From the dawn of time, systems of justice have demanded recompense for wrongs. The most fundamental systems have been kind for kind—such as, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or a life for a life. In fact, this sort of rudimentary justice system is biblical and it lies at the heart of so much of the law in Scripture. But in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us that there is no room for vengeance. Instead, life in the kingdom demands forbearance and forgiveness.
What does this mean for us practically? Can there be any justice? In this episode of the podcast, we bring you some of the audio from our most recent live event on vengeance, where we considered how Jesus transforms our expectations and pursuits of justice, and leads us away from vengeance.
Links referred to:
- Watch: Commanding the heart: Vengeance
- Event slides (PDF)
- Event handout (PDF)
- Every Good Path: Wisdom and Practical Reason in Christian Ethics and the Book of Proverbs by Andrew Errington
- The Family Systems Institute
- Our 2023 event program:
- “Is love really all you need?” with Dr Chase Kuhn (Wed 15 March)
- “The glory of humility” with Professor David VanDrunen (Wed 7 Jun, 5-6pm)
- “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling” with Professor David VanDrunen (Wed 7 Jun, 7:30-9:30pm)
- “Self-control in an age of self-actualisation” with Dr David Höhne (Wed 30 Aug, 7:30-9:30pm
- “The power and pain of perseverance” with Dr Mark Thompson (Wed 18 Oct, 7:30-9:30pm)
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 51:48 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: From the dawn of time, systems of justice have demanded recompense for wrongs. The most fundamental systems have been kind for kind—such as, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or a life for a life. In fact, this sort of rudimentary justice system is biblical and it lies at the heart of so much of the law in Scripture. But in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us that there is no room for vengeance. Instead, life in the kingdom demands forbearance and forgiveness.
What does this mean for us practically? Can there be any justice? Today on the podcast, we bring you some of the audio from our most recent live event on vengeance, where we considered how Jesus transforms our expectations and pursuits of justice, and leads us away from vengeance.
As with our other live events that we’ve put on the podcast, we’ve decided not to include the Q&A. I hope that you’ll enjoy listening to the first two-thirds of our recent event.
CK: Good evening, everyone. It’s nice to have you all here, and nice to have you online, if you’re joining us online this evening. We’re very glad to have you here tonight at the Centre for Christian Living event on vengeance.
My name is Chase Kuhn and I have the privilege of lecturing here at Moore College in theology and ethics, but also of serving as the Director of the Centre for Christian Living, which is something I really enjoy, because I get to meet all kinds of people and especially listen to them talk about all kinds of issues that I’m still working through in my own Christian discipleship. Tonight will be no exception as we consider this topic of vengeance.
This year, we’ve dedicated our four live events to looking at Matthew 5—in particular, the ways in which we think about the law in the Christian life. That is, how do we appropriate the law and see the law written in our hearts, living under the law as we follow Jesus? In other words, how does Jesus transform our perspective on the law?
Tonight, we’re going to hear that systems—even Old Testament systems of justice that were based on retaliation—aren’t appropriate within the kingdom. Instead, Jesus advances our thinking to give ourselves to those who are evil. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-42:
“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. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42 ESV)
These are very difficult verses. But we trust in faith that these are good and true words. So tonight, I’m really looking forward to hearing a presentation from our main speaker, and questions and answers with him and his wife later on, as we think about appropriating this in our lives.
As we come to consider these things, please join me in prayer.
Thank you for this privilege to gather this evening here in this room, but also virtually through the benefits of livestream. Thank you for those who join us all over the place and who will hear these words now or later. We give thanks to you, Lord, for the goodness of your word and the ways that following after Jesus—even following the way he lived—are instructive and good for us.
Thank you that Christ was willing to submit himself even to evil unto death on the cross so that we would be forgiven and set free from the very evil that put him there. Lord, we are grateful for your kind gift of your Son. We pray that you will bless us as we meet this evening.
We also want to give thanks, Lord, for the Gadagal people who met on this land for so long and had stewardship of this land. We’re grateful for them, Lord, and pray that you would continue to bring peace between the settlers who came after them and the First Nations.
All these things, Lord, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Before we hear from our speakers, I should introduce them to you. Our primary speaker this evening is Dr Andrew Errington, who serves as the rector of Newtown Erskineville Anglican Church. For all those who are in this room, you are in his parish and he says, “Welcome!” to you. You’re most welcome! [Laughter] If anyone is looking for a good church in the area, it’s just up the road.
He has a PhD in theological ethics, which has been published as a fantastic book, Every Good Path: Wisdom and Practical Reason in Christian Ethics and the Book of Proverbs. I’ve really enjoyed reading it myself. It won’t be for the faint of heart, but it’s a great, stretching and wonderful read for you if you take it up. I do commend it to you.
His wife Lauren will also be speaking with him this evening and helping us think about some of the practicalities as we address questions later on. Lauren is a clinical family therapist, serving as the Executive Director of the Family Systems Institute. I’m very grateful that she was willing to join us this evening. Thank you, Lauren!
For those of you in the room, we also have a couple of bonus goodies, and hopefully those of you who are online will get one someday. We have fridge magnets for you. Don’t throw these out; stick them on your fridge and join us in praying for the Centre for Christian Living. Use the QR code to get into further resources from the Centre. It will take you to our website where you can explore and look around. As a bonus for being in person tonight, we’re giving you for our CCL Annual for free. There’s a business card and you can download that as an e-book as you’re able.
Let’s get onto our program. Please join me in welcoming Dr Andrew Errington. [Applause]
Andrew Errington: Thanks, Chase! That’s a very kind introduction. You and my mum, it seems, have both read my book. [Laughter]
I’m grateful to Lauren for being here to help think about the practicalities of this topic. Her presence and ideas will make the evening much more interesting, so I’m really grateful for her.
I’m going to try and move through my talk part relatively quickly in order that we have a fair bit of time for discussion. But I’m also happy to pause along the way, especially for people in the room. I’ll give you a couple of moments to ask questions along the way because otherwise I’m always in danger of moving a bit too quickly.
Thank you so much for the invitation, Chase and Karen. I’m grateful to be able to be here.
Part 1: Vengeance
Introduction: Fantasies of vengeance
AE: Let’s go the next slide, Caitlin. It’s a famous Goya painting. I just want to begin with that because in a way, it sums up the alternative that Christ sets before us. I think it was intended to do so, even though Goya was a strange fellow and pretty depressed. Just take that in for a moment.
Let’s go to the next slide.
We live in a world that is full of fantasies of vengeance. If you pay attention to this theme, particularly in popular culture, you’ll start to see it everywhere. It is very hard to watch an American action movie that is not about vengeance. The theme of vengeance has been a persistent one in Hollywood movies and other movies. Jason Statham, I think, is the current embodiment of this theme. But it even extends to recent productions that you wouldn’t think would have it, like The Rings of Power. Tolkien never was much into revenge, but it has infiltrated even The Rings of Power. Even Galadriel seems to be motivated by revenge these days. Batman, Clint Eastwood—revenge is everywhere. I want to encourage you to watch out for this and to take in how prevalent fantasies of vengeance are in our culture.
But they go deeper than that. I think fantasies of revenge and retribution are much more prevalent. Here are just three examples from the children’s fiction of Roald Dahl, which has been popular for a while:Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but much of Roald Dahl’s fiction involves fantasies of retribution. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of this kind of delight in these appalling children getting their just desserts—getting turned into a blueberry or made the size of a TV and things like that. Matildais driven by a longing for retribution—for the injustice that has been done to brilliant little Matilda to be recompensed, and for the dreadful Miss Trunchbull to be destroyed. There’s quite a palpable longing for vengeance there. James and the Giant Peach: you don’t have to read far before there’s this visceral enjoyment of the fact that James’s terrible, terrible aunts get squashed to a pancake.
I want to encourage us to begin by thinking about this. Where does this longing for retribution and vengeance come from? Is it all bad? Some of it, I think, is bad: the Jason Statham and Keanu Reeves versions are not healthy. But there’s something to not dismiss quickly about the Roald Dahl part of it: there are dreadful adults doing dreadful things, and it’s right, in a sense, that they get their just desserts.
But on the other hand, our culture, including our country, but really, a lot of Western culture, has a real allergy to the idea of retributive punishment. There’s a kind of weird combination of ideas here: on the one hand, there’s fantasies of vengeance; on the other hand, there’s a deep nervousness about the idea of retribution in punishment.
You can’t really see that slide very well, but it’s a picture of Australia with the dates on which the last execution was conducted and when the death penalty was abolished. If you’re watching or listening from America, you may not know that there is no capital punishment in Australia. The last execution in New South Wales was in 1940. It’s been a long time since we’ve executed anybody, and most of the literature around punishment and criminal justice now is a bit allergic to the idea of retribution, even though retribution is actually built into punishment necessarily.
So I think with vengeance and retribution, we need to think about a few things. But we’re thinking about them in a context, and that’s what I’ve been talking about. It’s a context in which there are multiple things going on. There are fantasies of vengeance and real longings for retribution—for justice to be done. But there’s also a cultural nervousness about punishment and payback.
The topic before us tonight is, of course, extremely important and complex. At one side of it, it’s an unavoidable aspect of government: punishment involves payback at one level or another. That’s just the reality of punishment. If you put somebody in jail for a long time for a crime, yes, you may hope they’ll be rehabilitated; yes, you may hope that they’ll turn their life around; but it’s a form of payback, and every form of punishment is an unavoidable dimension of retribution.
But secondly, this is a critical personal challenge, and I’m really mindful that all of us in the room will be coming at this topic with different personal experiences, some of which are deeply challenging.
Finally, and here’s where I want to kick off, this is actually a central distinctive aspect of Christian moral teaching. Jesus’ teaching was distinguished by what he said about retribution. So let’s move onto that now.
1. A distinctive Christian emphasis (Matt 5:38-42; Rom 12:17-19)
“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. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42 ESV)
In Matthew 5, Jesus has this word where he says, “Actually, the way of ‘an eye for an eye’ is no longer the way for my people”. Somebody slaps you on the right cheek; turn the other cheek also. It’s not just Jesus, though; in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says,
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 NIV)
Paul’s words there are both a reaffirmation of what Jesus says—not repaying evil for evil; don’t take revenge; seek peace. But they add a new dimension there, because they talk about divine vengeance. God’s wrath and divine vengeance in this context are an unwelcome imposition for many in our culture. 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.
This is a quote from Miroslav Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace:
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
(I love that last phrase: “pleasant captivities of the liberal mind”.)
I’m not going to spend lots of time backing up Volf, but I will begin by saying I think the New Testament does quite clearly present the promise of divine vengeance as part of the picture.
I want to now talk about where this distinctive emphasis fits in relation to the Old Testament. But before I do that, I want to stress that I think this is an emphasis, and I think this is sometimes missed. When we read through the Sermon on the Mount and we think, “Oh yeah, Jesus said that stuff about ‘an eye for an eye’,” actually this emphasis on non-retaliation and forgiveness lies right at the heart of Jesus’ moral teaching. It permeates the very centre of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the Lord’s prayer, and the very centre of the Lord’s prayer is the call to “forgive as we have been forgiven”. 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 he says, “Well, as many as seventy times seven” (see Matt 18:21-22). So this emphasis on forgiveness deserves attention as, I think, the kind of 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 the Old Testament. I want to take you very quickly through retribution in the Old Testament. Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Perhaps. But 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: the idea of “an eye for an eye”, which Jesus refers to, is especially found in this passage, where Moses writes,
“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 NIV)
If we read Exodus 19:21 and Deuteronomy 19:15-21, we’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—dealing with criminals.
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 you’ll know 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) What’s really interesting about that statement is that it combines the idea of love of neighbour with not seeking revenge or bearing a grudge. That is quite similar to the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching, which both draws together the centrality of love for neighbour and the importance of non-retaliation.
But although it’s a major note in the moral teaching of Jesus, what we see here is 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. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but 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”.
This is a side point: that does start to emerge during the intertestamental period. But for now, let’s just notice this difference of emphasis. There is this call not to seek revenge, but it’s a minor note.
So what is going on in the Old Testament? I think there’s a few things: the principle of “an eye for an eye” draw together two different things: one is the danger of vengeance, and the other is a principle of proportion and restraint. The main thing the principle of “an eye for an eye” is doing in the law is not exacerbating vengeance, but restraining it. The point of this principle is actually 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. That principle is meant to put an end to a cycle of violence. The Old Testament is deeply aware of the danger of spiralling vengeance.
Genesis 4:23-24 is part of a speech from Lamech, one of Cain’s descendants, where this desire for violence and retribution emerges early on. I think this is a very important text for thinking about domestic and family violence, because what we see here is Lamech essentially controlling his wives through an awful threat of violence. It’s striking that he says to his wives,
“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.”
(Gen 4:23-24 NIV)
What’s very important to notice about that is not just the way in which Lamech is controlling his wives through this threat of 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 precisely not proportioned and restrained. It’s actually vengeance out of control. Vengeance spiralling 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. (Matt18:21-22 NIV)
Do you see even in the way the Gospels construe it there, there’s a real match to what Lamech says? I think it’s very deliberate. Jesus says the kingdom brings the opposite way: where Lamech was a man of vengeance, you guys have to be the people of profound forgiveness.
3. Understanding New Testament teaching
Let’s come back, then, to thinking about what is going on in the New Testament. What is going on in Jesus’ teaching particularly?
a. Jesus’ purpose in Matthew 5
What might we say is 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, I think Jesus sees that as a misuse of the law, because it’s reading Leviticus 24 against Leviticus 19. Jesus says, “No, no, no: Leviticus 24 is not all that matters; Leviticus 19 matters.” Remember, 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
But I think he was doing to do more than that as well. I think he was seeking to hear the law afresh in the light of the kingdom. I think Jesus was saying, “The kingdom of God means we hear this law in a new situation.”
What’s new about this situation? One thing in particular: the mercy of God has been disclosed climactically. That is, 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. Why are the unmerciful servant’s actions so egregious? Because he was forgiven such a great debt. Jesus is saying to his followers, “This is the context: the context of God’s mercy is the situation 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
One more thing: I don’t think Jesus’ purpose was to reject entirely retribution in judicial punishment. We could read it that way. We could read Jesus 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. In particular, I don’t think it can fit 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, and he says,
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 NIV)
Did Paul just put his pen down at the end of chapter 12 and forget what he wrote, and then come back and say, “Oh, I think I’d better say something tough about government.” He didn’t do that. 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 the very next thought is to say, “And one of the ways the Lord will do that is through judicial punishment.” So in Christian thought, this has been a consistent message: there is an ongoing place for the logic of retribution in judicial punishment.
Now, that may not be a welcome thing to talk about. But I think it’s actually important. The reason I think it’s important not to dismiss that principle of “an eye for an eye” in judicial punishment is because, as we’ve seen, in the Old Testament, it’s a positive thing. It’s a principle of proportion and restraint.
Just as a side point, it works against the logic of punishment as a deterrent. If your logic for punishment is deterrence—to deter others—that can lead you into all sorts of more elaborate forms of punishment. Our culture’s discomfort with the idea of retribution can really open the door to an openness to the logic of deterrence. 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. That, I think, is a really sub-Christian way of thinking about punishment.
If you want to know more about that, Oliver O’Donovan has a much-neglected book called Peace and Certainty, which is a whole essay on the logic of deterrence. Nobody ever reads it, but it’s good.
iv. Not to provide specific advice, but to to cultivate patterns of action and feeling (virtue)
Finally, what was Jesus doing in Matthew 5? He was not, I’m persuaded, simply providing specific advice for all cases. I think 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 NIV), and then he illustrates that in a couple of ways. He does not intend for that to be case law so that we then implement that in a legalistic way. “Oh: he slapped you on the right cheek. What if he slaps you on the left cheek?” and “It applies to slaps, but does it apply to punches? What about kicks?” That’s crazy! The point of what Jesus was doing there is to cultivate patterns of action and feeling, which are often called virtue. He wants to cultivate in his followers (those who trust in him) habits and settled patterns of action and feeling that 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, taking care to stress that we’re not going to get everything done here.
a. Scepticism about our culture
The first thing to say is I think we ought to be a bit sceptical about the confusions in our culture. I think 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, I suspect, is bad for you. I’ve watched some myself. You have to work that out for yourself. Maybe it helps get it out of your system. But we do not want to be cultivating a desire for revenge.
Also, a refusal to punish with some degree of proportion is problematic. As I’ve said, I think a retributive baseline for thinking about punishment is far more helpful than thinking in terms of deterrence.
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”.
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
Firstly, I want to stress that we need to be very careful not to misuse Jesus’ text. Here, I want to just say something brief and inadequate about domestic and family violence: I want to say really clearly that Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek” and all of that is not a call for people to endure anything, and 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 especially Matthew 5:39 (“turn the other cheek”), is profoundly misused if it is treated as an exhortation to endure domestic violence. I think Jesus’ word there is mainly a word 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 the main thing I want to say is 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 actually a place where what we’ve seen about the judicial aspect of this is very important. One of the things to notice here is 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.2 This is a longstanding tradition in British law—that it’s not the victim who takes up the charge.
Why is that? It’s because of Romans 12-13: the logic is that 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. What it does is, in British and Australian law, it spares the victim from needing to prosecute their own case. I’m not sure how it’s done in American law.
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. That’s a very interesting thing and it’s one of the ways there can be a kind of service of the law to our ethics. To put it simply, a well-functioning judicial system is meant to secure the space in which non-retaliation is possible.
iii. What we should aspire to
The final thing to say is about our cultural moment. Thinking about practicalities, in our relationships with one another, we should think about what we should aspire to. We should refuse patterns of relationship that are 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 NIV). 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 the tapestry.
c. Thinking about our moment as a church
I want to suggest that we ought to think about these dynamics also as a church. In Australia, now is a time when we are being pushed as a church—perhaps pushed back, perhaps insulted at times. Sometimes we bring that on ourselves for being idiots, but sometimes it’s really unfair. What will our approach be in this moment? Will our approach as a church be to seek to fight, to retaliate or to give way? For whom are we fighting and what is driving us? Friends, I really think at this time, we ought to hear quite loudly Christ’s call not to avenge ourselves—to seek peace and gentleness, even when it is infuriating.
5. The final word
We can do all this, of course, because we believe and we know that God has given judgement. He has given judgement in a way that both avenges and gives life, both retaliates and condemns sin, and 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 both tells the truth about sin and brings retribution, and also brings forgiveness. The confidence in that reality, which will be played out in eternity and perfected in the coming of Jesus, can give us confidence to endure great difficulty in the face of trial.
I’ll finish there. Thank you.
CK: Thank you, Andrew! [Applause]
CK: I hope that you’ve been enjoying listening to our program today. As we take a brief break, I’m really excited to tell you about our planned program for our 2023 live events. Next year, we’re going to be considering “A virtuous life”, working our way through some of the challenges that are put to us in 2 Peter 1. I’m really thrilled about our line-up of speakers, including several of my colleagues and an international guest.
In a major shift to our program, I’m really excited to tell you that we’re not going to be charging for our events any longer. Instead, we’re going to be moving to be running exclusively on donations. We’re hoping this will make our events even more accessible to a wider audience and that it will encourage further genuine partnerships through tax-deductible donations.
We’re letting you know the dates and the titles now for our events so that, first of all, you can register—and yes, you can you do this now: you can go to our website and begin registering. But also, secondly, so that you’ll plan. We’d love to see you with your church or your Bible study group involved in coming in person or online next year. We deliberately run our events on Wednesday evenings at a time that we know overlaps with many Bible study groups in order that many group can join us together.
Let me tell you about our events. On 15 March, I’ll begin our series considering “Is love really all you need?” Then on 7 June, Professor David VanDrunen of Westminster Seminary California will be bringing us a double event. At 5pm, he’ll begin with a public lecture on “The glory of humility”. Then a bit later on after a dinner break, we’ll come back together for our regular CCL event and we’ll ask the question about “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling”: what is Christian character like in a characterless society? Then on 30 August, my colleague Dr David Höhne will be presenting on “Self-control in an age of self-actualisation”. Finally, on 18 October, my other colleague Dr Mark Thompson will be presenting on “The power and pain of perseverance”.
I’m really excited about this program considering virtue in the Christian life and I hope that you’ll make a point to join us and partner with us in this next year.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Part 2: Discussing practicalities
CK: Thank you so much! That was excellent and I really benefitted from it and look forward to discussing some practicalities. I might actually invite Lauren up now. In this section, we’re going to spend about ten minutes talking about some of the implications of what you’ve said for our lives together in this world.
Patterns of retaliation in relationships
CK: First of all, Lauren: welcome to you and thank you for being here. Andrew mentioned something briefly about patterns of retaliation that we should avoid. You work in counselling people in a range of contexts, but especially doing family counselling. What kinds of patterns of retaliation exist? What do they look like in practice? How do you begin to counsel people to break those patterns?
LE: That’s a big question, and I have to say for 90 per cent of Andrew’s presentation, which I really enjoyed, I was thinking, “I’m not sure what I’m doing here!” [Laughter] But that was the bit I picked up on as well.
I work in a model of counselling where we think about family systems and relationship systems. We think about the reciprocal effect that people have on each other in relationships and in family systems in particular, but more broadly than that as well. I think part of what I’m doing with people in that space is—the analogy I use a lot with people is we’re all a little bit like a cup, and cups come in all different shapes and sizes, and that’s our capacity. I talk about that as our differentiation of self and our emotional maturity. But our cup is filled up with all sorts of anxieties, and a lot of chronic anxiety, and acute things that happen as well. At some point, everyone exceeds the capacity to cope. What happens in our relationships when we exceed our capacity to cope—and it happens for everyone but it might happen to some people more than others, and frequently—
AE: It happens to me more than Lauren. [Laughter]
LE: Just in different ways, I think! But what happens there is that we begin to see default patterns of how people react under stress. In the model I work with, there’s some predictable ways we see things happen: by people conflicting with each other. We see people emotionally distance in relationships. Bowen, in Bowen family systems theory, talks about people over-functioning and under-functioning for each other, and trying to survive that stress, or turning to other people and bringing in other people. So that’s the sort of thinking I’m doing with people.
The retaliation stuff comes in different shapes and sizes. But at the worst end, that’s where you’re getting stuff like domestic violence, family violence, gaslighting and coercive control, which are all efforts for people to get themselves more comfortable in relationships in some ways—by controlling other people in that process. That’s at the extreme end. Down the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got all of us getting stressed in relationships and doing some of those things a little bit too.
CK: What are the surprise ways that may go under the radar for us? What are the simple acts of retaliation, the kinds of things we may not think are flagrant offences, but just little ways that we might take a jab?
LE: It’s a good question. I’d be interested to hear what you think as well, Andrew. [Laughter]
AE: I have no experience of you doing it. [Laughter] I think gaslighting. That’s an interesting comment. I’d like to hear you say more about it.
LE: Yeah, I’ll come back to that. One of the things I think about is that when we get stressed, we all default into these sorts of patterns. In that overwhelm, we’re acting automatically, and we lose our capacity to think and be intentional in our relationships. We all do a bit of that all the time. That’s part of us being driven as emotional beings. Losing access to our thinking and being able to operate out of intentionality or principled thinking in that space is where we lose control. But we like to try to control others in that process. I think that’s where your questions goes with that.
CK: Yeah, that’s very interesting. I was having a conversation with a few people today about this. I get particularly grumpy and anxious when I’m really tired. In those moments, I’ll find I will receive something—maybe not intentioned for my harm, but I will receive it as a personal offence, and I will bite back, either with passive aggression or with deliberate words to match what I think is a jab at me. I’ll just jab back and think somebody deserves it. I think it can be very ugly.
AE: Just to follow on from what you’ve said, I was just going to say I think one of the benefits of reading the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus seeking to cultivate habits and settled patterns of life, not just doing case law, is it allows you space to ask questions—for example, about emotions and regulation. You’re not just asking, “How do I not do that?”, you’re asking, “How do I become a non-vengeful person?” and “How can God lead me into patterns of life that are more peaceable and more gentle, and that might lead you to pay attention to things like, “How do I lose track of my reactions?” I think it gives you the space for the kinds of things you’re talking about, which are quite an important part of the Christian life.
CK: Yeah, and it’s so helpful situating this in the broader picture of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus cautions us against that kind of anger. We might have this lashing out in a particular action, or we might refrain from that action, but something internal can be just as morally wrong in the ways that we’re thinking or even harbouring a particular kind of bitterness and anger. That can be just as terrible, in one sense.
AE: Do you agree with what I said? Does that fit with what you’re saying?
LE: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful.
Andrew Thorburn and retaliation
CK: As we think about the cultural moment we’re in right now, let’s talk about Andrew Thorburn: he’s been in the news for the last couple of weeks. You’ve probably thinking, “I didn’t want to talk about this right now.”
AE: Oh, no, it’s fine.
CK: I just want to say here’s an opportunity for what we would think would be an enactment of justice—a man who some people would think has been wronged and could therefore retaliate, if you will, even legally. You’ve spoken about allowing for government systems or judicial systems to be enacted. Is it wrong for someone like Andrew to pursue, perhaps, unfair dismissal or something like? I’m not even saying make a judgement on the issue itself. But is it wrong for somebody wronged in that place to take legal action to defend something there? Or is it better to turn the cheek in this instance?
AE: I think this is an area that is complex because it’s the interface between Christ’s call on us as individuals and as a community, and good law. I think that interface is happening all the time, but I think it particularly comes up with the question of, “Do I seek legal recourse for this?”
It’s interesting to me that the law has a line that is the line between summary and indictable offences—at which it, at least, will say, “Well, there are some things we don’t even want you to have to ask that question. But there are some things where it’s our responsibility because it’s a crime against the community.”
But that line is far up. There are a lot of things before you get to that. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to that. But I do think we ought to hear pretty loudly texts like Titus 3.
Titus 3 is such an important text because Paul writes,
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Titus 3:1-2 NIV).
Then it goes on: “because” (is what he implies),
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us … (Titus 3-5 NIV)
Paul is saying you have to adopt a posture of generosity and gentleness in the world, because you were once an idiot too, and the grace of God appeared and saved you from that. So I think the first thing to say is whatever response somebody in Andrew Thorburn’s position should take (and I’m not going to tell him what to do), it should begin, like all Christian thinking about our life in the world should begin, from this deep consciousness that we’ve been shown mercy. We’ve been shown extraordinary mercy by God and that’s got to make us at least generous to the world around us.
Now, if somebody gets to the point of saying, “Yeah, but I think there’s a real threat to the community here, this is really bad, and I think I ought to press this not for my own sake, but for others”, I think that makes sense and I think there’s going to be judgement calls there.
CK: Very helpful.
AE: That’s a long answer, sorry.
CK: No, it’s very helpful. Thank you.
CK: Would you please join me in thanking the Erringtons for tonight and their contribution? [Applause] Thank you. I’m really grateful for the friendship that I’ve had with Andrew. It’s such a stimulating and helpful friendship to me. I’m grateful for both Erringtons in their respective ministries and thankful to them for giving up their evening tonight.
I’m grateful for you joining us this evening online and here in person. We’re very glad for your partnership in this ministry, and hope that it’s been a blessing to you this year. I encourage you to go back and listen to the other events from this year as we’ve looked through Matthew 5. Maybe you could do that as part of your own quiet time in the coming month or two.
As we conclude, I just want to also thank my assistant Karen Beilharz, who’s running around behind the scenes tonight, but who makes so much of this happen. I’m really grateful as well for our tech guys, Simon and Daniel, who come and serve during late nights for us, as well as for the whole CCL student team who work behind the scenes. It’s just such a blessing to be a part of such a fantastic fellowship of Christian people serving together. I’m so grateful for them.
As we conclude, I want to give the Lord the last word in 1 Peter 2 as we remember Christ:
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Pet 2:19-25 ESV)
Please pray with me.
We are thankful for this evening, thankful for this series, but especially thankful tonight that we can think of the ways we’ve been set free from the cycles of disproportionate vengeance and retaliation. Thank you for Christ, who submitted himself even to wickedness—even unto death for our sake. Thank you for this great reminder tonight that we also were once lost sheep and now have been found by you.
We pray, Lord, that you would give us a patience, a grace and a care for those around us, even those who mistreat us, because they do so as we once were. We pray, Lord, you’ll have mercy on many—that you will save many as they come to know the saving power of knowing you through your Son Jesus.
It’s in his name we pray. Amen.
Thank you very much for joining us. For those of you here, we’ll love to see you at supper next door. Thanks.
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
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As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.
1 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 303-304.
2 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.
Except as otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Except as otherwise noted, 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.