People seem to relish the chance to take revenge. Like when an unidentified co-worker eats your savoury lasagne lunch from the staff room fridge, despite the fact that it was explicitly marked with your name! Your first move might be a hard-target search through the office, looking for leftover flecks of noodle beneath someone’s computer screen, a tiny smear of sauce by the corner of someone’s mouth, allowing you to zero in on the culprit and unleash a punishing verbal spray. Or maybe you’re someone who plays it cool, recognising that revenge is a dish best served cold, patiently waiting, employing artifice and subterfuge, moving your pieces into position, lulling the offender into a false sense of security – until at last, you strike!
Lessons We Never Learn
It’s funny (or maybe not so funny) that people often talk about justice when they really mean vengeance. The aftermath of September 11, 2001 presents as a classic example. Many have now forgotten that the U.S. military action in Afghanistan was originally named (wait for it…) ‘Operation Infinite Justice’, before being re-christened. But the operation, whatever its name, had precious little to do with real justice. True justice makes things right, returns or repays something that was taken, makes someone whole again.
The only thing any of us received from events in Afghanistan (and later, Iraq) was grim satisfaction for our bloodlust. Politicians and rank-and-file citizens, mixing patriotic fervour and righteous indignation, brushed aside the sprinkling of voices urging restraint and called for heads to roll. This was about payback, full stop.
If only such acts of revenge (or ‘defending our honour’, if you like) could tie up loose ends neatly. One side would hit back at the other, who would respond with a hearty chuckle, ‘Well, I guess we had that coming. No hard feelings!’ But no, the lesson we humans never seem to learn is that vengeance predictably engenders a self-perpetuating cycle. As soon as one side retaliates for an attack, the other responds in kind. The first side says, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’, and carries out yet another assault. And on and on it goes, with both groups convinced of their own virtue and the other’s vice. Whether it’s duelling nations or feuding neighbours, the situation quickly deteriorates into a war of attrition.
Is there a way through the morass?
Who’s the Real Avenger?
An honest investigation of biblical passages won’t allow us to completely expunge the idea of vengeance or ‘divine wrath’ from our faith. In the Hebrew scriptures, judges, kings, poets and prophets routinely ask for vengeance on their enemies (although we should be careful not to equate requests for vindication with a desire for revenge). However, those scriptures also firmly assert that taking vengeance is not a human right, but a divine one.
In probably the most well-known passage, YHWH, referring to Israel’s enemies, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.’ (Deuteronomy 32:35, NIV). Even the New Testament doesn’t completely abandon this idea; Paul quotes this very passage when he writes to the Roman churches:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
Romans 12:19, NIV
The biblical response seems apparent: don’t take matters into our own hands, but wait for retribution from above!
But what would happen if God, or God’s representatives, chose not to seek vengeance?
Heeding the Words We Like to Forget
Consider (again) these words of Jesus:
But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
Luke 6:27-29, 32-33, NRSV
For generations, we’ve tried to wish these statements away, casually kicked them under the couch and out of view, or just stuck our fingers in our ears and sang ‘La la la la, I am not listening’. Hey, Jesus said a lot of things; he couldn’t have really meant this one, right?
Except he did mean it. His deliberate, non-violent march toward crucifixion proved that he meant it.
And while enduring brutal physical, emotional and mental torture and extreme humiliation, he prayed – but not for revenge, as so many kings and prophets before him had. His prayer is so familiar to us, we face the danger of missing its power: ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’
He changed the game; he broke the cycle. So what’s our response when our nations seek revenge on other nations; when our leaders play a vicious, never-ending game of verbal and legal tit-for-tat; when Republicans, or Democrats, or Labor, or Liberals, or immigrants, or religious minorities, or foreign workers, or anyone on ‘the other side’ cops the blame for all of society’s ills; when the idea of getting payback on those perceived ‘enemies’ seems so seductive?
Considering how unpopular and unwelcome Jesus’ words on the subject continue to be, are we willing to take them seriously? Are we willing to reject revenge, to speak with the voice of forgiveness, to show compassion, to act as peacemakers, refusing to be swept along with the other voices around us screaming for blood?
If our answer to those questions is a prayerful ‘yes’, then more and more of this world might begin to follow our lead.
- Feature Image: ‘Target – Human Silhouette’ (Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons)
- ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ by Pieter Bruegel (Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons)