The Logic of Revenge

Events of the last week or so.

The events of the last week or so reminded me of a book written by Emeritus Professor Gary Trompf, from the University of Sydney. He taught ‘Religious Studies,’ that seemed to be a relic of the ancient practice of reading divinity at university. It was tucked away in an old, dusty, dark building, so maybe the university had forgotten about them. It happens. His seminal work was on the people of Melanesia. One of his books was titled, ‘Payback, the Logic of Retribution in Melanesian Culture.’

Payback in Melanesian Culture

Deeply ingrained in Melanesian culture was, and remains today, reciprocity. There are two parts. First, giving to others what they could not possibly reciprocate. This is the heart of hospitality in Melanesia. You do not give to receive; you give to place another in your debt. The second part is retribution. When someone you love is murdered, you do not kill the murderer, but you kill the one most precious in their life – wife, husband, or children. Then the survivors will do the same to you, and so on, until everyone is dead.

Revenge means the impossibility of forgiveness

Read the accounts of this violence online. Now and then in Papua, it is played out in real-time, the most horrid crimes committed by ordinary people during a time of grief. Despite a century of Christian teaching, the logic of retribution and the impossibility of forgiveness is deeply rooted in contemporary Papuan society.

Trompf then thought about applying this thinking more broadly around the world. He found a similar logic exists in other contexts. It is easy to see the current conflict in this light.

The law keeps revenge under control

I believe that all nations existed like this in the past, and most do today. This is true also for individuals, families, and communities. It is the law that prevents retribution in most nation-states, both modern and pre-modern, and there are severe penalties for the violation of these laws. Without these laws, there would be anarchy.

The logic of revenge is deeply rooted in the minds and hearts of many, for whom there is no forgiveness, only blood. It is for this reason that the law, and the police exist to keep us safe, keep us sober, and keep us sanguine.
Most Western societies believed in the logic of revenge, and it is still a deep memory in our minds.

We see it played out in movies when the goodie kills the baddie and we breathe a sigh of relief. When we hear of a terrible crime, we expect the most severe punishment and lament the weak sentence.

Jesus offered an alternative to the cycle of revenge

But a competing idea emerged that challenged our natural thinking, our propensity for hate and our love of revenge. This came from Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians called ‘the Christ,’ or Messiah. It was forgiveness. It was the idea that the actions of one man removed the desire for revenge. It was the idea that one man, who was killed by men who hated him, was able to plant a seed of hope in the world, an alternative to an endless cycle of death.

This cycle of death is the logic of retribution. It is deep, it is part of our DNA, it is our default setting. There is no end, there is no peace, there is only death. The point of brutality is not to kill someone, but to destroy those who are kept alive, to deprive them of their humanity, and thus, win.

Forgiveness versus revenge: the West’s great contest

Most of us did not know anything about Moses until the time of Christ. Throughout what became Western civilization from the 300s until today, these ancient ideas competed for the hearts and minds of nations. It was, and is, forgiveness versus retribution. Often, retribution won the day, but over time, the Christian idea of forgiveness, of finding some way to absorb the pain in oneself instead of lashing out, or seeking revenge, came to the fore.

For Christians, the logic of retribution died at the cross when Jesus died. Jesus did not say do to others what you would have them do to you. Moses said that. Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to love one another as he loved them. The life and death of Jesus was to be the model for others, not our hearts. Our standards were replaced by the standards of Christ, a life of service, sacrifice, and love. Even at the cross, Jesus said ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

Moses gave the Law, but grace and truth came from Jesus

Moses taught vengeance and revenge, blood for blood, and a life for a life. This is an inescapable reading of the Torah, cities of refuge, the absence of forgiveness for intentional sin, and death for the violation of several commandments.

The Torah was not unique. It was a Hebrew spin on contemporary laws and beliefs. In other words, the Hebrews were not the only ones with that kind of legal system, but the Hebrews were the only ones who lived in covenant with Yahweh. Their laws, while strict and arbitrary were to be obeyed by a people whom God had shown mercy. Mercy existed under Moses, and there was even a tradition that stood against the rigor and inflexible justice of God in Deuteronomy that God would take revenge, and his people should rest in this divine expectation.

For some strange reason, many Christians believe that the Law of Moses defines the life of a Christian, but they are wrong. Christ taught us to love others, as he loved us, which is a life of self-denial, a life of giving, and a life of sacrifice for all, even for our enemies.

Christians are compelled to forgive

Christians are not to go out and take revenge. Christians get angry like everyone else, even fury and rage, and deep pain, but it is the Spirit of God who restrains us and reminds us of the consequences of our actions. This is why, I question the authenticity of the faith of many who willfully embrace payback over long periods of time.

It is natural to want revenge, but over time, the Christian is supposed to be someone who would be content to let justice take its course. This is the power of forgiveness.

The events of the past week remind me that Christianity is largely absent in that part of the world, a world of land, history, faith, and violence.

God’s burden of love

For those who follow Christ, ours is a burden of love, because God shouldered his burden of love for us. Paul wrote in Romans chapter 5, verses 6 to 10:
‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person, someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’

We were once the enemies of God, we stood against him, and yet, at this time, God chose to show mercy, and the greatest love.

Our burden of love

Jesus himself said in Matthew 5, verses 43 to 47:
‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

These are difficult words, but life is lived at its best when the path is not easy. I would say with absolute confidence you have not lived until you have something awful to forgive, and there, it is between you and God. There is pain to forgiveness, there is loss, but how can we claim to love God if our standard is the same as the atheist who denies his existence and yet shows compassion?

What will happen in the Middle East?

This logic of forgiveness and love is all that separates the West from the rest. Aside from this, we are the same. There is no logic of forgiveness in the Middle East, or parts of Europe, or Asia, or Japan, or China. There is only blood, vengeance, and retribution.

The result of the last week will be more death, more blood, and more killing, until either both sides decide to stop killing or there is no one left to kill. Enough blood has been spilt in this part of the world for several hundred years of retribution. Get ready for it. Indeed, the heart of this week’s events, is retribution, revenge, and payback.

What is the heart of the Christian message?

The heart of the Christian message is that God killed the Messiah, his Messiah so that we might be free, a death on behalf of others, who, are by no means perfect.

The law of Moses taught that there was no forgiveness without the shedding of blood, and the blood that was shed for us, was the blood of Jesus.

Hebrews 9: 22 says:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.

The necessity for blood was at the heart of the teachings of Moses, so it was not just simply, love, love, love, but blood was required to pay for sin, both against God, and against others. Whatever you might think of Moses, he understood the misery and consequences of human sin, and he knew about blood. It must be paid.

We in the West have forgotten about the ancient logic of retribution, and we despair and wonder why they don’t just forgive and forget.

Well, we don’t, and we refuse to believe that our sins are so great that we need someone to die on our behalf. We believe that we are good enough for God, we are good people, and God is lucky to know us, and he is our father, and we are his children, but we fail to love others as he loved us, and in so doing, we prove that we are not his disciples.

Rev. Dr. Michael J. Sutton, CEO, Freedom Matters Today, looking at freedom from a Christian perspective.

His podcast is broadcast each Monday, and he has published 8 books. He lives in Sydney.

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