places I’d be unlikely to be able to visit myself for those lectures.
Most recently this was a very stimulating lecture on imprecations in the Psalms (I believe he was also promoting a book on the same topic). As with most very good lectures in Biblical fields, at least for a pastor like me, it has been helpful as I think through some of the things the Church is facing. The speaker contends that our reading of Psalms, where it interprets the imprecations as merely desires for vengeance, are lacking. We need to see that God is still expressing His love and that God’s people are often through the Psalms, in the midst of suffering still desiring the vindication of God through the conversion of the nations to faith in God.
Why does this matter? As I write, someone I perceive as a very evil man is destroying people for no good reason through lies and through a powerful military under his command. What is a Christian to do in a case like this? Admittedly, I am not one of the people facing this evil, though it is hard not to have some indignation as people are killed for no other reason than being on the wrong side of a border and having political and cultural leanings different from other people. Additionally, there may come a day when as a Christian I face similar injustices. How is a Christian to think through these things?
Of course, we should pray for and positively help those who are victims of evil. That is a given.
The problem comes in one of Jesus’ most undeniably Jesus-like commands (and likely His most difficult)
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:27–36 (ESV)
There is an argument that goes around claiming that this text is about the oppressed forcing those with power to face them on equal terms (Walter Wink in “Jesus and Nonviolence” comes to mind), but I don’t think that is the point of the text, which seems to be more about actually loving your enemies, which I take to mean, desiring their good. The lecturer’s reading of the imprecations of the Psalms (at least what I understood from his lecture) seems consistent with this. That is to say, we are to desire the ultimate good of our enemies; that they come to know and love God.
That is the very radical thing we as Christians are called to do with the evil we face: We love our enemies and we pray for those who persecute, or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
For that reason, while people I am praying for defend their homes, and people are dying, and I am advocating for our countries help to end this injustice in Ukraine, I am also praying that God would grant repentance to Vladamir Putin and his inner circle. I do think he will have to face justice for what he has done, but I am praying that God would be merciful and that this war would end, not merely with the withdrawal of troops, but with the surrender of Vladamir Putin to the love and mercy of God, as he then orders Russian troops to withdraw from Ukraine.