john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK




    Romans 12 - Overcome evil with good

    Holy Trinity Parish Communion, 02/09/01

    Gordon Wilson held his daughterıs hand as they lay trapped beneath a mountain of rubble. It was 1987, and he and Marie had been attending a peaceful memorial service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, when a terrorist bomb went off. By the end of the day, Marie and nine other civilians were dead, and sixty-three had been hospitalised for injuries.

    Amazingly, Gordon refused to retaliate, saying that angry words could neither restore his daughter nor bring peace to his country. Only hours after the bombing, he told BBC reporters:

    I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge ... That will not bring her back ... Donıt ask me, please, for a purpose ... I donıt have an answer. But I know there has to be a plan. If I didnıt think that, I would commit suicide. Itıs part of a greater plan ... and we shall meet again.

    Later, Gordon said that his words were not intended as a theological response to his daughter murder. He had simply blurted them out from the depth of his heart. In the days and months after the bombing, he struggled to live up to his words. It wasnıt easy, but they were something to hang on to, something to keep him afloat in the dark hours.

    He knew that the terrorists who took his daughterıs life were anything but remorseful, and he maintained that they should be punished and imprisoned. Even so, he was misunderstood and ridiculed by many because he refused to seek revenge. He answered his critics by saying:

    Those who have to account for this deed will have to face a judgment of God, which is way beyond my forgiveness ... It would be wrong for me to give any impression that the gunmen and bombers should be allowed to walk the street s freely. But ... whether or not they are judged here on earth by a court of law ... I do my very best in human terms to show forgiveness ... The last word rests with God.

    Today I invite you to reflect on just eleven words of God:

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12.21

    If we want to know how we ought to behave as Christians, this short saying sums it all up for us:

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    These words from the pen of St Paul, not only neatly summarise the example that Jesus set for us to follow. They also directly challenge so much reverse thinking that is around in our society, our world, our homes and churches, where overcoming evil is a major theme of the day.

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    - Gordon Wilsonıs well-known story shows us how this is possible, even in the most terrible circumstances, in this day and age.

    Wilsonıs forgiveness allowed him to come to terms with his daughterıs sudden death, and its effect reached far beyond his own person. At least temporarily, his words broke the cycle of killing and revenge: the local Protestant paramilitary leadership felt so convicted by his courage that they did not retaliate.

    Rather than being crushed by grief, or eaten away by a desire for vengeance, Wilson found a way to triumph, to bring reconciliation into his life and the lives of his countryıs people.

    It is easy to be overcome by evil. To vent our anger by retaliating, or to be crushed by the horror of it all.

    If we retaliate, then we find ourselves caught up in the endless cycle of violence which feels like justice until it comes around to hit us again.

    Daniel Colemanıs sister Frances was murdered in 1985. He was an army sergeant, and he had been trained to kill. When the police failed to find his sisterıs killer, he was enraged. He wanted to take his gun and mow people down. When he picked up her car from the pound and inhaled the awful smell of blood, he wanted vengeance in the worst way. Two and a half years later his mother watched him being lowered into the ground alongside his sister. Anne Coleman said, ³He had finally taken revenge - on himself. I saw what hatred does: it takes the ultimate toll on oneıs mind and body.²

    Look for retribution and youıre the one whoıll suffer. Castrate the rapist and you become a mutilator. Hang the murderer and you are now a killer. Evil has overcome you. It doesnıt have to be that way.

    Neither do we have to be crushed by the horror of it all. St Paul is not counselling us to roll over and let evil triumph. Heıs not saying we should let those who do wicked deeds get off scot-free. Heıs reminding us that, in the words of Desmond Tutu, goodness is stronger than evil. Heıs inviting us to grasp that truth and let it come alive, imaginatively, triumphantly, in our lives.

    It worked for Gordon Wilson. He saw the need to work for justice and was energised, his life revitalised, as he threw himself into that activity. But justice without retribution. Overcoming evil with good.

    And it worked for Desmond Tutu, the South African church leader who was at the forefront of establishing a body which more than any other helped to deal with the wounds and the enmities and the terrors of his people: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. As South Africa ended apartheid, the Commission enabled justice to be done, without retribution.

    To those who had committed gross acts of violence, violations of human rights, under apartheid, the Commission offered amnesty in exchange for them publicly disclosing the truth about their crimes. And to the victims, it gave an unusual opportunity to be heard, as well as hope that they would be compensated and restored.

    This was no feeble well-meaning exercise in a weak sort of forgiveness, no allowing evil to triumph or escape judgment. Day after day the Commission had to listen to stories of the terrible atrocities which were done during the apartheid reign.

    All the way through they granted amnesty only to those who pleaded guilty, in other words, those who recognised their crimes and who therefore took responsibility for what they had done.

    And regularly, too, they saw the results of these inquiries - they witnessed some extraordinary scenes of forgiveness and resentence which were drawn out of the hearings.

    The Commission was deeply rooted in the conviction that our relationship to others is central to our existence as human beings. Tutuıs work showed that overcoming evil with good is not easy, but in his inspirational book on the subject, he suggests that there is No Future Without Forgiveness.

    Bringing reconciliation after conflict is very hard work, but, Tutu says, it is the only way forward, whether at the personal or political level. Itıs a principle which we must try to make work for a better, more humane future.

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    - These are life-affirming words for a world that seems wrapped up in death.

    - These are reconciling words for a world that seems obsessed with retribution.

    - They are not easy words; no gospel words are.

    But they sum up all that gospel living is. We do well to ask God to help us bring them alive for us today.


    Stories derived from J. Christoph Arnold: The Lost Art of Forgiving and Desmond Tutu: No Future Without Forgiveness