Romans 12:9-21 (Translation: The Message)

9-10 Love from the centre of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. 11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fuelled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. 14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. 17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” 20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

“I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

In my eleventh year, as a pupil in a small Catholic boys school, I was cast as Pitti-Sing (one of the three little maids) in the school’s production of The Mikado. Serves me right for having a sweet soprano voice! One of the many memorable songs in The Mikado (“I’ve got a little list”) is sung by Ko Ko, The Lord High Executioner. The first verse goes thus:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs —
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat —
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that —
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist —
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado

I have often wondered if the words of this song warmed the hearts of my Christian Brothers teachers who identified good teaching with brutality. Sweet little Pitti-Sing, in her non-stage life, was certainly on their list. I remember being strapped for all manner of misdemeanours, including poor handwriting, getting sums wrong, mis-spelling words, speaking with a Dutch (or Australian) accent – the list went on. The justification for this brutality is that they saw themselves as the instruments of a righteous God. And, of course, it was meant to make a good Christian/Catholic man of me.

I have also wondered if I can blame the Brothers for my many failures. Did they do me harm? Probably not. The defiant streak in me remains and, in any case my exposure to them lasted only a couple of years before my family moved suburbs. It was a close call though. What I narrowly missed was being drawn into the world of my tormentors, and taking on as normal the distorted view of The Faith that their words and actions proclaimed.

It is extraordinary how attractive some people of some persuasions find the notion of a wrathful and judgemental God; how much satisfaction they gain from casting God in the role of Lord High Executioner, complete with his little list. They take delight in God saying: “I’ll do the judging, I’ll take care of it.” What they miss from this marvellous passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is the absolute requirement to give oneself to self-emptying love, compassion, empathy and solidarity. And these virtues recommended to us are copied from the virtues of God.

Yes, God judges. Don’t we all. Doesn’t survival depend on making judgements? Thousands of times a day each of us decides on this course of action or that. Being able to make judgements is what distinguishes us from instinct-driven animals. Our judgements become sick and counter-productive when they are driven by self-righteousness and a delight in inflicting pain. God judges, but we believe that God’s judgements are born out of love. True, there are times when God’s judgements are beyond comprehension, but our faith holds us to a bigger picture captured by Julian of Norwich when she said “All will be well”.

Beware, therefore, of the judgement accompanied by the admonition: “I’m doing this for your own good”. Or “One day you will thank me for this”. Our job is to embody the self-emptying love, compassion, empathy and solidarity of our God; to live-out these virtues to the best of our ability and to rejoice when that which is lost is found again.

If God has a little list, then it is not an instrument of vengeance, or retribution, or revenge. God’s list, should it exist, must by God’s very nature be an aide memoir for the ongoing work of salvation and reconciliation.

Karel Reus