Back in Old Testament times, the ancient Israelites set up cities to protect those who had committed crimes from an avenger. They were called sanctuary cities. And the idea that the loved ones of the victims would come after the accused fast and hard. It would lead to cycles of violence and people habitually taking laws into their own hands.
An avenger is one who acts out revenge. The practical application to the concept of vengeance. It is the one who takes the responsibility for punishing wrongdoers by inflicting harm on those wrongdoers.
There is right and wrongdoers need to be punished. The problem is that we are very poor avengers. We tend to overreact, even when we are in the “right”. Our vengeance is personal and emotional. And, therefore, often unfair. Even if we have been legitimately wronged.
When we try to serve as the avenger, it simply doesn’t work. We are prone to confuse true righteousness with our own selfish ambition or our inaccurate perspective. Justice is not really served when we react to evil in pride.
It is all too easy in today’s world to hyperfocus on the wrongdoing of others and dismiss our own tendency to get things wrong. We shrug off our mistakes, on the rare occasion we admit them, as an uncharacteristic moment when things got out of control. We afford no such grace to our enemies. Every slight of theirs is indicative of their rot and evil nature.
When we react like this, we are actually ceding control to our agitator. We are now focusing on the priority of the agitator rather than of our own mission. We become obsessed with punishing them at the expense of what it means to steward oneself. We abandon our true mission, losing it in our preoccupation with vengeance. So much that we cannot tell the two apart anymore.
And that is dangerous.
It has become fashionable today to accuse others of being just like historically evil persons or groups of people. Nazis. Communists. Etc. One of the things that marks these historically out-of-control groups is an overreaction to vengeance. They feel slighted and need to take control, restore to rights. They need to silence, quell, and punish their opposition. We are adept at accusing others of the danger and absurdity of this posture, but very bad at seeing it in ourselves.
The vengeance of Germany feeling slighted after WW1 is what led to WW2. Stalin feeling slighted after WW2 led to the Cold War. We don’t take not getting our way very well. Not just the worst of us. Even the best of us get lost in the black hole of blaming others.
And as we exact our revenge whilst we are in power, the other side is keeping score for their revenge plots. It is all a spiral leading our society into decay and violence. And we are all guilty of our part to play in the cycle. We are all participants in this system.
So, what is the solution? Don’t these evil people need to pay for their wrongs?
Of course they do. According to law. And according to the strictest letter of justice.
I think the key is this: all of our justice needs to come with forgiveness. You can’t truly have one without the other. Our lack of forgiveness pushes us past justice into vengeance. Justice simply isn’t enough. There is certainly danger in a lack of justice. But there is also danger when we demand that justice come under the condition of vengeance. It makes us confuse the two. Which harms our own character and pollutes our own motivations.
The key to real justice is recognition of the proper authority. For Christians (like me), that authority is God. I cannot love and serve the people of this world well unless I am willing to hand over their judgement and sentencing to God – and be content with what He decides. For those who are not Christians, I am not sure what your source of truth and justice are, but it needs to be something more than yourself. Something bigger than you. Because, with all due respect, you cannot be trusted. You are too limited, your experience too small. Your opinions are too biased. You are dangerously predisposed.
Even when you represent the “right” side, your thirst for vengeance can become insatiable, distracting, and boomerang onto you. You can become the very thing you are standing in judgement against.