Return No One Evil For Evil

Steve Lindsley
(1 Samuel 24: 1-13, 16-22; Romans 12: 9-18)

Her name is Celie, and she is the main character and narrator in the movie The Color Purple, based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Alice Walker.  It is a harsh look at life for African-American women in the early 20th century.  Set in rural Georgia in the 1930’s, Celie’s early years are marked by abuse at the hands of two men in her life – her stepfather, with whom she has two children who are taken from her; and the man she was given to in marriage at fourteen years of age. 

Known only as “Mister,” he treats Celie as something between a maid and a household pet – endless and ruthless days of cleaning his house, shaving his face, and caring for his three children who are not much younger than she.  Other women come in and out of his life, and Celie is shoved aside every time.  Mister shows no remorse as he tells her how “ugly” she is, and he drives out of her life the only person she ever loved – her sister Nettie. 

It is a joyless existence.  And yet through it all, Celie never raises her voice, never lashes out in anger, never takes advantage of multiple opportunities to end his life in order to save her own.  For better or for worse, Celie is always there for Mister and his kids, even as they are never there for her.  Even as evil is returned to her over and over and over again.

When I was a kid in Raleigh, my pastor finished every worship with the same benediction.  In 29 years I never heard him say another one.  I remember thinking to myself at one point how boring that was, why can’t he mix it up every now and then.  But as time went on, I started looking forward to it.  It was the constant in worship – hymns change, sermon is different, liturgy switches up.  In the same way, life changes – good days, bad days, whatever.  But that same benediction was there.  I got to the point where I’d mouth the words as he said them, which meant it wasn’t just my ears hearing them.  My whole self experienced it.

Years later, when I was ordained at that church, a family gave me a framed copy of the benediction as a gift – and it hangs in my office to this day.  And every now and then you’ll hear me say it:

Go out into the world in peace,
Have courage, hold on to that which is good.
Return no one evil for evil,
Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak,
Help the suffering, honor all people,
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit

I remember one time asking my 3rd-grade Sunday school teacher what this whole “return no one evil for evil” was about.   I wasn’t sure how someone could be “returned,” but if there was a way, I wanted to inquire about my younger brother.

Instead, my Sunday school teacher opened her Bible and began reading a story that sounded a little like Celie’s.  It involved two men of power; two men with very different ideas about that power. There was Saul, the one no one liked, the simple farmer who stumbled into being Israel’s first king and had been stumbling ever since.  And there was David, the golden boy who could do no wrong, the king-to-be whose defeat of Goliath as a young lad set the stage for his greatness. 

Saul had been hunting David down to take his life, we were told, because he felt threatened by him, intimidated by his charm and ever-growing popularity.   It forced David into a life on the run, hiding in foreign lands as his nemesis relentlessly pursued him.  Except in one instance, when the tables were turned and Saul became the vulnerable one. 

He had unknowingly placed himself within David’s reach,  with no royal guards around.  David’s sword was drawn and ready. His companions urged David to seize the moment and take the king’s life, putting an end to his adversary and laying claim to the throne he’d already been anointed for.  Your enemy is before you for the taking, they whispered in his ear.  Surely this is what God wants!

But David would have none of it.  Instead he simply slice off a piece of Saul’s royal cloak.  And later, when David was at a distance, the young man called out to the king and held the torn fabric in his hands.  I could have killed you, he said, but I didn’t.  You have nothing to fear from me.  It ends here!   

Saul was humbled and humiliated.  For a little while.  Soon enough he was back at it again, trying to hunt David down.  That’s because when the fear of losing something important gets a hold of you, when it sinks its claws deep in your soul, it is not easily given up.  It is not something that can simply “end” on its own.   And so Saul’s pursuit of David would continue, even as David himself chose to “return no one evil for evil,” as my Sunday school teacher explained it.

Now things ended up working out pretty well for David.  But we would not be remiss, I think, if we called into question what David did – or did not do.  Is it really wise, in that situation, to “turn the other cheek,” as Jesus would later say?  Are there instances where fighting back is justified?

I wonder.  I guess it depends on how you look at it – how you view the story of David and Saul, how you understand Celie and others like her.  How you look at the notion of justice and “making wrongs right,” and whether the end always justifies the means.  Especially in our tension-saturated culture where it sometimes feels like we are one spark away from a huge explosion.

All of this, in some way I imagine, was swirling around in David’s head at that seminal moment, making him dizzy: sword in hand, his enemy mere feet away, fast asleep, totally his for the taking.  All his friends, whispering in his ear, practically begging him to do it.  And instead he uses that sword for fabric alteration!

I wonder.  I wonder what it was exactly that led David to de-escalate; to choose to do the exact opposite of what everyone else wanted.  I wonder if, at some level, David had thoughts similar to what noted theologian Henri Nouwen once said:

What makes the temptation of power so irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the harder task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.[1]

Could that really be it?  Could the difference really come down to love?  It makes you wonder.  If David had acted on his impulses, done what everyone was telling him to do, he would’ve gotten his life back.  He would’ve become the new king.  He would’ve been free! 

Except he really wouldn’t have been free, would he?  Because David would’ve been imprisoned by the vicious cycle of violence and revenge and paranoia that had long before taken Saul.  And when the tables would later be turned, when David was the one trying to hold onto his power, he would’ve been the one in pursuit.  Which is why it is important in this story, at that pivotal moment, that David chooses love. 

And love changes the game, doesn’t it?  Love makes for an entirely different kind of power.  It’s about recognizing that there’s something beyond our experience in this world; something far greater than the structures and systems we set up to make things work for us.  Love grounded not in human will and reliance, but grounded in our heartfelt beliefs and convictions, and the very manifestation of God’s presence in the world. 

That is power of a whole different kind.  And it is a power rarely celebrated in our day and time, because it’s not flashy or brilliant.  Instead, this power is found in the simple things: the loving daughter who wipes food from her ailing mother’s mouth at the rest home, the average Joe who lays another cinder block on a Habitat for Humanity house, the teacher who daily negotiates the tumultuous waters of her first-grade class, the clergy donning stoles and linking arms at a white supremacist rally.  That kind of power is not found on the front pages of the newspaper; it rarely pops up at the top of your social media feed.  But it is the kind of power through which God does God’s greatest work.

And so maybe the story here for you and me is the story of recognizing those pivotal moments when they come, seeing clearly the intersection of the temptation to return evil and the calling to love. It can occur in the big and the small; the life-changing and the mundane.  Either way, it is those moments when you and I are called like David, despite the whisperings in our ear, to echo those powerful words: IT ENDS HERE. 

What might that, people of God, actually look like?

Recently I’ve immersed myself in an ongoing conversation on Twitter; a conversation of people who’ve had to say “it ends here” to, of all things, the church.  Let me explain.  This community revolves around the hashtag #EmptyThePews; and it is geared toward people who’ve been hurt by the church, abused by the church, condemned by the church.  It’s a place for them to share and vent and heal; and also to be empowered, if they so choose, to leave their toxic community of faith – because, like a person stuck in an abusive relationship, leaving is never easy.

Now granted, it is more than a little disconcerting to think that the church could cause such pain; that the church would ever need to be on the receiving end of an “it ends here.”  We tend to think of church as a place of comfort and joy.  But it’s not that way for everyone. 

And so I’ve chosen to listen in on this conversation because I think it’s important to hear these stories, hear the hurt, hear the pain; not treating it or them as a mission field to try and steer them to another church, but to just listen and occasionally say three words to them that very likely are the first time they’ve heard them from anyone associated with the church: I’m so sorry.

You and I, followers of Christ, we live in the legacy of a man who made it his mission to return no one evil for evil.  Choose love over fear.  Proclaim with his very life to the powers-that-be, it ends here. 

And that makes me wonder what it might look like if the church itself fully lived into that mission, all of what we say and most importantly all of what we do.  What it might be like if the hashtag were reversed; #FillThePews, because it became a widely accepted fact throughout our society that the church is the place for healing, the place where God’s love is received by and shared with ALL, where no one is returned evil for evil.

I long for the day when that hashtag starts trending.  But in order for that to happen, we’ve first got a lot of work to do.  And we need to keep listening, because there’s not just power in sharing the hurt, but power in receiving it, too. To hear the stories of those who choose to break the vicious cycle that threatens to consume them if they let it, and instead choose love.  That kind of love is contagious.

It was for Celie.  Near the end of the movie, as she finally decides to leave Mister for good.  You’ll be back!  he screams at her, as she climbs in the car that will drive her away.  You’ll be back!  as he senses his power over her dissipating like a morning mist.  And in perhaps one of the more powerful scenes of the story, as he lunges to strike her one last time, Celie raises her hand, three digits extended, as if to cast a spell on him.  The power is hers now.  And in a voice that embodies, for the first time, something like pity, Celie says to Mister, Everything you’ve ever done to me, you’ve already done to yourself.

Years later, Celie returns to that rural Georgia town to take over her father’s business.  And as the movie soundtrack plays in the background the gospel tune, “God’s trying to tell you something,” we watch as Mister removes his savings from its hiding place and uses it to pay the immigration fees; so Celie can be reunited with her beloved sister Nettie, who fled to Africa decades before. 

How about that?  The transformative power of returning no one evil for evil.  It not only leads to the redemption of the one.  It redeems the other, too.  

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Henri Nouwen in Mornings with Henri J.M. Nouwen, quoted in Christianity Today, February 8, 1999, 72.