My neighborhood in the Loop has been taken over by Hollywood. I am not sure but I think it’s the remake of the old Charles Bronson favorite, Death Wish. A revenge standard classic.
What’s a revenge standard?
It’s a standard movie plot: A vulnerable hero is wronged or hurt by some sinister person or force. He or she gains strength from their anger at the injustice and sets out to get revenge. In the end, the villain is vanquished, justice is done and the credits roll.
Revenge fantasies are so common in the movie industry that they have become a genre of their own.
+ Liam Neeson is always looking to use his particular “set of skills” to avenge the kidnapping of a family member in the Taken movies.
+ Jason Bourne returned in 2016 after a nine-year absence to take his wrath out on the people who ruined his life.
+ Who can forget Carrie (1976), based on the eponymous Stephen King novel, in which a bullied high school girl gets her revenge?
Revenge is the plot of nearly every Quentin Tarantino movie, and it’s no coincidence that one of the most popular film franchises has to do with The Avengers.
We love the idea of retributive justice. It appeals to our sense of fairness and the idea that everyone finally gets what they deserve.
Some psychologists suggest that these revenge fantasies are actually good for us. They’re products of an often overlooked emotion called “embitterment” — a feeling produced by victimization coupled with the desire to fight back.
Because the person feels helpless, however, it leads to fantasies of revenge or aggression. Psychologists think that these accompanying revenge fantasies actually serve as buffers against the negative feelings associated with victimization, which is why people love revenge movies. We don’t have to actually do anything vengeful; it’s the feeling of justice that counts.
We’ve all had these fantasies, albeit on a smaller scale — one would hope — than a blockbuster action thriller.
You imagine getting back at the idiot who cuts you off on the road, for example.
You might envision an elaborate plan of retribution on a boss who unjustly reprimanded or fired you.
You may harbor plans of revenge over the actions of an ex-spouse.
Maybe you’re just thinking of tapping out a snarky retort to that person who heckled you on social media.
Point is, we tend to run to revenge fantasies whenever we sense an injustice has been done.
We are pretty familiar with the classic Christian view of revenge, something about turning the other cheek.
But what about the classic Jewish view regarding revenge?
The simple answer is we are all for it. Think about Exodus and the law, an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth?
But not so fast.
Revenge is all about making ourselves feel better and superior to the one who hurts us. The law of an eye for an eye, taken metaphorically as we usually do in Judaism, is not about that at all. It’s about justice but not about revenge.
And ultimately, judgment is God’s prerogative.
It’s not that God is soft on evil. God I would like to believe will ultimately avenge the evil in this world. But unlike the swift vengeance laid out in a two-hour movie or in our own revenge fantasies, our Torah tells us that God is a slow avenger — “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as attested in multiple biblical texts (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13; Nahum 1:3, among others). God’s slowness is not weakness, but a sign of perfect love. God withholds wrath so that all people will repent and return. If God gives us that chance, God will give it to our enemies as well, because, well, from their perspective, we are the enemy!
So, revenge is never only up to us.
Bottom line: We are not to dish out to offenders what they deserve.
We don’t deal with evil by indulging in revenge fantasies, but by living the vision of God’s compassion and hope for justice and peace.
Think about the brothers we have been reading about these days in the Torah: Esau and Jacob. The revenge fantasies are flying. There are certainly reasons for enmity. Esau wants to kill Jacob. Jacob wants to defend himself. But when they finally meet, they embrace. And they try to outdo each other with kindness.
Something sacred was at work.
Also something practical.
For let’s face it: revenge is like eating candy when you are starving. It feels good in the moment but it is not sustaining.
It might even be toxic.
Lex talionus, or the “Law of Talion,” is one of the most ancient and widespread of laws. Not only is it found in the Torah, but in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. The problem with talion law is best expressed by the hero of Fiddler on the Roof …
MAN: We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
TEVYE: Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.
Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are frequently quoted making the same point.
In the first The Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo laments it was a pity that his uncle Bilbo did not kill Gollum, a miserable, murderous thief, when he had the chance.
Gandalf replies, “It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand … Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” The citation is from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, an American classic novel on the futility of revenge. To retaliate against the White Whale for taking his limb, Captain Ahab purposely “re-provokes” him, this time losing nothing less than his whole life, not to mention his entire crew.
On the theme that God doesn’t take sides, the greatest theologian might be Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, reflecting on the war between the Union and the Confederacy:
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes … Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
What is the upshot? Enjoy the revenge movie genre if you like but don’t carry that over to your own life. For if you are tempted, remember the teaching of Confucius:
If you devote your life to seeking revenge, dig two graves.
Yesterday I met a Palestinian man, Walid Issa. When he was sixteen he saw Israeli soldiers kill people he loved. He wanted to get an Ak47 and seek revenge. Instead his father intervened and sent him to a school to learn how to negotiate with anyone, including your enemy. His roommate would become an Israeli who had also suffered loss at the hands of an enemy, a Palestinian terrorist. Instead of killing each other they set up an international network for Palestinian and Israeli mid-level politicians to seek new ways of finding peace.
What could have easily been more blood has become a new hope.
In this time of darkness I hope we can find inspiration in the substitution of peace for war, understanding for revenge, and faith that in the end God wants for us a world of justic and forgiveness, or hope and of peace.