Vengeance is mine
Belief in a God of vengeance will create vengeful people, right?
On the other hand, if we want to pursue peace ourselves, we must dispense with the view of God as some Settler of scores, right?
Actually the Apostle Paul argues precisely the opposite. He begins by enjoining an incredible level of pacifism on the Christian:
“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.” (Romans 12:17-19)
There’s a realism here (“as much as lieth in you”) but also a supernatural expectation: “live peaceably with all men.” This is explicitly in the context of “evil” done to the Christian. This is the occasion when vengeance and wrath will be rising up in us. How on earth can we resist? Paul says, “Give place unto wrath…
For it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. 21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
There is a “place” for wrath. But that place is not in our hands. We are no good at wrath. But God is. The whole practice of vengeance belongs to the Father Almighty. He takes care of the payback business. He’s good at His job and He promises to settle scores with perfect justice. Therefore, says Paul, you are free to love your enemies in extraordinary and counter-conditional ways.
And it’s God’s vengeance that is the grounds for your peace-making. If that still sounds odd, perhaps we should allow Miroslav Volf to teach us. He is a Croation theologian whose family and community saw terrible violence during the ethnic cleansing of the early 90s. He writes: “The practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance.” He realises that we in the comfortable West may baulk at this. But he asks us to face the realities of evil which remain, for most of us, a distant theory.
“Imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God.”
Only the God who is good at vengeance can enable a victim of evil to resist becoming a perpetrator. There is a judgement to come – a perfect righting of wrongs. There’s no need for vigilantes. We can entrust all judgement to Christ who, through His cross, showed Himself perfect in justice.
But even more than this, when a Christian knows of the judgement to come, it can inspire something truly remarkable: pity for the evil-doer.
Corrie Ten Boom told the story of her imprisonment at Ravensbruck concentration camp in The Hiding Place. One day she and her sister, Betsie, were forced to watch a concentration camp matron beating a prisoner. “Oh, the poor woman,” Corrie cried. “Yes. May God forgive her,” Betsie replied.
Corrie was crying for the prisoner. Betsie was praying for the guard. That’s the difference it makes to know that vengeance is the Lord’s. For as their father had once said, “I pity the poor Germans, they have touched the apple of God’s eye.”
How can anyone pity a concentration camp guard? How can anyone pity the perpetrators of the holocaust? Only those who know there is a woe greater than Ravensbrook and a power far higher than the Nazis. In the light of that day, everyone becomes an object of our sympathy, even our foulest enemies. The vengeance of God makes peacemakers of us all.
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