Guests & Hosts: Heaping Coals, Building Trust & Transforming Conflict

Guests & Hosts:
Heaping Coals, Building Trust, and Transforming Conflict

a reflection by
David Ketchum

In all my Christian years, "heaping coal on my enemy's head" was typically a proverb condoning passive aggression. If you wanted to take revenge, but you didn't want to get in trouble for it, you were to be nice to your enemy. If they repented, you looked good and they were embarrassed by your kindness. If they resisted, then you looked innocent while your enemy looked stubborn and rude. Plus, God would judge them more severely if they rejected your kindness. You couldn't lose!

As tempting as indulging vengeful fantasies could be, it never seemed to have much to do with what Jesus actually taught about loving your enemies. Is our kindness really just a cover-up for wishing our enemies are ashamed and humiliated? I found myself agreeing with the discomfort of Keil & Delitzsch when encountering these ideas -

"[Other commentators] explain: you will thus bring on him the greatest pain, and appease your desire for vengeance, and at the same time Yahweh will reward your generosity. ... but if this doing of good proceeds from vengeance, and is intended to humiliate an enemy, then it loses all its moral worth, and is changed into selfish, malicious wickedness. Must the proverb then be understood in this ignoble sense?"

I decided to look for help, and it was interesting to see how the classic biblical commentators struggle with the passage.

Matthew Henry began with ideas of being generous to enemies with the goal of reconciling. But the passage overwhelmed his generosity, and, if kindness failed to reconcile the enemy, he concluded that "it will aggravate his sin and punishment, and heap the burning coals of God's wrath upon his head."

Others, like Albert Barnes, preferred to focus, not on God's wrath, but on the enemy's shame.

"Burning coals heaped on a man’s head would be expressive of intense agony. So the apostle says that the “effect” of doing good to an enemy would be to produce pain. But the pain will result from shame, remorse of conscience, a conviction of the evil of his conduct, and an apprehension of divine displeasure that may lead to repentance."

There is truth in that, and I imagine the idea of using shame to reconcile an enemy would be particularly appealing in many cultures. After all, it usually works. But shame and humiliation didn't seem to fit either the context or Jesus' demonstration of loving our enemies. I was still not satisfied that this is really what the verses meant.

Other commentators, like Adam Clarke, took the idea that the coals purified, like the refiner's fire:

Not to consume, but to melt him into kindness; a metaphor taken from smelting metallic ores: -
So artists melt the sullen ore of lead,
By heaping coals of fire upon its head:
In the kind warmth the metal learns to glow,
And pure from dross the silver runs below.

This seemed to be getting closer to the point, especially since coal is such a symbol of purity in the Old Testament. Taking a coal from the censer was a way to cleanse objects from impurity, as Isaiah's lips were made pure. But even this didn't seem to fit the context. I could not find a connection the idea of giving food and drink to an enemy with the holy objects of the tabernacle or temple.

Modern commentators repeated many of the same ideas. Even when Walter Kaiser dealt with these verses in Hard Sayings of the Bible, his conclusions were left hanging in the air:

"[T]he context shows that the image of burning coals must have a positive meaning. ... the purpose of “pouring burning coals” seems to be that, by means of responding to evil with good, the doer of the evil may be brought to repentance. It is the enemy’s benefit which is intended. When the adversary is treated with kindness, when good is returned for evil, then evil may be overcome; the antagonist may be transformed by a renewal of mind, a change of orientation from darkness to light."

I was glad to read a biblical scholar who thought the context demanded "heaping coals" to be a positive action, but disappointed that he couldn't manage any cultural or background meaning for the phrase.

Then, at last, I stumbled upon a reflection on hospitality by Barry Hart, a professor of Conflict and Trauma Studies at Eastern Mennonite University. The mystery of the heaped coals was finally unlocked -

"[I]n the time and pastoral context that these verses were written, where a family and its flock camped near another pastoralist family, the act of hosting and feeding these friends or strangers was the norm. It was also the custom 'to heap' embers from the host’s cook fire into a container so that the guest could carry these embers--on their head---to their own campsite. There they could start a fire to cook food and warm themselves at night. These acts were considered a way of showing care and respect for the ‘other’ by meeting certain basic needs."

It is easiest to love enemies who are distant from us. At close range, even our friends can annoy us. As Dorothy Day put it,

"It is not love in the abstract that counts. Men have loved a cause as they have loved a woman. They have loved the brotherhood, the workers, the poor, the oppressed - but they have not loved man; they have not loved the least of these. They have not loved personally. It is hard to love. ... It is never the brothers right next to us, but the brothers in the abstract that are easy to love."

I suspect this truth is at the bottom of many of our conflicts. It is easy to convince ourselves that we are loving people, kind people, or patient people. I have to laugh – or groan - when I catch myself thinking something like, "I'm a patient person, but so-and-so just gets under my skin." Patience is defined by peace and gentleness with exactly the folks that 'get under my skin,' and there is no special virtue in being patient with those who don't irritate me.

But love at long distance doesn't help us with the everyday conflicts, big and small, that we encounter. We need the simple acts of hospitality, of returning even evil with good, to help stop conflict from escalating and give room for our wounds to heal.

Hart emphasized that, rather than promoting shame and humiliation, hospitality can heal it –

"Extending hospitality surprises an enemy through acts of kindness and concern for their well-being. If the enemy accepts these offerings, the act becomes part of a psychological healing of the perpetrator, who is often traumatized by his or her acts of aggression and violence. Within the victim who extends hospitality, shame and hatred connected to the 'other' are psychologically transformed by constructive social action. For both victim and perpetrator, forgiveness becomes a possibility."

Obviously, the opportunity for healing would be damaged by the suspicion that we were just trying to humiliate or embarrass them. When we realize that our enemies our still people - who feel hungry, like us, and must eat; who feel thirsty, like us, and must drink; who feel cold, like us, and need the warmth of a fire – we have a window of opportunity. They can stop being merely enemies in our minds, and become human again.

As Hart explained,

"Hospitality provides the space(s) for people to move from hostility toward understanding of the other’s interests, needs and feelings, creates an environment of mutuality where misunderstanding, identity threat, and psychological pain can be discovered and processed. Fear, a critical agent that divides people, is gradually overcome and replaced by a sense of healthy tolerance and a certain level of trust. Through this entire process the guests' desire for other important human needs such as autonomy and interdependence deepens."

This is not to suggest that hospitality is the magical secret to ending conflict. As the old Bible commentators knew, being nice to your enemy doesn't necessarily mean he will be nice back. When you are heaping coals, you can get burned. But it is a risk worth taking, because to repay evil with evil has never changed a person's heart for the better.

Barry Hart's Article can be found at: