The Virtues of Revenge

There’s a deep theology of vengeance taught in sacred scripture.

“Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord” is famous enough but the prohibition against our little revenges are just awkward.

It’s hard to teach our kids to not take revenge because people will treat them badly and we want to protect them, to teach them to “defend” themselves. These are often little lessons in revenge. Self defense can only occur in the immediate moment of the event of possible harm, so any guidance as to later response is unmistakably a lesson in revenge. A child’s first response to being let out of “turning the other cheek” is a strange mixture of euphoria and glory; it’s not good for them.

But that’s exactly what we’re trying to teach them. To not take revenge when treated badly. If people were always treating them goodly there would be no reason for the lesson? It’s all part of our expectation that they have a better ethic than the world, which thrives on revenge with a healthy dose of treating each other badly.

I remember meeting a family that taught their kids that the not getting vengeance and turning the cheek things were only for the Jews under the law, and that Christians didn’t need to follow those rules. Consistent with the claim, they did little to restrain their children and so the other kids and parents had to carry the burden . As far as I know, neither the parents nor the children persevered in the faith. I’m not writing this as an example of cause and effect but as an observation of the wounded conscience. The laws of God, especially those concerned with compassion, forgiveness and magnanimity train the conscience. Even the recognition of sin necessary to repentance can be spoiled through faulty interpretations of the morality of God.

You can’t grow faith without the waters of Repentance; they require each other like cloud and rain. So if we miss the law we might miss faith itself.

Remember the lawyer came to Jesus and asked him how to enter eternal life. Jesus asked the counter question, “What is the law? What is your interpretation of it?” The man then said to love God and to love your neighbor and Jesus told him that he had given the right answer. Do that and you will live. But then, Luke writes that the man, “wanted to justify himself” and so he asked a follow up question… “But who is my neighbor?” Now the motive of the question is the key to understanding the passage. If his neighbor was identified one way then the man would be able to justify himself and say that he had obeyed the law and could claim eternal life, and if it were defined another way, he could not. So Jesus told him the parable of the good Samaritan which identified the neighbor as not only a Samaritan but as the one that loved him regardless of religious or ethnic identity. Then Jesus told the man to go and do likewise.

The implication being, that the man was not able to justify himself.

Another implication being that the duty to be a good neighbor was as important as knowing a good neighbor when you see one.

Jesus told him the truth, that if he perfectly kept the law in thought, word and deed he would be right before God and could justify himself on that basis. But when the scope of who his neighbor was opened up to the whole world his self justification collapsed and he was left with the need for a savior.

To love our neighbor is a complicated kettle of fish, but if we would like to be forgiven and not have people take vengeance on us we should at least have an absence of vengeful attitudes and behaviors towards others.

To teach people to not take revenge might be misunderstood as teaching them some kind of runny pacifism. But the sermon on the mount is theology for this world, not for the next. It’s not at all the ethics of Heaven; it’s only use is here in the dust and toil. Turning the other cheek is good teaching. A forgiving heart is a good sign of spiritual transformation.

The protection of ourselves and others bears no conflict with the teaching of Jesus. If an armed man breaks into my home in the middle of the night, intending mayhem and murder, God help me, I will have a divinely ordained duty to defend innocent blood, if necessary through bloody violence. The police are also ordained to that end, they being the agents of God after me and my neighbors. That’s good theology but also good common sense.

In this there would be no revenge at all, and no moral error. Pacifism is of course the sin of making the innocent pay the price of our bad theology.

Ah, but vengeance? Vengeance is His. Getting someone back; making them pay; getting that pound of flesh. It’s not in our job description. It’s one of the worst things that can ever happen, especially in a marriage. Once one has been offended and decided to punish the other for the offense, unless the attitude of self glory and high status can be quashed the intimacy and fellow-feeling fades fast.

And in friendship it is absolutely devastating. I have a lot of old friends (not calling you personally “old” but you know what I mean). To me it’s great evidence of their capacity for being forgiving. I try to be the kind that can throw aside my natural bias and squarely face my sins but were it not for the graceful and easy going nature of my friends how long could we last in those great bonds of mutual affection?

That we face our sins between ourselves and God does not entail that others will forgive every foible. All of us, Christian and Pagan alike, are full of madness. We like to think it’s just someone else, the other, the neighbor, the stranger, but we have it too and we sin every day in thought, word and deed. Vengeance is in this, generally tied up in an inflated sense of self. “How dare you offend me? There will be a reckoning!” That kind of shakespearean tragedy type of trouble. It’s all very Hatfields and McCoys but never very Christian.

(As an arbitrary aside, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a gentlemanly duel by Aaron Burr. Apparently Burr had offended him. And then he was dead.)

But if we recognize that we’re just a little dust and the breath of God how highly would we estimate our import?

Perhaps we’d be less likely to let offenses bother us and rest appropriately in the inevitability of Divine justice, because we are poor at measuring and poorer still at dispensing a good revenge.

But with God vengeance is rooted in justice and love.

He has the perfections that make sins into virtues (at least, that which would be sins for the creature).

Even the jealousy of God is sublime.

There is no vanity in the perfect, true and good thinking himself perfect, true and good. For the All-Mighty to laugh at the rebel and the reprobate makes a strange kind of sense. Of course, for us to laugh would be inappropriate, even laughing with God might verge on self exultation (we are not to take pleasure in the fall of our enemies even when the means is the hand of God).

Accusations against the Divine character overlook that man is just a little wind and dust.

A little water or fire erases us entirely.

If the Father were to call back His breath to Himself, all flesh would cease.


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