We live in a world full of fantasies of vengeance. Pay attention to this theme and you’ll start to see it everywhere, particularly in pop culture. It’s hard to watch an American action movie that is not about vengeance; Jason Statham and Keanu Reeves have built their careers on them. But the theme also extends into recent productions you wouldn’t think would have it, like The Rings of Power: Tolkien never was much into revenge, but even Galadriel seems to be motivated by revenge these days.
Fantasies of retribution are also prevalent in literature. Take Roald Dahl, for example: much of his children’s fiction feature it. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to the delight of the reader, appalling children get their just desserts by getting turned into a blueberry or shrunk to the size of people on TV. Matilda is driven by a longing for the injustice done to brilliant little Matilda to be recompensed, and for the dreadful Miss Trunchbull to be destroyed. In James and the Giant Peach, you don’t have to read far before James’s terrible, terrible aunts get squashed into a pancake.
Where does this longing for retribution and vengeance come from? Is it all bad? Some of it is definitely bad: the Jason Statham and Keanu Reeves versions are not healthy. But I can’t quickly dismiss the Roald Dahl part of it: with dreadful adults doing dreadful things, it’s right, in a sense, that they get their just desserts.
So on the one hand, Western culture enjoys acting out fantasies of vengeance in popular culture. But on the other hand, we are deeply nervous about the idea of retribution in punishment. In Australia, we don’t have capital punishment anymore; the last instance of the death penalty in New South Wales was in 1940, so it’s been a long time since we’ve executed anybody. Most of the literature around punishment and criminal justice now is a bit allergic to the idea of retribution, even though retribution is actually and necessarily built into punishment.
As we come to the topic of vengeance and retribution, we need to be mindful of a few things. Firstly, we need to remember the context in which we live, with its twin attitudes of fantasies of vengeance and retribution, and cultural nervousness regarding punishment and payback. Secondly, we must acknowledge that the topic is extremely important and complex: for example, one of the roles of the government is to punish wrongdoing, and while one may hope that punishment leads to rehabilitation, every form of punishment contains an unavoidable dimension of retribution. Thirdly, all of us will be coming to this topic with different personal experiences, some of which are deeply challenging. Fourthly and finally, Jesus’ teaching was distinguished by what he said about retribution, and this is actually a central and distinctive aspect of Christian moral teaching.
Jesus’ teaching is where I wish to begin, so let’s take a moment to examine it now.
1. A distinctive Christian emphasis (Matt 5:38-42; Rom 12:17-19)
In Matthew 5, Jesus essentially says, “The way of ‘an eye for an eye’ is no longer the way for my people” (my paraphrase):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matt 5:38-42)
But it’s not just Jesus who says this; in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19)
Paul’s words are both a reaffirmation of what Jesus says (don’t repay evil for evil; don’t take revenge; seek peace) and also an addition, in that he brings in a new dimension: that of divine vengeance. For many in our culture, God’s wrath and divine vengeance in this context are an unwelcome imposition. But they are an unavoidable part of New Testament teaching, and our thinking about forgiveness and vengeance in the practicalities of our lives will go astray if we don’t take that seriously. Miroslav Volf writes,
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: A Christian Attitude Toward Violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love … Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.1
It may make us feel uncomfortable, but the New Testament quite clearly presents the promise of divine vengeance as part of the picture. It’s a distinctive emphasis that we miss sometimes. When we read through the Sermon on the Mount, we must recognise that this emphasis on non-retaliation and forgiveness lies right at the heart of Jesus’ moral teaching. The centre of the Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:9-13), and the centre of the Lord’s prayer is the call to “forgive as we have been forgiven” (Matt 6:12). It’s not just the Sermon on the Mount, though; Jesus tells parables such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, who is forgiven much, but cannot himself forgive. Peter asks Jesus, “How many times must I forgive?” and is told, “As many as seventy times seven” (see Matt 18:21-22). This emphasis on forgiveness deserves attention as the orienting centre of Jesus’ moral teaching.
2. An eye for an eye: retribution in the Old Testament
Let’s think about how this works in relation to what the Old Testament says about retribution. Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” and perhaps that’s true. However, I want to suggest that there is an unavoidable place for the logic of “an eye for an eye”.
a. Leviticus 24:17-22 (see also Exod 19:21; Deut 19:15-21)
Leviticus 24:17-22 is the key text:
“Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death. You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’” (Lev 24:17-22)
Read Exodus 19:21 and Deuteronomy 19:15-21 and you’d see the principle of “an eye for an eye” deployed in different legal contexts. It’s a key aspect of Israelite law and Israelite criminal law.
b. Forgiveness? (Lev 19:18; Gen 4:23-24; Matt 18:21-22)
What, then, of forgiveness? Is it in the law as well? Sort of: in Leviticus 19 (which is important for Jesus), we read, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:18) The statement combines the idea of love of neighbour with not seeking revenge or bearing a grudge. That is similar to the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching, which draws together the centrality of love for neighbour and the importance of non-retaliation.
However, although it’s a major note in the moral teaching of Jesus, it’s a minor note in the law. It’s there—it’s an important point and principle—but it’s not where the emphasis lies. There is not much about forgiveness in the Old Testament; there is no command to forgive as we’ve been forgiven in the Old Testament. God does a lot of forgiving and there’s stories of forgiveness, but there’s nothing like “forgive seventy times seven”.2
What’s going on in the Old Testament? A few things. The principle of “an eye for an eye” draws together two different things: one is the danger of vengeance, and the other is a principle of proportion and restraint. “An eye for an eye” does not exacerbate vengeance in the law, but restrains it: the point of this principle is to restrain the desire for vengeance and to ensure that punishment is proportionate.
Do you see the difference? Proportionate punishment means punishment that fits the crime. If somebody has injured their hand, the perpetrator’s hand has to be injured. The principle is meant to put an end to a cycle of violence, because the Old Testament is deeply aware of the danger of spiralling vengeance.
Compare “an eye for an eye” with Genesis 4:23-24, which is part of Lamech’s speech and which, I think, is a very important text for thinking about the awful reality of domestic and family violence. Lamech was one of Cain’s descendants, and essentially he sought to control his wives through threats:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
It’s important to notice not just the way that Lamech is controlling his wives by threatening violence, but also the way his vengeance is specifically disproportionate: he’s killed a man for wounding him, a young man for striking him. This is precisely not “an eye for an eye”. This is not proportioned and restrained; it’s vengeance spiralling out of control. Vengeance out of control is a profound danger for human society. In the end, that’s the thing that will make the whole world blind.
Interestingly, the reference to Lamech being avenged seventy-sevenfold is, I am sure, what lies behind Jesus’ response to Peter in Matthew 18:21-22. Jesus presents his disciples with a way of being in the world that is the precise opposite of Lamech’s:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matt 18:21-22)
Jesus says the kingdom brings about the opposite: where Lamech was a man of vengeance, followers of Jesus have to be people of profound forgiveness.
3. Understanding New Testament teaching
a. Jesus’ purpose in Matthew 5
Let’s come back to thinking about what is going on in the New Testament and in Jesus’ teaching. What might we say was Jesus’ purpose in Matthew 5? I think it’s a few things.
i. To push back against misuse of the law
Firstly, I think Jesus intended to push back against the misuse of the law. When people were taking “an eye for an eye” as a right to interpersonal payback, Jesus saw that as a misuse of the law, because it read Leviticus 24 against Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19 says, “Don’t take revenge. Love your neighbour as yourself. Don’t bear a grudge.” So don’t take that principle of “an eye for an eye” as the be all and end all of how our relations are meant to work. That’s a misuse of the law.
ii. To hear the law in the light of the kingdom
Secondly, I think Jesus was seeking to hear the law afresh in the light of the kingdom. Jesus was saying, “The kingdom of God means we hear this law in a new situation.”
But what’s new about this situation? One thing in particular: the mercy of God has been disclosed climactically. God’s forgiveness has arrived in a way that it had not in the old covenant. Why are we called to forgive? Because the Lord has forgiven us (Matt 6:12). Why are the unmerciful servant’s actions so egregious in Matthew 18:21-35? Because he was forgiven such a great debt. Jesus is saying to his followers, “This—God’s mercy—is the context in which you must now read the law. It gives a new priority and a new centrality to forgiveness.”
iii. Not to reject retribution in judicial punishment
Thirdly, I don’t think Jesus’ purpose was to reject retribution in judicial punishment entirely. We could read it that way: we could read Jesus as saying, “You’ve heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye’, but I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer’.” We could read that as a wholesale rejection of any kind of retribution. But I don’t think that makes sense: I don’t think fits with what the rest of the New Testament says.
Just after Paul speaks about not avenging yourselves in Romans 12:19-21, he talks about political authority and government:
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:4)
Did Paul just put his pen down at the end of chapter 12, forget what he wrote, and then come back and say, “Oh, I think I’d better say something tough about government”? No; he knew what he was doing. He says in chapter 12, “Don’t avenge yourselves. Leave room for the wrath of God. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay’”, and his very next thought is, “And one of the ways the Lord will do that is through judicial punishment.” So in Christian thought, there is an ongoing place for the logic of retribution in judicial punishment.
This may not be a welcome subject. But it’s important: Paul’s words don’t dismiss that principle of “an eye for an eye” in judicial punishment. As we’ve seen, in the Old Testament, that’s a positive thing: it’s a principle of proportion and restraint, and surely such principles are ones we’d want our government to hold to.
A side point: proportion and restraint works against the logic of punishment as a deterrent. Our culture’s discomfort with the idea of retribution can really open the door to a willingness to entertain the logic of deterrence. If your logic for punishment is deterrence, that can lead you into all sorts of more elaborate forms of punishment. But I think the logic of deterrence is much worse: you’re much better off with a logic of proportion, which tries to restrain punishment, than you are with a desire to punish people in such a way that it will deter them, which is, I think, a really sub-Christian way of thinking about punishment.3
iv. Not to provide specific advice, but to to cultivate patterns of action and feeling (virtue)
Fourthly and finally, what was Jesus doing in Matthew 5? He was not, I’m persuaded, simply providing specific advice for all cases. Jesus says, “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” (Matt 5:38-39), and then he illustrates that in a couple of ways. He did not intend for his words to become case law that we then implement in a legalistic way: “Oh: he slapped you on the right cheek. What if he slaps you on the left cheek?” Or “It applies to slaps, but does it apply to punches? What about kicks?” That’s crazy! The point of what Jesus is doing is to cultivate habits and settled patterns of action and feeling in his followers, which are often called “virtues”. He does this because these virtues will help us go through life in his new way, the way of the kingdom.
4. Moving towards practicalities
I now want to move towards some of the practicalities of Jesus’ teaching, though I must stress that we’re not going to cover everything.
a. Scepticism about our culture
Firstly, I think we ought to be a bit sceptical about the confusions in our culture. Our world has things the wrong way around: a cultural love of vengeance and an enjoyment of fantasies of revenge is going to cultivate precisely the wrong habits in us. Watching Jason Statham vengeance movies is, I suspect, bad for you. Maybe it helps get it out of your system: I’ve watched some of them myself and I don’t want to be prescriptive about this; you have to work that out for yourself. But we do not want to be cultivating a desire for revenge.
In addition, a refusal to punish with some degree of proportion is problematic. As I’ve said earlier, I think a retributive baseline for thinking about punishment is far more helpful than thinking in terms of deterrence.
Finally, I think the problems in our culture probably arise, at root, from a loss of confidence in divine vengeance—that the Lord will repay somehow. It is, I suspect, “a pleasant liberal captivity”, in the words of Miroslav Volf. But as Christians, we can take heart in the fact that retribution is the Lord’s domain: as the only righteous one, he judges justly (Ps 33:5; Rom 3:1-19; 2 Pet 2:9).
b. The complexities of interpersonal forgiveness
Secondly, let me say some things about the complexities of interpersonal forgiveness.
i. What we are not called to
I want to stress that we need to be very careful not to misuse Jesus’ text. Let me now say something clear, but brief and inadequate, about domestic and family violence: Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek” is not a call for people to endure anything—especially not violence in an imbalanced power situation. The desire for somebody to seek safety and to refuse to put up with mistreatment is, in my view, not seeking payback. It is not a problem or a form of disobedience to Jesus. I think this text (and, for that matter, Matthew 5:39: “turn the other cheek”) is profoundly misused if it is treated as an exhortation to endure domestic violence. Jesus’ word there is mainly to those who have power—who are in a position to enact a response of equivalent retribution. I encourage you to seek useful conversations if that’s something difficult for you, but remember that Jesus’ call not to resist an evildoer is not a call to endure domestic violence, and if someone is using the text in that way, they are abusing it.
ii. The importance of public judgement
Secondly, the interpersonal context is important for the judicial aspect of retribution. In Western legal tradition, and certainly in British legal tradition, serious charges are pressed (i.e. made and sustained) not by the victim, but by the Crown (in Australia) or the public prosecutor.4
Why is that? It’s because of Romans 12-13: it’s the government’s responsibility to protect society, and a crime against a person is a crime against the community. So the state prosecutes the charge against the person. In British and Australian law, this spares the victim from needing to prosecute their own case.
British and Australian law are precisely shaped by the movement from Romans 12 to Romans 13: the law serves to protect the capacity of victims not to have to seek retaliation.5 A well-functioning judicial system is meant to secure the space in which non-retaliation is possible.
iii. What we should aspire to
Thirdly and finally, I want to make a comment about our cultural moment: in our relationships with one another, we should think about what we should aspire to. We should refuse patterns of relationship characterised by retaliation and a desire to avenge. That’s part of what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he says, “Love … keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor 13:5). As we’ve seen, you can find that thread right back in Leviticus: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18). It’s the thread that Jesus weaves into the centre of his tapestry.
c. Thinking about our moment as a church
That was some of the complexities of interpersonal forgiveness. Looking at the wider Christian community, I think we ought to think about these dynamics as a church. In Australia, now is a time when we Christians are under pressure: perhaps people are pushing back on us or insulting us. Sometimes we bring that on ourselves for being idiots. But sometimes it’s really unfair. What will our approach as a church be in this moment? Will it be to fight, to retaliate or to give way? For whom are we fighting? What is driving us? Friends, at this time we ought to hear quite loudly Christ’s call not to avenge ourselves, and seek peace and gentleness, even when it is infuriating.
5. The final word
We can do all this, of course, because we believe and know that God has given judgement. He has given judgement in a way that both avenges and gives life—a way that both retaliates and condemns sin, condemns evil and brings the dead to life all at once in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is God’s act of perfect judgement that tells the truth about sin, brings retribution and also ushers in forgiveness. Confidence in that reality, which will be played out in eternity and perfected in the coming of Jesus, can help us endure great difficulty in the face of trial. So be confident in the Lord.
Bible quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.
1 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 303-304.
2 That starts to emerge during the intertestamental period.
4 In Australian law, there’s a key distinction between a summary offence and an indictable offence: a summary offence is like if you graffiti something, whereas an indictable office is like if you robbed a bank or beat someone up.
5 I don’t know enough about American law to say that the same thing applies.