By Michael E. Brooks
“Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
During a campaign in east Nepal we were to travel from Birtamode to Dharan, a distance of about 70 kilometers by highway. However as we journeyed we were stopped just short of the town where the highway turns north because of a strike caused by angry villagers. A truck had struck and killed a child and they were protesting for compensation to the child’s family. We were forced to turn off on unpaved rock roads, which led us up river beds and through other rural areas, increasing our travel time by two hours.
Two days later we returned, coming by highway this time, and as we traveled through the affected area we saw a burned out truck – the vehicle that had hit the child. It was almost unrecognizable from not only the fire, but other damage done to it by the angry villagers. We are told that this is a common practice in such incidents in Nepal as well as other countries of the region. Often the driver will be severely beaten or killed as well. This driver was fortunate to have escaped.
The anger and grief of the bereaved family and its relatives and friends is perfectly understandable. There was no information as to how the accident happened or what fault may be legitimately attributed to the driver. Perhaps he was driving recklessly; perhaps the girl was careless. It hardly seems to matter in these cases. A tragedy occurred and someone had to pay. The need for justice and retribution is overwhelming.
As understandable as that is however, and in spite of the compassion one feels, an observer must ask, “What good did it do anyone to burn the truck?” If the driver had been caught and beaten, would that have benefited the victim or her family? Is there any point or merit to vengeance in a case like this?
The motives for vengeance are usually few and simple. First it is often an instinctive response to deep emotions – anger and grief – usually performed at a time when one is overwhelmed and out of control. Secondly, vengeance is an attempt to provide justice and retribution on behalf of the victim. The Mosaic Law’s provision of “an eye for an eye” is often quoted as justification. Evil was done, whether by intention or accident, therefore there must be a balancing of accounts. The offender must suffer so as to pay back the damage done to his victim. Finally vengeance is seen as a means of deterrence. If the offender does not learn his lesson he (or others) may continue to cause the same kind of harm. Beating or killing the driver and burning the truck is an attempt to keep other children safe in the future.
All these reasons have been accepted by many cultures throughout the history of mankind. Even those nations whose laws oppose individual vengeance may find widespread sympathy for the practice. On a considerably less violent scale, acts of getting even with enemies are extremely frequent. The principle is the same.
Paul points out in Romans 12 that Jesus has changed the method of realized justice. No longer are God’s people instructed to be its instruments. Rather they are to practice patience, mercy and forgiveness to those who harm them. Does this mean that the guilty will get away with their evil, and wrong will go unpunished? Not at all. Rather, God promises to see that justice is done. We are to leave it to him, in faith. “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
Justice is both necessary and certain. But humans are not its principle agents. In Romans 13:1-4, Paul points out that governments are divinely appointed, in part to help achieve justice. In doing this they are God’s agents. However individual acts of vengeance cannot be excused on this basis. Individuals are not authorized for this purpose, but rather have that right specifically denied them in Scripture.
There are several reasons why this may be. An act of vengeance may be inappropriate, or may be carried out against innocent parties, or may be done for the wrong reasons. Humans make mistakes. God does not. He acts with perfect precision to balance every scale, to offer comfort to every victim, and to guarantee eternal rightness. Let us accept his wisdom and justice in faith.
By Michael E. Brooks