With ISIS making headlines and recent remembrance of the 9/11 attack, our attention is again on fighting terrorism. For Christians, our response should be guided by scriptures. One of the most innate responses to attacks, and stories of beheadings, is to seek revenge. But, one of the clearest directives in the Bible it for us to not seek revenge (Deut 32:35, and quoted in Rom 12:19), but rather to love our enemies (Matt 5:44):
Deut 32:35: It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
Matt 5:44: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
The principle is clear and unambiguous. While Christians often fail to live out scriptures, there is generally at a least a desire to be obedient. However, this is one teaching of Christ, where Christians actually seem unashamed to boldly and blatantly defy and contradict Christ.
One of the strategies for some is to try to twist Romans 13:4 into an excuse for governments’ to enter the business of vengeance:
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Out of context, this might indeed sound like a justification for vengeance, but with more context, it becomes clear that this is definitely not the case, for several reasons. First, starting from the beginning of chapter 13, it is clear that Paul is not addressing leaders or government, but rather subjects (leaders can learn from this passage, but only as long as they understand the context). We can not understand Paul’s words as a directive to leaders or governments to seek revenge, when he is not even addressing them. Instead, Paul is indicating that the government’s actions, as they pursue the common good of the people may legitimately engage in punishment (not as the one how is being satisfied by revenge) and taxation, and in doing so, may inflict punishment on you, to deter and restrain you from others, and this punishment may also serve God’s purpose in inflicting divine judgement. However, the vengeance or wrath mentioned is not man’s, they are acting as “agents”, not as a divine judge.
This verse also can not be used as a directive, since it is completely insufficient in declaring what crimes deserve what revenge. Deterrent justice, the legitimate form of justice that governments can and should pursue for the well-being of their citizens, can be empirically determined (we can verify how much punishment it take to significantly deter crime). However, when we endeavor to seek revenge, the only clear measure of the appropriate level of punishment for crimes that the Bible offers is that every crime is deserving of punishment beyond repayment, yet we are shown grace. How should a government’s endeavor enact this? And isn’t the greatest offense we can commit, to reject God? Should governments then started punishing anyone who is not a Christian? This didn’t turn out to well in the Crusades, one of the darkest points in Christian history. While government’s may inflict deterring punishment, that may be used by God for His judgement, it is absurdly unjustifiable for governments to actually take up the divine act of seeking revenge themselves, and it completely contradicts the clear Biblical message that vengeance (the act of deciding the deserved recompense for offenses) belongs solely to God.
Not only is revenge clearly condemned in scriptures, the desire to see others avenged for their wrongs is fundamentally in contradiction to the very foundation of the Christianity, the grace we find at the cross. The reality is that we were deserving of a punishment what we can never payback, and yet God, while we were still in sin, showed as grace. To turn around, and demand divine punishment on someone who is no more deserving of God’s wrath than we are, is to trample on that grace, to reject Christ, and the cross he bore.
I am not pacifist either. The reason I am not, is that I see pacifism is a form of legalism. While Jesus definitely taught us not to violently respond to enemies (it doesn’t get any more non-violent than loving your enemies), Jesus also clearly taught (particular in Matthew 12), the purpose of the God’s laws was not to define a mechanical process to satisfy God, but to reveal his purpose. When he make pacifism a mechanism of obedience, rather than a revelation of his purpose and vision of peace, we risk legalistically following a set of motions instead of looking towards the goal. However, in defense of pacifism, in practice, this actually seems to be relatively rare problem, as we most always err on the side violence as humans, instead of sacrificial peace.
I believe this gives a proper framework for understanding Romans 13, and government’s legitimate role in punishing people. In isolation, it is impossible to justify a punishment that is clearly harming a person. In the broader context of society, the purpose (rather than just the mechanism) of Jesus teaching, the ethic of loving others, loving the whole community, it be comes quite clear how punishing one person benefits the greater society. We can prevent future crimes, and in doing so we are benefiting the community, the society. This doesn’t need to be motivated by a desire to avenge past wrongs, but rather motivated by the legitimate and loving act of protecting future potential victims.
With the whole of scripture in view, Romans 13 isn’t a new revelation of a new ethic, or a new exception. It is in fact, simply a recognition that a well-functioning government that cares for its citizens (driven by Christians wholly devoted to Christ’s ethic, or even non-Christians who also recognize the need for collective actions and providing victims from injustice, which actually was the case of the government Paul was under), may be punishing (and taxing people), and stern warning that evil behavior may earn you a legitimate punishment from that government. There is nothing fundamentally new here, Paul is completely aligned with Christ here. He is not trying to correct a failure in the Christian ethic, he is simply expressing a legitimate expression of the ethic, and how it may affect us.
It is indeed tempting to think that Christ’s teaching, His ethic needs to be excepted for governments. I used to think the same thing. However, as I have studied scripture more, I have realized Christ’s teaching needs no limits placed on them. They are wholly perfect, consistently applicable to every situation, to all people, individuals, groups, societies, and governments, without error, never falling short of guiding us rightly. We don’t have to come up with fixes for Christ, where He didn’t quite foresee how His teaching wouldn’t quite work right for larger governing bodies. As Abraham Kuyper said:
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
The recognition of how dangerous the urge for revenge is in perpetuating violence is why the Just War principles were articulated (by Augustine and later expanded by others). When the only thing needed to justify war is a feeling of righteous superiority and a desire for revenge, virtually every war, battle, and atrocity can be justified. It is only through an objective analysis of the whether war will actually yield better results for the common good of all, that combat can really be justified.
So should we bomb ISIS? If we have learned anything from the last two decades of middle east conflicts, it is that fighting terrorists is incredibly difficult, costly, and complicated, and can often produce the opposite of the intended effect. We are completely ignorant if we think there is some simple way to take out terrorists, so I certainly don’t claim to know the best tactical approach forward. But I do know that the values that drive our strategy our critical. When we take up arms out of revenge, we can be quite certain that we will indeed succeed at the immoral and unethical pursuit that we undertake. And as title, states the greatest victim of revenge is the avenger, and indeed our hunger for revenge has cost hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions), as well as thousands of lives, and to pursue revenge now will cost us more.
Again, I don’t know the right tactical strategy, and we are equally at fault if we ignore the oppression and sufferings of the thousands who have been persecuted and displaced at the hands of ISIS. And we may very well be close to erring on the side of doing too little, in this case, and ignoring their plight (it seems very likely that we have done too little for the sake of the oppressed Syrians). But, we can only embark on truly ethical, moral, and just tactics of armed combat, when we start with a foundation of having first forgiven, and recognizing that the death of any human, including a terrorist is a great tragedy. To deny that a fellow human needs God’s grace exactly as much as myself, is to deny the cross itself.
The greatest victim of revenge is the avenger. We, unwittingly, in our hunger for revenge, become our own victim of bitterness, and in our pursuit, costing ourselves the most. And God, in His infinite foresight, undertook the most ironic, and beautiful twist of fulfilling this. As the rightful true avenger, He willingly became the true greatest victim. Indeed, the greatest Victim of revenge is the Avenger.