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The Problem with Revenge

It’s 9/11 and the events eight years ago are on most people’s minds. Many Christians will be praying today, as my wife wrote in her devotional. What will those prayers consist of? What is a Christian response?

Shortly before the second gulf war began, I wrote an essay simply titled Revenge! I want to quote from it here:

As a nation, we have been living in the role of Michael Palin’s character. We see the bad guys in our sights and we shout “Revenge!” in the hope that when revenge has taken place we will be safer, life will return to pre-9/11 normalcy, and we can forget all about this extra security. Most of us know this won’t be the case, but that doesn’t stop the wishful thinking.

This was illustrated during the bombing of Afghanistan, and later during the ground war. Repeatedly the reporters would ask various military spokesmen whether they had caught or killed Osama bin Laden yet. The answer? Nobody knew. But why was that the question? Did we really think that a bombing campaign could be so targeted as to kill a single individual? Sure, he might die, but bombs are not weapons of assassination in the normal course of events. Did we think that if Osama were caught or killed that the terrorism would end? Surely we aren’t that naive!

But there is that little program in our brains that wants to yell “Revenge!” and expects that life will be a little sweeter when it is accomplished.

In some ways we face a similar situation with Iraq. I know there is a powerful motivation for revenge. I am a veteran of the 1991-1992 gulf war. It annoys me every time I see Saddam Hussein expressing himself on television. I confess I wouldn’t mind having the driver’s seat of a steam roller with Saddam’s feet stuck in setting cement. I’d yell “Revenge!” and “Take that!” and roll over him, and on the other side I’d feel good!

But then would my family be any safer? Would my country be more secure? Would anything be more normal when all was said and done? Very likely not.

I need to let that resentment go. I need to tone down the shout “Revenge!” I need to consider what will actually make things more secure.

Now my point here is not to reiterate my opposition to the war in Iraq. My point is simply this. The command of Jesus to love our enemies extends even to terrorists. While I don’t think that denies that there should be consequences for evil actions that people take, nor do I believe it prevents justice and security measures, what it should prevent, amongst Christians, is the idea that revenge can get us anywhere.

Vengeful attitudes and fear distort our judgment and prevent us from seeing the best approach. I am not a pacifist, but I strongly believe that we are much too inclined to resort to violence and often to apply violence in the wrong way, often because what we are really seeking is not reasonable security but revenge and a diversion from our fears.

As a follower of Jesus I think it is my duty to let forgiveness clarify my thinking and to let love guide my actions. That’s not easy in the world today, but I think it’s the call.

A Response: Elgin Hushbeck has written a short response, but the trackback somehow didn’t happen. I always find Elgin an interesting and challenging dialog partner. I should note (full disclosure and all) that my company, Energion Publications, publishes his book, Preserving Democracy.

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  1. I think that the problem here is our failure to understand a simple fact: groups of people behave very differently from individuals.

    Say you’re confronted with a single person who wants to do you harm. Then blowing that person up will actually be a fairly effective approach (excluding moral concerns). If you have two enemies, the same is true: kill ’em all and you’ll probably be safe. On small scales, revenge works.

    If you have fifty enemies, the pattern starts to change. If you kill all these people then you will outrage everyone in their circle of friends and relatives. And when enough people get outraged together, they tend to amplify others’ emotions and encourage each others’ actions. Soon you’ve got a hundred new enemies in place of your fifty former foes.

    Now imagine that an entire culture is angry with you (justifiably or not). Killing a randomly-chosen subset of them is clearly not going to fix matters – it will just upset the others even further, creating an ever more dangerous adversary. The strategies for fighting a social movement are very different from those for fighting individuals.

    The problem is that, as a species, we suck at this sort of scale-shifting change of attitude. We can play poker with a half-dozen friends, but can’t understand the workings of a financial market. We can describe how two planets will interact under gravity, but any more than that and our brains explode.

    Needless to say, this lack of comprehension is not a nice feeling. We tend to avoid things that don’t make us feel good. So any news source or political party that has the chutzpah to take a simplistic “kill the lone black-hat” line will get a lot of support. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t make it any less daft.

    Bottom line: we as a species need to raise our game.

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