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Vengeance Is A Dish You Can Only Eat Alone
On Retribution and How We Desire It
A reader asks about hoping for vengeance. A reminder about the book club.
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Vengeance?
Kevin asks the following:
What happens when we feel catharsis about vengeance?
It’s hard to talk about Scripture without talking about this question of how we should feel for people to get not just what they deserve, but getting their comeuppance. It’s one thing to pray for daily bread—that which we need—and another thing to pray for an enemy to get what is owed them—justice. I’ll try to break this down in three components:
1) revenge versus justice
2) what vengeance teaches us, and
3) the solidarity that lies on the other side of vengeance.
The basis distinction here between justice and vengeance, which we can roughly distinguish this way:
Justice is giving to a person what is owed to them for their flourishing, independent of their moral status. Vengeance is a person receiving what is due to them for their wrongdoing, dependent on their moral status.
This feels a bit like hair-splitting nonsense, but here’s what I mean. Doing justice to someone doesn’t depend on whether they’ve been injured first and foremost: it means ensuring that people get what they need. To give a child food is just, not because they worked for that food, but because a child needs food to grow and live. The same goes for a mass murderer: to deny them food is, in an important way, to deny them justice.
Now, justice also works by giving people what they are owed for their wrongdoing as well. If I tell my child that if they don’t feed our ailing dog that he won’t get his allowance, that’s just. I’m warning him that his allowance-having and the dog-feeding are tied together, and because I want him to be the kind of person who keeps their obligations to others, it would be unjust to him becoming this kind of person for me to give him his allowance anyway.
What I want to highlight in these two sides of justice is that what’s at stake is not holding to a contract, but matching the actions that we have to the kinds of people that we want to be. Justice is not just about keeping the wheels on society, but about helping people become just, and that means being willing to help direct ourselves and others toward providing to others what they need in order to flourish, to become fully human.
Vengeance, by contrast, gives to others what is due to them for their wrongdoing, but without consideration of their flourishing. Vengeance occurs when there is no possibility of justice: the Batman, the Equalizer, the A-Team. It is a different conversation than justice, in that it thinks that the person under consideration is beyond the scope of justice in the form of bringing them back into reconciliation, and now is just going to get what they’ve earned for their wrongdoing. They are beyond a space—either temporarily or permanently—where justice in its full scope does not apply.
In vengeance, we are asking about people who are beyond the ordinary scope of justice, and so, this is a very serious thing. This is why, as I argued earlier, when Romans talks about God’s vengeance, it turns the whole language on its head and emphasizes divine patience instead. When vengeance happens in film, it’s because the possibility of a shared world is off the table: the only thing left is giving them half of what justice involves.
What’s This Nasty Little Feeling Called Vengeance? What Does It Do To Us?
Vengeance is a delicious little fruit, the kind of fruit that you can only taste once you have decided that you’re going to throw away the core. Some fruits can be eaten, and the pit buried, because you’re interested in having more of that fruit. Justice, when done well, is interested not just in a contractual exchange, but in the whole of the society which makes justice possible being renewed. We behave justly because we are (or want to be) just people, and we know that the only way people can engage with one another is by doing so justly.
Vengeance, on the other hand, is that which we give to those outside this possibility. It’s why revenge movies are always oriented toward outsiders, or those we didn’t have a shared world with anyway: abusive men, destructive camp counselors, the enemies of our friends. I’m tempted to say that what vengeance does to us is something satisfying like justice, but on the basis of what vengeance is, desiring that it be done has the effect of cultivating in us the desire not just for outside places to exist, but for them to be populated.
Playing around with affections like this is dangerous stuff, if for no other reason than it cultivates in us a desire for half-hearted justice. Either we begin to desire a kind of justice which is all retribution and no possibility for restoration (vengeance), or we begin to desire a kind of justice which is all restoration, but not giving to people what is also due them: the consequences of their actions.
It’s here that I want to signal the danger of a carceral imagination, that we should desire a punitive world filled with virtuous prisons or just police forces. That’s not what I have in mind here at all: the logic of Christianity is nothing less than people sharing consequences which are not rightly theirs, or forgoing justified consequences for others without making the mistake of saying that no wrong has occurred. Vengeance leaves us desiring a world which is negated all the way down, a world in which there is no possibility of a shared world, or, more radically, the possibility that we might share the consequences we don’t have to for no other reason than this is what Christ did for us.
What Lies On the Other Side of Vengeance: Solidarity with Sinners
If Christianity offers a very different way for this question of vengeance, what does this look like? I’m tempted here to say that it looks like forgiveness, but that’s not quite right. If vengeance makes us ask the possibility of what it means to have a more full justice than what vengeance offers, we’re back in the realm of looking for a shared world, but one which cannot say that harms done have not actually been done.
It means saying that wrongs have been done, and if done to us, walking with the offenders in tangible, non-hand-waving kinds of ways. The very en vogue power discourse misses this completely, by emphasizing that Christianity takes the side of the powerless (which is mostly true!), it creates a world which is unshared, and in which vengeance is the only ultimate possibility. For if we opt for a kind of justice which does not have a shared world in view, we are opting for a world in which the only place for the offenders is some other world—an abolished world.
There is no reason to say that this means cheap reconciliation of abused with abusers, but rather to say that some of the church must take up the shame of tarrying with the violators, the offenders, the unreconciled. The objection to this comes in the form of a truth that vengeance wants us to retain: sin takes the form of systems, of presuppositions which allow for power to wind its way around us and to shape us in innumerable ways, and that those who prey on the weak should be punished. But let us push this insight further: the end result of affirming that the world has systems upon systems, and ensnares the weak and the powerful within those traps is not just a predatory system upon the powerless, but one in which the powerful become corrupted. Without offering some kind of special pleading for moral monstrosity, we can genuinely say that sin does damage to the one who does it. And that sin too, in its own way, is owed repair.
This is the far side of vengeance, which looks for the return of justice, in which a shared world can be restored. It is the only one which, I think, makes sense of the affirmation of God as both patient and just: that Christ dies for the just and unjust. Who can do such a thing?
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Book Club Announcement: On June 13th, I’ll be hosting our next Zoom book club, on Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. I’m working on a collection of his writing as one of my summer projects, and would love to read this along with other interested parties. Become a paid subscriber to join in!
In more complicated forms, this is a version of what’s called retributive justice. You can chase down Aquinas’ thinking on this here if you want to read more.
What I mean here is that justice is made of two components—distributive (giving to a person what they are owed positively) and retributive (giving to a person what they are owed negatively)—travel together. The more interesting question is whether Christianity sets aside justice entirely.