By Robert Wright, editor of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter
Love your enemies—it drives them crazy: People often quote the Apostle Paul saying, in his letter to the Romans, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” People less often quote what Paul says next: “For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
This passage came to mind after I read an email from Heidi, an MRN subscriber who is doing her best to transcend anger and hatred.
Heidi writes, “I volunteer, politically & socially, but I feel like possibly the biggest contribution I’m making right now is a commitment to be 100% positive online… I don’t mean I don’t express sadness at events, but I’ve drawn a red line for myself so that I don’t either put out, or pass on, material that is angry, or even snide. I try to encourage and congratulate others, so it’s more than just an absence of negative, but just not spreading nastiness feels like a huge thing right now.”
But Heidi has a friend who tells her that “playing nice” is just “rolling over,” and Heidi has nagging doubts that “maybe my friend is right and I’m simply ceding ground out of cowardice to people who have no problem being angry.”
There are definitely times when skillfully channeled anger does some good. In fact, there are times when unskillfully channeled anger winds up doing some good. Still, it’s worth remembering that transcending anger and hatred isn’t just a mushy moral or spiritual ideal. Sometimes it’s a smart tactic, a way to thwart your enemy’s aims. Though scholars differ over the exact interpretation of Paul’s “burning coals” line, the basic idea seems to be that, as a practical matter, reciprocating antagonism usually isn’t the best way to fight it. Paul’s next sentence is, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” He’s offering a path not just to goodness but to victory—much as the Buddha was when he said, “Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility… Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility.”
Again, whether this strategy works depends on your situation and your adversary. But when your adversary is a president who loves to be able to tell his supporters that you hate him, and hate them, and loves to depict you and your allies as dangerously uncivil extremists, then defying those stereotypes may indeed be a way to heap burning coals on his head. (And I commend Heidi—who says she thinks we should “impeach with compassion”—for presumably not taking any pleasure in that image.)
By the way, Paul’s observation wasn’t original. He was quoting almost word for word—and intentionally referencing—a verse from the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible. And Proverbs, I would emphasize, is categorized as part of the “wisdom literature.”
Each week, the Mindful Resistance Newsletter presents a calm and balanced summary of the news along with reflections on, and background reading about, the problem of Trumpism and how to fight it intelligently.
Robert Wright, editor of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, is the New York Times bestselling author of Why Buddhism Is True, The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), and Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Intercept, and Wired.