Human nature is to exact revenge for wrongdoing, on behalf of self, on behalf of loved ones, and sometimes on behalf of strangers. In the “Story Of The 47 Ronin” (chushingura)–which my college professor said was vital to understanding Japanese culture–47 samurai dedicated their lives to avenging the death of their master, Lord Asano, who was murdered for drawing his sword in the court of Lord Kira. The samurai achieved their goal two years later, when Lord Kira’s guard was down, before collectively committing ritual suicide. Among Arab Bedouins, revenge via retaliatory killings or blood money was a common function of the culture for millennia, with elaborates laws and customs governing dispute resolution. Today, honor killings, and lesser acts of vengeance are common throughout the Middle East and then entire world. In the “Christian West”, the meme of the overprotective male relative with a shotgun, ready to retaliate with lethal force against anyone who would dare wrong a woman in his family, is commonplace. Westerns, rap music, and other cultural outlets glorify the display of power presumably associated with vengeance. Many people accept revenge as a part of human nature–or even a necessary obligation–even if they also recognize the pain that its desire, and pursuit, can inflict.
A Christian Understanding Of Justice
How, then–if possible–does one satisfy the outstanding need for justice in cases where no redress has been made?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Jesus also said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Matthew 5:44). Some people have concluded from these teachings that Christians should make themselves doormats for others to tread on. However, this is obviously not what passages like these means. Jesus was using hyperbole, which means he was exaggerating, as he often did to make a point. Jesus didn’t mean you should literally turn the other cheek to invite someone to wrong you again. Enabling people to commit evil is not a virtuous thing to do.
What Jesus said was revolutionary not because it marked the doing away of revenge, but because it marked its transference back to God, totally and finally. It was revolutionary because it represented a change in how people should view matters of personal justice. Instead of seeking to avenge themselves “eye for an eye,” people were supposed to entrust their grievances to God. Christ modeled this doctrine in his own life by not seeking revenge against his enemies during his lifetime. Christ took it a step further by forgiving his enemies on the cross. In the Lord’s prayer, Christ said, “And forgive us our trespassers, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us” (Matthew 6:12-14).
When he was reviled, he [Christ] did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.1 Peter 2:23
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”Luke 23:34
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.Matthew 6:14-15
A heart free from resentment and a desire for revenge does not absolve evildoers of wrongdoing. What it does do is deprive the resentful and vengeful from psychological pain and physical health issues. A heart free from resentment and a desire for revenge does not mean that there will be no retribution for evil. What it means is that God will deal with evildoers, in his way, and in his timing. God knows and sees everything. He is the one best positioned to mete out justice.
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.”Romans 12:19
It also does not mean that civil governments should not punish evildoers. On the contrary, the New Testament says that is precisely what they were established to do. Without local and regional governments, I have no doubt there would be mass chaos and violence on the streets.
But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he [the earthly ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.Romans 13:4
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.1 Peter 2:13-14
However, civil government is not all-encompassing, nor should it be. The category of personal justice which Christ addressed is much broader. People harm others in criminal ways when they kill, steal, violate, and break contracts. However, they also harm others in non-criminal ways via insults, gossip, bullying, verbal and emotional abuse, and by simply not fulfilling the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. In many countries of the world, even the most serious crimes, like murder and rape, rarely ever get punished, let alone less serious ones that tangibly affect people’s lives. In a country like the US with a relatively strong judicial system, people often get away with crimes or are not punished fairly. My point is this: civil government is essential, but lacking. The category of words and actions that people commonly become resentful over, and seek revenge for, is much, much larger than those within the jurisdiction of any civil government.
We struggle to forgive as people of faith mainly not because we fear making light of the offense that was done. We struggle to forgive because we don’t trust that God will do right by the situation. Our pride and our ego want things resolved in our way and in our timing, not God’s. And we cringe at the thought that God might possibly forgive some people in some situations, while meanwhile earnestly seeking forgiveness for every single sin we’ve ever committed.
Justice Cannot Be Denied
Can a human being ever be more just than God?
If the answer is “no,” then there is never any tension between our human desire to see justice carried out and the divine command to forgive others and leave justice in the hands of God.
We struggle to forgive because we don’t trust that God will do right by the situation. Our pride and our ego want things resolved in our way and in our timing, not God’s.
Christ’s teaching on revenge is also good news because it represents a heavy weight being lifted. Revenge is often not practical or meaningful for many–dare I say most–of the offenses we carry. Are we going to exact revenge because the clerk was rude to us? Because a guy cut us off in traffic? Because we don’t like the tone our significant other talked to us with? Because the world doesn’t understand us? A desire for revenge, and resentment more broadly, is highly detrimental to our mental and physical health. It is a kind of negative energy that can eat away at people like cancer. In cases where revenge is possible, like the “Story Of The 47 Ronin,” it is no less exhausting. Like the 47 samurai, many people dedicate a large part of their mental energy to getting revenge. Unlike the 47 samurai, who achieved their goal before offing themselves, many people never experience any resolution. Both outcomes are tragic.
In sum, what Christianity has to say about revenge is extremely valuable and commonly misunderstood. Knowing that justice is ultimately God’s domain can help those of us who struggle to let go of a deep-seated desire to redress the wrongs that have been done to us. As always, Christ’s way is the best way. We get all of the justice, in God’s way, and in his timing, without any of the mental and physical health issues.
We get all of the justice, in God’s way, and in his timing, without any of the mental and physical health issues.
A last word. I am reminded, as I think of the people who have wronged me in my life in some way, that I, too, am in need of forgiveness. Oftentimes, we are quick to identify with the hero in the movie, or the victim in history, without realizing that we possess both good and bad qualities, and have done both good and evil in our lives. Even if we think we have done less harm than others, our benchmark should be God’s high standard of moral excellence, not our horizontal relationships. Identifying our own need for forgiveness from God, who surveys how well we forgive others, is an additional motivation to carry out the imperative to leave justice in his hands.