On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Romans 12:20 (NIV)
Coming up with a title for this article was the first obstacle that I encountered as I sat down to write it. The real emphasis of what follows is intended to be that things are not simple! This should come as no surprise to anyone, but often we try to simplify life to make things easier, to make things fit with what we wish were true, or even to fit neatly into our theology.
As peacemakers, we emphasize loving one's enemy, rightly seeing this as being consistent with teachings both in the Old and New Testaments. We know that God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:45). We know that "if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24). And we know that Jesus said, "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also...If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (Matthew 5:39, 41).
The scripture from Romans given at the beginning of this article emphasizes this way of behaving. It adds that by feeding our enemy we will "heap burning coals on his head." As I understand it, this does not mean that we are getting even for mistreatment by our enemy by harming him with burning coals. Instead, the normal interpretation is that the "burning coals" are coals of shame. Thus, by doing good to our enemy in response to mistreatment we will redeem our enemy because our good behavior will cause him to feel shame for his behavior leading to a change of behavior and presumably to a restoration of relationship.
The ideas of turning the other cheek or going the second mile would seem to be other examples of this approach to mistreatment. Rather than fighting back or objecting to unreasonable demands, we simply go beyond what is asked with the idea that this will cause the other to see the error of their ways and to change their behavior.
Consider also Mathew 18:15:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
On the surface this seems to be the same kind of teaching. Instead of holding a grudge or trying to get even with someone who has wronged us, we are to take the initiative to seek them out and confront them with our grievance. The hoped for result is reconcilation. One difference in this scripture, however, is the word "if." "If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." In the verses that follow, the confrontation escalates with the result that the problem may or may not be resolved.
This is where the "rocky ground" comes in. In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-8) the farmer sows his seed and some falls on rocky ground. This seed sprouts, then dies. It did not produce a crop. Like it or not, feeding our enemy when he is hungry or giving him something to drink when he is thirsty may or may not bring about shame, repentance, and reconciliation. Turning the other cheek or going the second mile may or may not bring about shame, repentance, and reconciliation. Things are not that simple.
It may be that going the second mile will have no effect at all or even reinforce the "bad behavior" of the other. This is the phenomenon that counselors call "enabling." According to the site Internet of the Mind:
Enabling behavior is born out of our instinct for love. It's only natural to want to help someone we love, but when it comes to certain problems -- helping is like throwing a match on a pool of gas. <http://www.internet-of-the-mind.com/enabling_behavior.html>
There are plenty of examples in scripture of both Jesus and others such as Paul, advocating what would seem to be the opposite of going the second mile. In II Thessalonians 3:10 Paul says, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." In Titus 3:10 (coincidentally), Paul says, "Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him." Jesus called the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27), drove the money-changers from the temple (Matthew 12:21) and frequently called the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites.
So, what are we to do? I believe that we need to recognize that life and life's problems are not simple. It may be that the correct thing to do in a given situation is to go the second mile. However, it may be that going the second mile will reinforce bad behavior by enabling. We need approach problems with listening prayer, wisdom, patience, and flexibility. There may be times when we need to be "hands off" like the father of the prodigal son. Other times we may need to confront or model what is right by going the second mile.
Knowing what to do in a given situation takes wisdom and we will not always get it right. Perhaps we can find comfort in James' words in James 1:5, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." As we allow ourselves to be guided by God's wisdom through Christian friends, scripture, listening prayer, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, we should be able to discern the right way to resolve problems and restore relationships, whether we are dealing with burning coals or rocky ground.