Revenge, justice and pleasure

While watching President Obama’s re-election speech this afternoon on the death on Osama bin Laden – and particularly while seeing the video footage of celebrating crowds – I was reminded of a few paragraphs from Don Carson’s Love in Hard Places:

‘Not that long ago on television we heard a soldier protest, “You must understand . . . it was our revenge!” The soldier was a Serb captured by the Kosovo Liberation Army. His words were broadcast in a television interview, nicely translated for the benefit of English-speaking peoples. He admitted that his unit had been involved in brutal acts of ethnic cleansing. Certainly he was frightened to be in the hands of his enemies, but he did not appear to be ashamed: “You must understand . . . it was our revenge!”

That is the trouble with revenge, of course: it does not feel like a sin. It feels like justice. Many of us have become inured to the distinction because we have watched so many movies or read so many books in which revenge, especially revenge that is adamantly pursued when the proper authorities either cannot or will not pursue justice, is itself just. It matters little if the hero is Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western or a Dirty Harry film, or Bruce Lee in a martial arts flick, or Rambo getting even in Vietnam. In every case, we enjoy a cathartic release because we are made to feel the violence is just and therefore that the revenge is justified. When the right is on your side, revenge, no matter how violent, is a pleasure. It is just‘.

– Don A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 72–3.


  1. The triumphalism of (some) of the American people at the news of the death of bin Laden was difficult for me to watch. I can understand the trauma involved in 9/11, and the profound grief experienced by a nation and by individual families. But a man has died, and his death should never be greeted by triumph. As I watched the 7.30 Report on ABC TV, the Defence Minister was asked about the reaction of the American people and he explained it away as “emotion” but I think it was a little more sinister than that. I’m sorry to say it.


  2. I hope his re-election speech works, because the alternatives are truly scary here, and he has been battered by his opponents on foreign policy and security. This gives him a credibility he has needed against crazy “birthers” and blatant racists. Is he perfect? No. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, and he is as good as we are going to get anytime soon in this troubled, fearful, and dangerous nation.

    The displays of American triumphalism and inordinate patriotism around Osama’s death trouble me greatly as well. I think my President’s decision not to display Osama’s body as a trophy (against all kinds of public opinion) encourages me.


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