We don’t know what happened to Herodias or her daughter who had inherited her hunger for revenge. We do know that John the Baptist’s message did not go away. It was enhanced by the message of Jesus. Jesus established a just and moral focal point for the Jewish people in general and the discipleship community in particular. It held at its core the eschewing of the practice of seeking revenge.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you do not resist the evil one with violence. Instead seek a new way…You have heard it said, ‘love your friends and hate your enemies’. But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The apostle Paul put it this way. “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," says the Lord. "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ~ Romans 12.19-21
But that’s not the way of the world, is it? If we have been wronged, we seek revenge. It’s our right. It’s our duty.
Terry Jones, the deranged Baptist preacher sought to get his revenge this past month. In remarkable stupidity and hubris, he burned a copy of the Koran. Now, in revenge for that provocative act, poor uneducated Afghanis are taking to the street and executing people aligned with the United States. And the sad thing is that Pastor Jones is seeking this revenge on the Koran in the name of Christianity. He takes his death threats as a sign of honor-a martyr in waiting. Waiting for what?
Have you ever been tempted by revenge? I have. I dare say we all have. Revenge is acceptable. It is expected. To avoid it is to be weak, or so says our popular culture. But what good does it do? Who does it benefit in the long run?
As I was making syrup yesterday morning and listening to NPR, I heard a former judge advocating a ban on the death penalty. He said this not because he sees the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, but because he sees the endless appeals and the dragging out of the process as being cruel to the victims’ families. He said that the families need to move on, and they often can’t until they have seen the perpetrator die. So they wait and they seethe and they give up the best years of their lives waiting for vengeance.
The problem with revenge is that it is a temporary fix to a larger problem. Since the problem is an internal one of anger and rage, getting back at the one who has wronged us ends up being what psychologists call transference. It doesn’t adequately address the deeper issues in our very souls. I fear that we spend too much time tempted by revenge and not enough time attending to the healing our souls may need.
Revenge can feel good. But it’s not an end game. The issue needs an end game, lest the toxicity that fuels revenge infect your very soul. Otherwise, you are looking for the next opportunity for revenge. You expect to be wronged. You only feel right when you are the victor or the victim. It becomes a cycle one to the other, victim and victor, victim and victor.
Frederick Buechner said, "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past ... to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back -- in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you." (from Wishful Thinking)
I watched the film “As it is in Heaven” the other night at the behest of Bob and Lu Carman. It’s a Swedish film with English subtitles. It has many levels of meaning, but one of the subplots has to do with a boy who has been abused by a childhood bully. After decades apart, they encounter each other again as adults. One is still a bully. But the other has a different perspective. He has a moral center and a power. It intimidates the bully. We watch the bully unravel, imploding and trying to take others down with him. It doesn’t end well for him. He is stuck in the vengeance cycle. His soul is so damaged that he doesn’t even see the redemption around him.
Sometimes the best revenge is our own success, not another’s failure or another’s pain.
Martin Luther King rose above vengeance and saw it as the key to his method of nonviolence:
"We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory."
If you have been tempted by revenge, and I know we all have, take this Lenten snapshot in time and consider the end game. Consider how you want your life to be after you seek the revenge. Consider what longing in your soul aches to be soothed.
When we are tempted by revenge, we play right into the hands of those bent on violence. We leave our best selves waiting in the wings or suppressed. If we channel that vengeance energy into something else, just imagine what our lives could look like.
Imagine what our community might look like.
Imagine what we might look like.
Imagine what God might look like.
Imagine a better way.
Jesus would want no less.