There are few words in the English language that carry as much emotion and imagery as the word revenge. Entire movies and books are based on this idea and many of them are considered classics. In The Count of Monte Cristo, the main character, Edmond Dantès, is falsely accused of treason and sent to prison where his entire young life is ruined. After escaping prison and finding a treasure, he becomes hell bent on exacting his revenge upon those who wronged him. We watch a movie like this completely hooked while sympathizing with the victim. But why? Why do stories of revenge captivate us? Why are so many of us often motivated by it?
I begin by presenting four hypotheticals which will set up my case:
1. Imagine driving down a city road when you notice in your rearview mirror a large truck tailgating you. You are already doing 10mph over the speed limit. The truck then passes you, but immediately turns into a gas station a block down the road. He turns slowly which forces you to apply your brakes suddenly. Infused with anger, you pull into the gas station and curse him out.
2. A friend who owes you $1,000 has decided to go back on his word. Since you gave him cash, you cannot prove that you lent him money. Knowing where he lives, you destroy his car by slashing the tires, breaking off the mirrors, and smashing the front windshield.
3. You decide to surprise your wife with an early visit after a long tour in Afghanistan. Entering your house, you find your wife in bed with another man. Red with anger, you beat the man mercilessly and proceed to destroy all of your wife’s belongings.
4. Your only daughter was killed by a drunk driver. You await the verdict against the killer only to hear the judge say he isn’t guilty due to a technicality in the investigation. Unable to hold onto your sanity, you follow the man to his house and shoot him to death on his lawn.
Despite the increasing intensity of each example, there is a clear pattern that all of them share. The situation begins with an offense or the feeling that one was wronged. What follows is an act of revenge. Immediately we enter into the realm of morality and justice or, as I prefer to use, ethics. Morality deals with the reality and knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. Justice deals with rewards and punishments for either adhering or failing to adhere to the moral law; it seeks to right a wrong. Using the aforementioned examples, we can spot the moral nuggets contained within them. It’s obvious that road rage, failing to pay back your debt, infidelity (cheating), and lethal drunk driving are all wrong actions. ‘You’ were clearly wronged in each example. However, has justice been served in each case?
Revenge, contrary to avenge, is personal. It is issued by the victim to correct a wrong done to the victim, rather than correcting a wrong done to another person. Revenge appoints the victim into the judge, the jury, and executioner. However, what does justice say about all this? Does revenge have justice’s blessing? It’s here where the difficulties arise. To introduce my point, I offer a different take on the previous examples:
1.* The driver tailgating you was speeding in order to make it to the hospital to witness the birth of his first child. After passing you, he noticed his tank was empty and suddenly decided to pull into the gas station.
2* Your friend who borrowed $1,000 used the money to pay for his sick mother’s hospital bills. He recently lost his job and is no longer able to pay you back.
3.* Your wife found out about the affair you had overseas with a female soldier. Distraught, she turned to her coworker whose advice led to an affair.
4.* The drunk driver who killed your only daughter lost his wife and two sons a week before in a fire caused by faulty wiring that he installed in his house. Depressed and full of guilt, he went to the bar to drink his troubles away.
With these clarifications in place, was your revenge warranted? Was justice served? It’s a rather tricky thing to answer, for now there seems to be both perspectives available. Although these clarifications might not take away from the fact that you’ve been wronged, a little sympathy is owed to the offenders. This should tell us all something about revenge: We simply aren’t in the position to know all the relevant variables. We, as finite beings, are limited to the present moment. It’s impossible to know another person’s circumstances when that particular offense happened. Yet we are quick to make the situation into an unforgivable, unforgettable, offense. “No, they need to pay for what they did to me! How dare them!”
There is nothing wrong with demanding justice. In fact, recognizing the moral law forces us to recognize the evil in the world and the fact that it needs to be dealt with. However, pretending to know why the offense happened, the offender’s intentions and circumstances, is highly presumptuous. To make matters worse, we want to issue a punishment on top of all our ignorance. Why is smashing your friend’s car justice when you lack most of the relevant data about the situation? Are you that supreme in your thoughts to know that smashing your friend’s car is worth the $1,000 that they owed you? More than likely this punishment of yours set your friend back so much that the damages far outweigh the inconvenience they gave you. I sense a bias in favor of oneself, which is a prime reason why we shouldn’t presume to pursue revenge.
I’m speaking ideally here, for I recognize the reality of short tempers and other human shortcomings. Of course, we all do what I claim we shouldn’t do. There have been countless times I’ve wanted to pay back a wrong done to me, often in a harsher way than I received. None of us want to be trampled on. None of us want to feel inferior. But we have to come to the realization that we aren’t solving anything by having short tempers and exacting revenge upon others. It causes an unending cycle of hatred and self-serving justice, which turns out not to be justice at all. Revenge is after a feeling, a type of personal vindication that convinces us that we are our own masters. This leads me to a greater point.
Revenge is despair. It is a form of hopelessness that needs justice now, on our own terms. From this, I argue, that revenge is godless because it lacks faith in God’s goodness and justice. It’s as if revenge is saying, “If I don’t pay back this evil then this wrongdoer will get away with it.” But this is precisely why revenge is hopelessness. It’s the same as saying, “I don’t trust in God to bring about a greater good and to vindicate me.” If this sounds farfetched, consider what would happen if a police officer, some witnesses, and a judge were present at the time the offense was committed against you. Would you not throw up your hands, look at the judge, and point your finger at the offender as soccer players do when a player on the opposing team pushes another player? None of us would lift a finger because we want to be presented as blameless in front of the onlooking court. You wouldn’t punch, curse at, or destroy the property of the offender because you would have faith that the court would deal with him. In fact, nothing would make us more at ease knowing there is a police officer nearby when thugs approach to mug you.
But we rarely act like the judge is present at the time of the offense. This is because we are in a state of despair, and consequently a state of faithlessness. God is everywhere and is aware of everything that goes on in this world. He knows when you are in trouble, and He certainly knows when another human being trespasses against you. It’s important to listen to St. Paul when he says, “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 is God that possesses the knowledge and goodness necessary to avenge you, but He may not do it on your time. Why? Only God knows, but what I can say is that He promises that he has fixed a day in which all will have to give an account of their lives, and a day in which all evil will be punished. This is at the heart of what the Lord spoke: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Again, none of us would lift a finger if a court was present at the time of the offense. Likewise, we ought to believe that God witnesses each trespass and have faith that we will be avenged and vindicated.
I don’t present this as if it’s easy. It’s one thing to talk and another thing to do, I know. Very few of us would let a stranger hit us, because we fear pain, theft, or any kind of evil another human being can inflict upon us. But this should reinforce the idea that many of us are lacking and have much to improve upon. Faith is never automatic or easy, but instead requires steadfast prayer and communication with God. Am I saying that a Christian who fights off an attacker is a false believer? No. But he certainly needs to develop the heart of a martyr. The Pagan onlookers were in amazement at the steadfast faith the Christians had when they were executed by the thousands. The martyrs acted as if God was right there with them, and in fact He was. Why put up a fight as though you have something to lose? I end with St. Paul:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 31-39)