The End of Revenge: Nonviolence & the American Fascination With Getting Even

The End of Revenge: Nonviolence & the American Fascination With Getting Even August 28, 2015

bill.001When Vester Lee Flanagan left behind his attempts to explain the unexplainable—the reason he shot two former colleagues in cold blood during a live broadcast—the rationale he gave was simple revenge; revenge for the mass shooting at a church in Charleston; revenge for mistreatment by his formal employer.

After reading the accounts of his work history and personal issues it seems obvious that Flanagan had some sort of serious personality disorder. So revenge is too simple to be a satisfactory explanation, if one is even possible. But it’s out there now, so we should talk about it.

America is a revenge culture: Revenge the television series, revenge porn, revenge games in sports… vengeance is a mainstay of foreign policy and a thematic obsession for film, television, and female pop-musicians.

Oscar winning director Quentin Tarantino has made a career of revenge. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, these are all formulaic revenge films.

  • Step 1: show an innocent (or pretty) person being horribly wronged.
  • Step 2: build the audience’s self-righteous anger to a fever pitch.
  • Step 3: give the victim some kind of weapon.
  • Step 4: let the victim kill any and every person who has wronged them.

It’s an effective formula for pop film success. But it’s a tired script, and not a very good story to tell.

Swiss researchers once used brain scans to study the effect of revenge on the human brain. Subjects were given a partner and asked to play a simple game where the duo could work together to win a pot of money. At the last second, their partner would double cross them. Subjects were then given the opportunity to exact revenge on their cheating partner. When scientists scanned the brain of revenge takers the pleasure centers of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree.

Human beings experience revenge as pleasure, but the effects are short lived. Researchers removed the opportunity for revenge from half of the participants in a similar study, then asked subjects to rate their feelings immediately following the double-crossing, then again 10 minutes later. Those who could not seek revenge had significantly more positive feelings than those who were allowed to exact revenge.

That means that if you take two victims of injustice—one who seeks revenge and one who forgives—and look at the long-term impact of that choice, you will find the person who chose to forgive will be more healthy and whole.

Ethically, revenge presents the person with a quandary. The moment we choose revenge we simultaneously forget how messed up we all are, and we effectively absolve ourselves of our complicity in the row. Even if we are completely innocent in that particular situation, as members of society we are all part of the problem. We are all part of the darkness.

Perhaps this is why Jesus told Peter that if you live by the sword you die by the sword, and why the apostle Paul strictly forbid seeking revenge. When you exact revenge on another person, you not only sign up for the same treatment, you ensure that the cycle of retribution will continue.

The cross—God’s ultimate act of redemption, and the central revelation of God’s heart of the world and for what the kingdom of God is all about—was the intentional forgoing of God’s right to vengeance, or retribution. It was the rejection of violence as an effective means of redemption.

If anyone in history had a case for revenge, it’s Jesus. But he didn’t take it. Why? Because Jesus was always asking the question, how will it end? The brokenness, the violence, the wars, murder, abuse, injustice, suffering—how will it all end? His answer was the cross. He swallowed up death. And when he did, he killed revenge.

How does it end? God will forego vengeance, absorb evil.

When we imitate Jesus, we imitate Jesus on the cross. As our lives take on the shape of Jesus’s life—forgiveness, the rejection of violence & vengeance—then we meet the world with a powerful story, an true story that has the power to change things. We tell a different story. When the world says war, we say peace. When the world says violence we say friendship. When the world says despair, we say hope. When the world says vengeance, we say forgiveness.


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  • The cross is a constant reminder to Christians that they are victims of society and justifiably seek revenge, sometimes personal and most of the time politically. If God forgoes revenge, why then Armageddon?

    • Charles

      Scripture may not explicitly say that God forgoes revenge, but it does say that WE should, because revenge is God’s business, not ours (Romans 12:17-21).

  • bicfj

    The result is that forever Christians live under a cross-shaped cloud.

    The storm with thunder and lightning and violence is always about to break….

  • bill wald

    With a 350 million population in the US it is amazing how few crazy people killing others with guns, knives, and broken wine bottles there are. One has a greater chance of being killed by lightning than by a crazy with a gun.

    Or is the claim that only Christians are (can be) crazy or kill people with guns? Humans are terrible at analyzing risk and Americans are continually suckered with statistics.

    • iain lovejoy

      Total number of people killed by lightning in US in 2013 was 23 according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 firearms caused 11,208 deaths by homicide.
      Unless my maths skills have deserted me 11,208 is way bigger than 23.
      If you want to narrow it down to killed in widely reported mass shootings only to make your statement less stupid. The Reddit site recording mass (4+) shootings records 365 such in 2013, totalling 36 dead in January alone (they only give the total dead in each incident separately and after adding up the January total I got too depressed to carry on and add them up for the whole year. )
      The only person doing any “suckering with statistics” is you.

  • John W. Morehead

    As an Evangelical involved in multifaith engagement and peacemaking I found this essay very important. I am part of the promotional team for the National Night of Forgiveness taking place on September 28 in 500 theaters across the country (AMC, Regal, Cinemark).

    From the press release:

    This event is intended to spark a national discussion about forgiveness; a discussion that goes beyond the superficial clichés and easy lip-service given to this virtue in the wake of real harm and real suffering. What does it actually take to forgive someone and be free of the personal prisons that hate and anger impose on us? Why is it so vital to our spiritual well-being to practice forgiveness?

  • If America “is a revenge culture,” then Americanized Christianity is to blame. What a pitiful mix is American culture and American Christianity. They have blended into a meaningless mix of irrelevant pulp. Look how far the American Christian church has drifted from the Early Church.

    The early followers of Jesus would find in our Americanized Christian churches little reflecting the teachings and examples of Jesus. Love? Sharing? Community? Simplicity? Care for the least? Peace? Justice?

    Whitewashed by American pride, American patriotism, American individuality, American greed.

    Revenge culture indeed.

  • I find it rather frustrating to see media violence and actual violence that involves real people to be conflated in this article. Study after study has looked into this, and there is little evidence to indicate that making or watching violent things that aren’t real equals to the choice to do such things yourself. Many cultures that are saturated with things from abrasive hardcore music to nasty video games, such as Japanese society, have very low homicide rates– and said rates have declined from the 50s to now rather than increased.

  • clipdive55

    Beautiful essay. I will share. Thank you.