Meditation on the question of vengeance: John de Gruchy

VENGEANCE IS MINE

Romans 12:9-21

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Dear Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the West, and everyone else in their premier league of world politics.  I, John of Volmoed, was lying in my bed early one morning and thinking about the terrible and tragic events that have recently occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and I decided to write this letter to you. Greetings!

I know you probably won’t receive this letter but if somehow it lands on your desk, please know that the saints at Volmoed daily pray for you as you exercise your awesome responsibility in times like these when everything seems to be falling apart.  We would not want to be in your shoes, and nobody would want us to be.  We also know that politics is about the art of the possible not the impossible dream, and that you have to weigh up many conflicting interests in making your decisions — those of the people who vote you into power, big business, the military and armaments industry, international relations and national pride, and your own values, hopes and ambitions.

We understand that when the enemy strikes and innocent people are slaughtered, then the response the people want, and the gut response of most political leaders and every nation under the sun since Cain took vengeance on Abel, is, to retaliate.  The more threatening your response, the less you will lose face amongst your peers and people.  Therefore  war must be declared and bombers launched to destroy the strongholds of the enemy.  This has invariably happened in history and most people support such action.  In this climate of fear and revenge, daily fed by the media, it is unlikely you will want to read the Bible or listen to the pope before you respond, though you might get religious support from those who are ready to give you their divine blessing.  But if by chance you do listen to the prophets and open the Bible you will find this passage written by Paul to Christians living in Rome, the heart of the Empire, the ancient equivalent of Washington DC.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Of course, these words were not addressed to political leaders responsible for taking care of the weighty affairs of government but to a small congregation of Christians  who were suffering persecution.  They could not really have taken vengeance on the Empire persecuting them; they were powerless.  By contrast you have the power to play God, and your oath of office does not include making a commitment to ,love your enemies. Who can possibly love ISIS, except those thousands of angry, alienated and vengeful Muslim young people and former Sunni soldiers of Saddam Hussein?

Even though not all of you would claim to be Christian, for political reasons at least it is convenient at such a time to evoke the historical myth of Western Christian Civilization.  Our leaders did that during the dark days of apartheid.  We were engaged, they told us, in a life and death struggle against godless Communism.  But in the end we discovered that we were not defending Christian civilization, we were defending our own interests and that the way we were doing so was anything but Christian.  In fact, Western civilization is not necessarily or normally Christian at all if by Christian we mean following the teaching of Jesus.  After all, the so-called Christian nations of Europe which are now united in a fragile alliance fighting terrorism  have often been at war with each other, killing and maiming millions for the sake of honour and revenge, or control of resources.  There was nothing Christian about the bombing of Coventry or the vengeance that then led to the destruction of the city of Dresden.  We at Volmoed are particularly aware of this because we are part of the Community of the Cross of Nails which grew out of these terrible bombings and the decision of the Dean of Coventry Cathedral to forgive and work for reconciliation.  Vengeance was not Christian; forgiveness and reconciliation was.  You see, to defend Christian civilization means defending Christian values, and acting accordingly. The issue is not about protecting your citizens, that is your duty, but the danger of fostering a culture of fear, hate and revenge in which humanity and dignity is eroded in a spiral of violent reprisal.  The only victors are those who manufacture weapons, which are increasingly used against all of us.

You cannot always govern according to “Christian principles, turning the other cheek when terrorists blow up taverns.  Hitler had to be stopped in his tracks as does ISIS.  But if vengeance is the driving motive in doing so, it will devour you as much as it devours your enemies, for vengeance begets retaliation.  The bombing of Baghdad begets terrorism in Boston, London and Paris.  So consider the consequences.  The more jihadists you bomb the more are born.  Today’s terrorists are the grandchildren of those who suffered from brutal wars in Algeria, Palestine, Iraq, and other countries that were once European colonies, even though these disillusioned and dangerous young men and women have grown up in Europe and now have European passports.   Why is it that after living in and being educated in Europe they have turned against Europe and the West?  What has gone wrong?  Has Western civilization failed in convincing them about the values which we all cherish?  Has the Christian West lost its soul in trying to gain the whole world?

The only long term solution to the crisis we face and defeat the ideology that is threatening to destroy civilization, is one driven by moral values that transcend selfish national interests.  The alternative, the path of vengeance, is war without end.  Is that the kind of world we and future generations really want to live in?  Maybe those who manufacture armaments don’t want wars to end, maybe terrorists don’t, and maybe those religious extremists who are wanting Armageddon to erupt don’t, but sane people do, and those who seriously follow Jesus do.

So our prayer for you is that you may be able to see beyond the immediate challenge and count the longer term cost and consequences of your actions.  Our prayer for you as you search for solutions is that you do not compromise your own moral integrity.  Our prayer is that you and we together may cherish those values which are fundamental to human flourishing even in these critical times of terror: justice, compassion, tolerance, hospitality, and a respect for human dignity among them.  If we lose these even in fighting a just cause, we will lose our souls just as empires and nations have lost their theirs the more they have expanded and conquered. That is why the words of St. Paul, even though written to a small band of powerless Christians in the belly of the Empire still speak to all of us today.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 26 November 2015

 

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by pooben naidoo on November 26, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks for this important message! Both Mandela and Gandhi were not driven by anger or hatred but forgiveness and reconciliation. However they were uncompromising in thier adherence to fight evil whether colonialism or apartheid which as you say were both driven by selfishness.
    Gandhi was even of the view that Hitler could be persuaded to change course to moral persuaion but history proved otherwise.
    True young people who experienced oppression may have some reason to be angry but it would seem that the main driver of this phenomena is the hateful and violent philosophy which attempts to impose a particular world view and is as you say no different from intolerance and disharmony been perpetrated in India,America and Brazil.
    Jesus could have destroyed the Roman legions but chose not too, walking the path of sacrifice in the name of love and forgiveness.
    But He also stated that the rejection of mercy and pardon painful as it is for the divine nature is a serious sin.
    Therefore we are faced with the challenge to confront this terrible terror both by Isis and those who want to perpetuate the colonial and apartheid mentality in different corners of the world.
    The time demands desicive power to negate this foreign abberation of man so that we can build a world based on moral and righteous principles of the diviine
    Thanks for this important meditation!

    Like

    Reply

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