I went to bed last night thinking about vengeance, and what role — if any — thought and desires for vengeance can or should have in our individual and communal lives as Christians. (It turns out I preached on this once — a sermon that was not well received.)
I was thinking about vengeance because of a situation that arose with one of the young people I minister to online, Bethany, the subject of my “sermon” a few weeks ago. Bethany now has a home, and parents who are working to adopt her, and this is all very, very good. She was being visited by a friend she met online — I’ll call her Zoë. Zoë lives far away from Bethany, in another time zone, and came a long way to visit Bethany and her family.
Zoë is 16, and she’s also in foster care — we’ve become acquainted online, and while I don’t have very many details about her life, Zoë told me that she hopes never to meet her biological parents.
This week, Zoë got a phone call from her foster mother — “Don’t come home.” And if this wasn’t a enough, a friend texted her soon after — “Why is there a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of your house?” That friend jimmied open Zoë’s bedroom window to find the place empty and abandoned. Zoë is a wreck right now, in a near catatonic stupor after having spent hours on the phone to the police, her case worker, and the judge overseeing her foster care in the state she is from. Trying to find out what is going on.
Trying to find a home.
I thought, in dealing with Bethany and the young woman my wife and I wish we could adopt, Molly, that I’d seen the worst kinds of abuse, mistreatment, and utter neglect that people could dish out to foster kids. (Molly is a truly amazing young woman, and she has some astounding gifts of empathy and compassion for the ministry I hope we can do soon, ministry Bethany has told me she’d like to be a part of too.) But this abandonment … honestly, if there were people fit for a millstone to be hung around their necks and tossed into the deepest sea, if there were people who had plague and darkness and Babylonians coming, it is these people who simply absconded and left Zoë to her own devices.
Last night, I prayed with Bethany. For courage and strength for Zoë, that she knows she is loved, and wanted, and is not alone.
But I also prayed for vengeance. “I will wait patiently upon your vengeance, Lord, but please avenge Zoë.” And this, I think, is a perfectly acceptable thing to pray for.
We don’t like vengeance as Christians. At least good, liberal Christians don’t. Instead, we like justice. We like universal ethics, an impartial right and wrong, and vengeance, well, vengeance is too tribal, too messy, and too partisan for our tastes. We are people of the categorical imperative, of the bureaucratic state of rules and procedures, of reasoned and reasonable objectivity. And vengeance, well, that’s for lesser people. Passionate, intemperate, uncivilized people.
Granted, scripture talks a lot about justice — far more than it speaks of vengeance. (Though not quite in the way we do.) But as I have gotten older, the appeal of universal ethics — a solid, concrete, objective right and wrong that applies equally to all in every time and every place — has really dimmed for me. Partly it’s a sense that when the universal proclamation — “Thou shalt not kidnap and rape teenage girls,” for example — meets the reality of power, position, and privilege, as well as the limited nature of state resources and competence, and mixed thoroughly with our pre-existing and very human assumptions about what constitutes guilt, blame, and proper behavior, it becomes clear that some teenage girls can be kidnapped and raped without much consequence. They do not matter.
(In fact, I’m pretty well convinced there are parts of the country where this kidnapping and raping of young women is a competitive sport.)
Instead, what has replaced this universal ethic for me is something akin to the morality expressed by Andrew Vachss in his series of Burke novels, where the main characters created a tightly knit “family of choice”: Threaten or hurt someone we love, and you will pay. You will pay in such a way that all will know there is very high cost associated with hurting us.
I’m not convinced this is the ethic of scripture — while it fits some of Old Testament story, it doesn’t quite fit with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But scripture does have something to say about vengeance — something interesting, and something closer to Vachss’ notion than to the universal ethics that is actual historical teaching of the church.
If there is a governing passage of scripture for this, it is in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome:
19 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.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19–21 ESV)
Here, Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32, the long song of Moses laying out Israel’s coming history, its calling by God and its falling into idolatry and complacency. The passage Paul is quoting (Deut 32:35) very likely refers to God’s judgement against God’s own people Israel — what awaits Israel after it abandons its God for the idols of its neighbors. The sentiment of vengeance percolates through the rest of the song. God says He will take “vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me,” which though a generic warning to all who might oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it likely still applies to the judgement and violence faithless Israel will face. The song ends with “He repays those who hate him, and cleanses his people’s land,” and it must not be forgotten that Deuteronomy 28 makes a very specific curse about the removal of Israel from the land of promise should it fail to follow the covenant (Deut 28:63). It is very likely that at the end of the Song of Moses, the land is being cleansed of God’s very own people.
So, as we think of God’s vengeance, we need to consider — it may very well be against us.
But Paul is also counseling something else. He does not say, “do not desire vengeance,” but rather, “do not avenge yourselves.” It is okay to want vengeance, to have that feeling, but not to actually have vengeance itself. The psalms bear witness to this, especially one of my favorite bits of scripture, Psalm 137 (which has also given me the name of my ministry), where Israel laments its exile along the banks of the Euphrates River, and yearns to be avenged against those who have conquered, plundered, and enslaved them:
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalms 137:8-9 ESV)
“Blessed shall he be,” not “blessed are we.” Israel wants to be avenged, and hopes that vengeance comes, but isn’t looking to actually do the work itself. This is both utter powerlessness and tremendous trust, to put faith in God that we who have been wronged will have that wrong avenged. Not by our own hands, but by the hands of God, who will act through others. In effect, when it comes to vengeance, the people of God are supposed to be free riders.
This is hard for me, because no one who has wronged me — not school bullies, fifth grade teachers, or Lutheran bishops — have ever appeared to pay a price for wronging me. There was never a cost to wronging me. Granted, I doubt they believe they ever did. (But then, Babylon wasn’t convinced it had wronged Israel, or been God’s judgment upon Israel, either.) So I don’t know if there’s really any vengeance. I know I should trust God. I’m just not sure I do.
Finally, there is the small matter of how God actually accomplishes vengeance. I think you could make a case that Jesus meeting Saul on the road to Damascus and effectively telling him, “now you belong to me,” is a form of vengeance. Taking an enemy and making him a brother becomes a specifically Christian form of vengeance, one that requires we who were enemies — who wronged and were wronged — now live as sisters and brothers, united in baptism to the same Lord.
So, we approach the subject with humility. In love. We know we have been wronged, and we ache for retribution. Knowing that a lot of vengeance in the story of scripture is either God getting “even” with His people, or simply ends very badly (such as Absalom avenging the rape of his sister).
In the meantime, know that we can pray for the vengeance of God. We can wait upon the vengeance of the Lord. I can hope for millstones to be hung around the necks of those who abandoned Zoë, even ask God to bless those who do violence to them. But I also know there are any number of ways God’s vengeance can play out. Including reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness. And I accept that possibility.
But I still pray hard for millstones. And the deep blue sea.