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June 17, 2007 | 6:30 p.m. Vespers

Revenge and Redemption

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Romans 12:9–21


There is something simple, neat, and orderly about either-or thinking. To be able to categorize things, people, events, ideas, religions, lifestyles, as either this or that, good or bad, right or wrong, black or white, sick or well, sinner or saint, godly or ungodly, provides a kind of comfort and allows one to avoid the more anxiety-provoking gray area of ambiguity involving elements of both extremes. An old song years ago cautioned us to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.

Because we seem to be people of extremes, as a result of this either-or thinking, we may tend to react, and sometimes overreact, to anything that is deemed unacceptable by going to the other extreme, only to find that it might have its own set of problems and difficulties. Once the other extreme is embraced, it can lead to getting locked into the new position as tightly as one may have been in the old. I remember an acquaintance of mine who was a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1930s. At the time he was an ardent, closed-minded, liberal social-activist who railed against those who espoused more conservative political causes and embraced fundamentalistic religious and theological positions. Years later he became an equally ardent and closed-minded member of the John Birch Society, an extremely conservative political and religious organization. The ideological furniture had been changed but he remained the same rigid, doctrinaire, and dogmatic true-believer he had always been, locked into whatever belief-system he happened to be embracing at the moment.

Back in the 1960s there appeared an article in a professional journal of psychology, an article written by a leading British anthropologist and with the provocative title, “The Pornography of Death.” In it the author referred to and decried the toxic effect on children of the horror comic book, which he maintained was the pornographic literature of death and violence. I was reminded of that essay a few weeks ago when I saw the bold headline above an article in the Chicago Sun-Times with the equally eye-catching and provocative title “The Pornography of Suffering.” Author Frank Furedi argues that the proliferation of what he calls “misery memoirs”—confessional books by people who parade their misery and suffering as a result of such things as abuse, neglect, and addiction, along with radio and television talk shows on which people do the same—appeal to and exploit voyeuristic tendencies on the part of the general public. As the sub-headline of the article puts it, “The misery book industry puts human degradation on graphic display and turns readers into voyeurs.”

Whatever the cathartic and therapeutic value of such public displays of personal suffering, the writer contends that the obscenity is not the suffering but the intentional exploitation of it to satisfy the exhibitionistic needs of some and the voyeuristic needs of others as well as to make a fast buck.

While this rather harsh indictment may be a bit overblown, it nevertheless has some validity and merit. At the same time, we cannot afford to allow our awareness of this excess public display of personal suffering to justify our not paying attention to human suffering throughout the world or our becoming cold and callous in response to it.

Quite apart from the suffering caused by natural disasters and accident, poverty, and illness, most of the suffering throughout the world is the result of interpersonal conflict, violence, and war. In his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges observes that in all recorded human history there have been only a handful of years when there was not at least one war going on someplace in the world. And when you root around underneath all of the political posturing and rhetoric and the nationalistic and patriotic hoopla and hype, you find that the fundamental forces that fuel a good deal of the conflict and the carnage, whether interpersonal or international, are those of greed and revenge.

Greed and revenge have been around for a long while. The Bible is not only a testament to God’s activity in human history; it is also a witness to the nature of the human condition, its grandeur, its misery, and its perversity. Consider the story of Naboth in the twenty-first chapter of 1 Kings in the Old Testament. Naboth possessed a vineyard which under covenantal law he could not legally sell or give away. God was considered to be the owner of the land which God had given to Naboth. It was his to care for and tend to but not to own. Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard and, by virtue of his authority as king, believed he was entitled to it. A sense of entitlement is often a precursor of covetousness and greed, as in the case today of the oil fields in Iraq.

Naboth refuses to give or sell the land to Ahab because the covenantal law will not allow it. Ahab, frustrated that he cannot get his way and the land, takes to his bed and sulks. His clever and crafty wife, Jezebel, not the nicest of persons, tells Ahab not to worry, that she has a plan. She proceeds to arrange for trumped-up charges of blasphemy and cursing of God to be brought against Naboth, and he is subsequently executed, since cursing God was punishable by death at that time. Jezebel informs Ahab that Naboth is dead and that the way is clear legally for Ahab to take over the vineyard.

Though Ahab was not directly responsible for Naboth’s death, he was nevertheless complicit in Jezebel’s nefarious deed. She had become the vehicle for his anger toward Naboth for refusing to turn over the vineyard to him and the instrument of his revenge against Naboth.

Entitlement, greed, revenge. Sounds like something out of The Sopranos or The Godfather, replete with hit men and someone getting whacked. As I said, greed and revenge have been around for a long while. They still are, and they account for a good deal of the suffering in the world. I want what you have, and I will kill you, if necessary, to get it. You bomb me and my mosque and I will bomb you and your mosque. You hurt me and I will get even. You attack me and I will pay you back by attacking you and destroying you. It’s the way of the world and a sign of the times.

True, greed for freedom from oppression and poverty is understandable and justifiable. But coupled with revenge against the oppressor or the haves for withholding from the have-nots, it makes for a lethal combination that can result sometimes in producing as much suffering as it may have been employed to eliminate. Likewise, we may find ourselves supporting one cause aimed at protecting human life while at the same time fostering a cause that will inevitably take human life. It is curious to me that some of those who most adamantly oppose stem cell research and use because in their judgment they amount to killing babies will seem to be less concerned about justifying killing babies as part of the collateral damage of war.

The impulse and temptation to seek revenge is both powerful and pervasive. What the noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger once called “the urge to punish” seems to be hardwired into our psyches and, in some cultures and societies, is considered to be not only laudable but necessary, both to survival and to the fulfillment of religious obligation.

In sharp contrast is the message of the Apostle Paul in the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, who themselves were the victims of persecution by the Roman empire. Mindful of how the culture, and especially the religious influences of the day, made it easy to give in to the desire to retaliate and seek revenge, Paul recognizes that behavior to be inconsistent with what Jesus was about and encourages his readers to pursue a different, indeed a radically different, path. Listen to how Clarence Jordan puts it in his translation from the Greek language of the New Testament into what he called “The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles,” using the colloquial dialect of the Southern part of this country.

Bless those who do you in. Bless them, I say, and don’t cuss them. Join in the fun with those having fun; join in the tears with those shedding tears. Treat each other equally; pay no special attention to the upper crust, but mingle freely with the lower class people. And don’t scratch each other’s back. Never return evil for evil. Have respect for things which everybody else considers worthwhile. If it’s possible—that is, from your side—WAGE PEACE WITH ALL MANKIND. Don’t take vengeance into your own hands, my dear ones, but rather make room for another’s wrath. For the Bible says,

“Revenge is my job,” says the Lord,
I will tend to it.”

But if your enemy hungers, bread him; if he thirsts, water him. In this way you’ll fill his noggin with lighted charcoal. Don’t be overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelm evil with good.

What Paul insists is the way to be and act in our relations with one another, including our enemies, looks good on paper and may sound uplifting and edifying to the ear. But the reality on the ground, as the saying goes today, is another matter. It is difficult, to the point of being impossible, to avoid wanting to return evil for evil, even if I decline to do so. My knee-jerk reaction, at least internally if not outwardly, is to strike back when struck, to retaliate when attacked, to get even when offended and not only to take an eye for an eye, but to take the whole head off if I can. We don’t want merely to get even. We want to get dominant, to get on top, to conquer.

As for feeding my enemy if he is hungry or giving him water if he is thirsty—no way. The best way to get even sometimes is to withhold from the one on whom I seek revenge what they may need in order to live and thrive. But, cautions Paul, if we are overcome by evil and allow ourselves to partake of evil by seeking revenge, and if this becomes our way of life, then we become the very evil we seek to avenge. Ultimately, if evil is not overcome with good, it will eventually destroy itself.

It is not easy. Only by God’s grace and with God’s help and that of one another can we overcome the temptation to pay back. Only by knowing God’s love and experiencing God’s forgiving grace with gratitude can we even want to replace revenge with redemption and work toward reconciliation rather than to seek retribution. And that work is to be done not because it will always work. It won’t. But because it is the “more excellent way” to witness to the love of God that is extended even to those who are the enemies of that love.

This Table, this Bread, this Cup before us represent in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord the overcoming of evil with good and the replacement of revenge with redemption. When we participate in this sacrament, we share in that victory and in that redemption.

My father served in the United States Navy in the North Atlantic during World War I. When he died thirty-five years ago, I found in his personal effects a copy of a letter he had clipped from an article that had appeared in a religious periodical to which he had subscribed. It was written by a severely wounded soldier who had fought in either World War I or World War II. Since the letter was undated, I am not sure. It could well have been written, with a few modifications, by someone who had fought recently in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I read the letter from time to time and especially on Memorial Day. When I do, I remember the words of British writer G. K. Chesterton: “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The letter reads:

My name is John Crown. I am a paraplegic at Halloran General Hospital. My physical wounds are very small in comparison to my spiritual wounds. I have come back from death to a world that I no longer care for. I, who have been engaged in the great struggle to save the world from tyranny, and having seen my comrades die for the cause, can now find no peace in the world or in my country.

Having lived close to death for two years, the reasons why there is no peace seem infinitesimally flimsy. Russia wants the Dardanelles, Yugoslavia wants Trieste, the Moslems want India, labor wants more wages, capital wants more profit, Smith wants to pass the car in front of him, Junior wants more spending money. To these I say, is it necessary to kill and cripple human beings for these petty gains?

Anyone who thinks a human body is so cheap that it can be traded for a tract of land, a piece of silver, or a few minutes of time should be forced to listen to the moans of the dying, night and day, for the rest of his life.

All the troubles of the world originate in the common man. The selfish and greedy ways of nations are just the ways of each individual man multiplied a hundredfold. When the morals of the common man drop, so do the morals of the nation and of the world.

As long as our individual morals remain at a low ebb, so will be the world. Until each of us stops hogging the road with his car, stops fighting over the seat on the bus, stops arguing over who is going to cut the grass, there will be no peace in the world. If man wishes peace again, he must return to the great commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” for the love of God.

John Crown died of his wounds shortly after writing this letter. Amen.