Revenge vs. Justice

I think it is a common, shared, human experience that we understand that there is something wrong with the world and therefore we all have a sense of wanting justice to be done. We recognize the need for this on the practical level because we have things like police departments and court systems etc. However, there is another aspect which I think needs to be addressed also, and that is the concept of revenge.

It seems to me that there has been a great blurring of the lines when it comes to the idea of revenge and movies are probably largely responsible. There’s a lot to be said about ethics when it comes to movies and how they effect our lives and what is moral and what isn’t but I’m going to try to avoid a lot of those topics simply because I don’t think a blog is the best place for a 300 page book.

In order to best explain my point I’ll reference the specific movie Lucky Number Sleven, but it is a story/concept that is all over Hollywood movies of varying genres. The basic idea is this, due to a doped up race horse, this guy ends up betting more money on it than he can pay and eventually gets himself and his family killed because he owed money to the wrong people and couldn’t pay up. Turns out (spoiler alert) the kid never actually gets killed and he grows up and ends up killing the people responsible in the same way that they killed his dad.

There’s all sorts of discussion about what is moral or not moral about this and if what he did was wrong or right etc. but that discussion actually never really gets started because we naturally feel a sense of being ok with what he did, why? Because they got what they deserve. Why did they deserve that? Well, they deserved it because they had done the same thing to someone else. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and all that. However, the important thing to mention is that while we have this inner desire for justice to be done, we often settle for revenge. In the case of the movie example, Sleven is taking revenge for what happened to his family and we tend to assume that since they “got what they deserve” that therefore it is ok, and justice has been served. After all, another concept we seem to really enjoy is that of vigilantism, someone who takes the law into their own hands.

However, these two concepts are not the same, even though I think society has blurred the lines so much that some people may not be able to tell you the difference. Put simply, justice deals with a foundation that is (supposed to be) based on ethics and morals and doing what is right whereas revenge has no concern for the means or rules or foundations so long as something equally wrong (usually synonymous with painful) is done in reaction.

Revenge, therefore, is actually a very utilitarian concept in the sense that we think pain should be received on those who inflict it, and there should be a quantifiable system where this can be done. Basically, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” concept played out exactly. However, when it comes to putting this into practice, there is never a systematic way to do it. There are some movies which actually point out this idea, but basically the point is that when it comes time to actually dole out the exact amount of pain to someone that has been caused, it usually isn’t done. How can it be? After all, if someone kills a family member, would killing them be the same pain? Surely not, as you yourself didn’t experience the physical pain, but rather, the emotional and psychological pain. More so even then that, what if you did do the exact same thing to the other person? That is, what if you killed a family member of the person who killed a family member of yours? There is still a problem, because now there is likely guilt on top of all the pain you felt before, there are all sorts of side issues that could spring up because of it, and to top it all off, your pain doesn’t disappear and the act doesn’t bring your family member back.

In these ways, revenge cannot cash the checks that it writes. Revenge is simply a shadow of what we actually long for in justice. Revenge may be based on a supposed sense of fairness, or more noble still (and sometimes justice uses this concept too, unfortunately) a sense of rights. Unfortunately, to talk about rights, that is, what someone may or may not have a right to do, says nothing about what is right or wrong. A system based on rights is flawed from the start. It is on this backdrop that Jesus said these things: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said,’You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:38-48

There is a lot in that passage, but it is also clear what He is calling His followers to do. He is not calling them to seek revenge, but rather, to seek God because He alone is able to perform perfect justice. God’s is not a system based on rights, but rather on what is actually right and wrong. He is only one who can make such a system, and perfect justice is accomplished on the cross and in hell, and with those two we cannot compete.

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