Revenge (‘keeping faith with the dead’) or Reconciliation (keeping Easter faith)?

In light of events dominating the news, there’s an interesting reflection by Michael Ignatieff in a book written in response to the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. In The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Ignatieff argues that the virtue which underlies and motivates revenge is simply the matter of ‘keeping faith with the dead’. This is something known to us all, whether givers or objects of terror. He writes:

‘The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect’. – Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), 188.

The Church, of course, is the child of the narrative at the heart of which is reconciliation, a narrative which is ‘difficult’, to be sure, but whose Author makes it possible to ‘from now on … regard no one from a worldly point of view’ (2 Cor 5.16), to live hopefully by the word that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Cor 5.19), and to rejoice in the vocation of being ‘Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’ (2 Cor 5.20). Such is a narrative is difficult to live by because, as Ignatieff notes, it exists in relentless competition with ‘the powerful alternative morality of violence’.

Jürgen Moltmann, in The Power of the Powerless, bears witness to this ‘difficult’ way, a way which lives not from that narrative that is passing away but from what Moltmann calls ‘the superabundance of God’s future’:

‘The Easter faith recognizes that the raising of the crucified Christ from the dead provides the great alternative to this world of death. This faith sees the raising of Christ as God’s protest against death, and against all the people who work for death; for the Easter faith recognizes God’s passion for the life of the person who is threatened by death and with death. And faith participates in this process of love by getting up out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices, here and now, in this life. Weary Christians have often enough deleted this critical and liberating power from Easter. Their faith has then degenerated into the confident belief in certain facts, and a poverty-stricken hope for the next world, as if death were nothing but a fate we meet with at the end of life. But death is an evil power now, in life’s very midst. It is the economic death of the person we allow to starve; the political death of the people who are oppressed; the social death of the handicapped; the noisy death that strikes through napalm bombs and torture; and the soundless death of the apathetic soul. The resurrection faith is not proved true by means of historical evidence, or only in the next world. It is proved here and now, through the courage for revolt, the protest against deadly powers, and the self-giving of men and women for the victory of life. It is impossible to talk convincingly about Christ’s resurrection without participating in the movement of the Spirit “who descends on all flesh” to quicken it. This movement of the Spirit is the divine “liberation movement,” for it is the process whereby the world is recreated. So resurrection means rebirth out of impotence and indolence to “the living hope.” And today “living hope” means a passion for life, and a lived protest against death … Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s rebellion. That rebellion is still going on in the Spirit of hope, and will be complete when, together with death, “every rule and every authority and power” is at last abolished (1 Cor. 15:24). The resurrection hope finds living expression in men and women when they protest against death and the slaves of death. But it lives from something different – from the superabundance of God’s future. Its freedom lives in resistance against all the outward and inward denials of life. But it does not live from this protest. It lives from joy in the coming victory of life. Protest and resistance are founded on this hope. Otherwise they degenerate into mere accusation and campaigns of revenge. But the greater hope has to take living form in this protest and resistance; otherwise it turns into religious seduction … Easter is a feast, and it is as the feast of freedom that it is celebrated. For with Easter begins the  laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy. From time immemorial Easter hymns have celebrated the victory of life by laughing at death, mocking at hell, and ridiculing the mighty ones who spread fear and terror around them. Easter is the feast of freedom. It makes the life which it touches a festal life. “The risen Christ makes life a perpetual feast,” said Athanasius. But can the whole of life really be a feast? Even life’s dark side – death , guilt, senseless suffering? I think it can. Once we realize that the giver of this feast is the outcast, suffering, crucified Son of Man from Nazareth, then every “no” is absorbed into this profound “yes,” and is swallowed up in its victory. Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against death, and the feast of freedom from death. Anyone who fails to hold these two things together has failed to understand the resurrection of the Christ who was crucified. Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist’. (pp. 123–26).

Robert Frost was right; we have a choice. That choice, in this case just as in others more domestic, is between Revenge (‘keeping faith with the dead’) and Reconciliation (keeping Easter faith):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.

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.