My favorite Protestant Sunday school hymn has always been a little ditty called “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
It is not a terribly profound song, theologically speaking. Musically speaking, it seems to be more of a camp-fire song than a hymn; accompaniment on a tom-tom seems appropriate. But it does point to the sentiment expressed by Saint Paul in today’s epistle. It is the opposite of a quote someone called to my attention a number of years ago—I think it was from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—that suggested that Christians could be recognized by their “intestine strife”; a state of continuous internal discord.
“If it be possible ... be at peace with all men.... overcome evil with good.”
The natural state of God’s creation is good. As God’s stewards over creation, the responsibility of mankind is to preserve that goodness. There are natural evils of course—the forces of nature sometimes get a bit out of hand—things like hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and even plagues. God permits such things—sometimes to remind us of our insignificance; sometimes to prompt widespread repentance where His laws have gone long ignored. The Christian response to these things is to “overcome evil with good.”
There is, of course, a natural inclination to help those in distress, particularly when their need is urgent and undeserved—this is true, even among the pagans. But the Christian mandate to “overcome evil with good” goes a bit farther. Many years ago, when it was still illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, a young pagan named Pachomius was forced to serve in the Roman Army. A number of conscripts were herded aboard a ship, and sent down the Nile to battle the enemies of Constantine, the Roman Emperor. But, during the course of the voyage, the food was found to be contaminated, and those soldiers that were not starving were suffering from a debilitating illness—the vessel was forced to stop at one of the Egyptian towns by the riverside. To the complete surprise of the soldiers, a group of people came on board to tend the sick and to bring fresh food and water. This was far more than Pachomius expected from any of his fellow pagans. These people were Christians—they braved the edicts of the Empire which made them criminals for their belief. They braved the danger of boarding a military vessel, and the danger of contracting disease, in order to feed the hungry and comfort the sick—in order to “overcome evil by doing good.”
Pachomius and some of his fellow conscripts were so impressed with the heroic kindness of these people that they became Christians themselves. Pachomius would go on to found some of the world’s first monasteries, and would become known to posterity as Saint Pachomius. “Overcoming evil with good” is purifying and sanctifying—both for those who do good, and for those for whom the good is done. Not only will “they know we are Christians by our love,” but, perhaps, they will become Christians as well.
The epistle today seems to be addressing good and evil in human relations—day to day behavior, even in the absence of some unusual catastrophe. Man must “overcome evil by doing good.” even when there is no plague; even when there is no natural disaster. Perhaps you will recall that we heard a little more from the same text last week:
This attitude ought to be “a given” with regard to fellow Catholics—with “those who are of the household of the Faith,” as Saint Paul wrote the Galatians. There can be no excuse for working purposeful evil against a fellow adopted son or daughter of God, for we are brothers and sisters together with Jesus Christ. But even with those who are not of the Faith, we are to “do good not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of all men.” If we are to convert the pagans around us, it will only be by means of humble charity, “overcoming evil with good.”
“Hate what is evil, hold to what is good.” We might ask how Saint Paul could order hatred in a speech that is otherwise so concerned with doing good. The answer, of course, is that we are to “hate the evil, but not the evildoer,” “to hate the sin, but not the sinner.” It is altogether appropriate to hate evil, for evil flies in the face of God Himself, Who deserves only good. It is appropriate to hate evil, for evil will destroy society, and might ultimately make us evil ourselves.
Hatred and anger can actually be forces for good—but only if they motivate us to “overcome evil with good”; by doing good. And sometimes it is good to act with strength against an evildoer—good for his victim, and good even for himself if he can be deterred from sin—good for society, which already suffers from too much evil.
But let us not forget the phrase Saint Paul quotes—it is God Himself speaking in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is Mine: I will repay.” Now, there are sins which “cry out to heaven for vengeance.” Some of those sins are rather common today—“sins which cry out for vengeance”—they are not particularly polite to talk about, for sin is always hateful and often repulsive. The point here—and this is important—is that while we may sometimes be called on to stop evil behavior, we must never do so in the sense of taking revenge. If there is any vengeance to be taken, it will be for God to do.
When those in authority punish someone for evildoing, it must always be for the purpose of correcting the evildoer so he does evil no more; or, perhaps, giving him a chance to do penance for his evil; certainly to protect others from his evil; but never in the spirit of taking revenge. Vengeance belongs to God alone.
Sometimes punishment is necessary. But wouldn’t it be good to be able to say that we made every effort to “overcome evil by doing good.” Wouldn’t it be good to be able to say that we kept someone from sin by being at peace with him, by blessing him instead of cursing him, by giving him food when hungry or drink when he was thirsty? Wouldn’t it be better to be patient with him and to pray for him? Not always easy or practical, of course, but all too often completely untried!
“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord ... And they'll know we are Christians by our love.” And perhaps, like our Roman soldier Pachomius, they will become “members of the household of the Faith,” and in turn they themselves will “overcome evil by doing good.”
 Romans xii: 16-21.
 Irene Connelly, RIP.
 Thomas E Woods, How the Church Built Western Civilization (Washington, DC: Regnary, 2005) p.169; The Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. “Eastern Monasticism before Chalcedon” www.newadvent.org/cathen/10464a.htm.
 Epistle, Second Sunday after Epiphany, Romans xii: 6-16.
 Galatians vi: 10.
 Romans xii: 19; Deuteronomy xxxii: 35.