Westerns are often revenge stories. We could name any number of them. Last night, I watched one called, The Ballad of Lefty Brown, which is a revenge story with a mixed ending. Vengeance is gained but everything worthwhile is lost. Life is forfeit. Is that a good story? I cannot answer that. The characters confuse revenge with justice. And the main character is the only one who seems to understand that truth. But, in the end, even he is not redeemed. What I wish to address is the confusion between revenge and justice.
White America has been taught that getting even is necessary in all cases. If someone does evil to you, reward them with evil. Such belief is argued as “eye for an eye” justice. Terrorism is a similar doctrine. If one people indiscriminately kills members of another group of people the “just” action is meant to serve as a point to the whole. Cold revenge is the kind most people think of a justified a la eye for an eye. The image of the heroic individual killing a murderer dispassionately is considered good. Further ramifications are not considered. May a relative of the murderer kill as an act of revenge?
Americans like simplistic storylines. Since I have been accused of trying to get parishioners to think or learn, I understand why. American evangelicals, generally speaking, do not like to think. Calling what appears to be obvious into question makes no sense to them. It is why we speak at cross purposes while using the same language. The irony of the film is the man considered the least intelligent, is the one doing all the thinking. His conclusions are not necessarily correct every time. But Lefty Brown is thinking about what is needful at the moment.
Unthinking is desiring easy and straightforward answers. If we never ask ourselves whether are we missing a piece, the jigsaw puzzle will still be incomplete.
The Capacity for Revenge
Timothy McVeigh’s bomb was revenge on the United States government for the terrible actions it took against the Branch Davidians in Waco. The number of people he murdered in his vengeance is 168. The number of Branch Davidians killed at Waco is 86. If revenge were truly eye for an eye, life for life, he exceeded his goal. And very few people think he was a hero. I wish the federal government chose another punishment for him. The death penalty negates redemption. If McVeigh understood the gravity of his crime, it would be better to hear his contrition.
The capacity for revenge needs the capacity for mercy and redemption. Jesus promises mercy for mercy. The state may exact revenge and call it justice. For us though, justice comes with repentance. Mercy is grace for forgiveness. Mercy makes peace if it is at all possible.
Progressive Christians do not downplay justice, however. It is right to pray and fight for justice. Grace and mercy uphold justice. But justice is change.
Consider the need to restructure society to make our social relations more just. How may we do this to make the restructuring more or less permanent? One way is to make certain everyone benefits from it. Nonviolent means of changing the world would be better for a universal benefit. Violent means will leave losers. And the desire will be there to punish the losers who fought violently. As we discussed earlier Americans are fed a steady dose of getting even is the way. We almost never hear sermons that call this belief into question.
If it was not for the Resurrection narratives, Americans would reject the teachings of Jesus because the disciples did not avenge him. No armed rebellion in his name would leave us believing it meant nothing. The end-time fantasies of Jesus taking revenge satisfies that desire for some.