Romans 12:9-21
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Romans 12:9-21 

In this passage, Paul encourages members of the church in Rome to live peacefully and harmoniously with each other. In dealings with others, Paul advised, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). I want to focus on Paul’s teaching, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (12:19).
Interestingly, the Greek text here says “wrath,” not “wrath of God.” In virtually all translations, “of God” is added, evidently because translators have believed that this what Paul meant. However, if we take Paul at his word, it is possible to interpret this passage in a way that permits us to regard God as purely loving and caring rather than as wrathful.
To my reading, Romans 12:19 tells us that vengeance is the prerogative of God, and God can choose to repay or not repay as God pleases. In ancient times, it was generally believed that sin must be punished, and nobody would have taken seriously a teaching that sin should go unpunished. I think Paul is saying that our inclination to mete out punishment ourselves is unnecessary, because God will punish as God sees fit.
Actually, Paul writes that if we treat our enemy with kindness, “you will heap burning coals upon his head” (12:20). If you really want vengeance, then attend to the needs of your enemy, because this will frustrate your enemy’s desire to find an excuse to harm you.
What, then, is “the wrath”? I think “the wrath” refers to humanity’s anger, which is ultimately self-destructive. God can choose not to avenge wrongdoing, because wrongdoing avenges itself. We are punished by our sins and not necessarily for them. One important mechanism of that process is that, to the degree that we harm others, we distance ourselves from others and become more alone in a mysterious and often terrifying universe. We need a sense of connection with the earth, with nature, and with each other – the grounds of our being – to avoid existential despair. We weaken that connection whenever we harm the earth, nature and its creatures, and other humans. 

Go on to: Romans 13:8-14; On Monotheism
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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