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The temptation of vengeance in movies

Writer and director Scott Derrickson recently posted on Twitter: “I believe that in future history the revenge ethic will be seen as the great cinematic signature of American mental [and] spiritual sickness.”

The revenge theme is popular in American films, from classics like True Grit, Pale Rider and Death Wish to Unforgiven, Kill Bill and, most recently, The Revenant.

In Saint Paul at the Movies, Robert Jewett calls revenge “one of the most pervasive tales in American culture.”

I must admit, a few of the above films are among my favorites, but Derrickson’s post challenges us to consider not only their underlying ethics but also what they reveal about our culture.

The desire for vengeance is ancient. In one of the core biblical passages about vengeance, Paul — who, Jewett points out, lived in a culture where it wasn’t uncommon for some Jews to take the law into their own hands to avenge injustices by authorities — tells Roman believers to leave vengeance to God, “for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).

However, notes Jewett, Paul doesn’t deny the principle of vengeance itself. He knows that “in this imperfect and violent world, human beings yearn for some kind of justice. When people have suffered at the hands of thieves and murderers, they usually hope that such evil will someday be overcome. To believe that the universe is as unfair as everyday experience is too demoralizing to tolerate.”

Today, that yearning is deeply present in our own culture as we wrestle with everything from broken justice systems to horrific terrorist attacks. We, too, hunger for justice.

Which explains why we might experience, as Christianity Today film critic Brett McCrackenputs it, a “conflicting catharsis” at the end of these films: “cathartic because an evil villain is dispatched in a fittingly violent manner, but conflicting because we aren’t quite sure we should feel so good about it.”

While these films resonate with our frustration with injustice, we must think through the implications of these stories.

In many of them, governing and justice systems are absent, utterly ineffectual or corrupt, so victims take the law into their own hands.

Our own justice system is flawed and broken—and always will be. “Little ‘j’ justice is a good thing but will always be an imperfect thing,” observes McCracken. “It will always be a justice that makes us long for the big ‘J’ Justice of the ultimate Judge … that inaugurates a perfect kingdom and a shalom that lasts.”

In our vigilance in confronting injustice and flawed systems, we must be wary of glorifying heroes of vigilante justice, says Jewett, because we run the risk that “respect for law disintegrates, and the yearning for violent resolution of the quick-and-easy sort gains highly dangerous, public forums” in our own culture.

Paul gives believers another way to respond to the need for vengeance: overcome evil with good and love (Rom. 12:9-21) — and how that sits with us might be an indication of our own spiritual well-being.

As Jewett puts it, “Are humans really capable of such actions if they are not entirely certain of the final judgment of God, the final triumph of righteousness? How can persecuted people counter despair without such hope? How can they gain the power to respond creatively with burning coals except by trusting finally in the power of God either to transform or to punish the wicked?”

God demands that we stand and act against evil. The idea of taking vengeance is seductive, but it will not bring the true justice or peace we yearn for. If we want to work with God to bring kingdom shalom, we must choose another way.

This is a slightly longer version of a column posted at MWR.