[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 13 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Enemies Among Us.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Revenge is an alluring concept. When violence affects our lives in a personal way, we often long for an act of revenge. We’ve lost faith in our legal system; not believing that it can achieve a result that satisfies. It often feels like the Code of Hammurabi is the only just response to any violent act.
An eye for an eye. Right?
We’ve seen this moral relativism in operation throughout history, from The Oresteia by Aeschylus, to the Hatfields and McCoys—from the conflict between Israel and Palestine to Revenge on ABC. The idea of retribution through violence has been examined throughout literature, art, and film. Violence calls for violence. Blood calls for blood.Stories of extreme revenge, whether fictional or real, help us to see the cycles of vengeance in our own hearts.
This is not a new concept. The Law of Moses in the Old Testament called for life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. This is also where God laid out His redemptive covenant for sin. Only through sacrifice could sin be atoned. Starting first with Adam and Eve being physically covered by God’s sacrifice of animals, we immediately see that sin requires blood. Hebrews 9:22 says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Maybe that is why it is a natural urge of ours to seek revenge for sinful acts against us.
But the error of the human existence is believing our acts of violence correct previous sins. Only the one true and perfect act of violent grace alone can actually put an end to sin. Our way only causes more pain.
‘Shotgun Stories’ and Tales of Revenge
In his directorial debut, Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichols shows the effects of cycles of violence. The film opens with Son (Michael Shannon) sitting on a bed without his shirt. He turns and reveals the scars of a shotgun blast on his back. His brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs) sleeps in a tent in the backyard. The two of them work together at a fish farm. The third brother, Boy (Douglas Ligon), is a basketball coach living out of his van. The years of neglect are evident by the mere fact that their names are Son, Kid, and Boy. These are not loved children, but burden-causing objects. Son, Kid, and Boy also have half-brothers from their father’s new family; it’s a built-in rivalry with years of conflict between seemingly born enemies.
The three brothers, despite the neglect and rivalry, are actually quiet and reserved—holding back years of abuse and torment from their alcoholic father and “hateful woman” of a mother. Years of pain bubble beneath the surface when their mother comes to deliver the news of their father’s death. Son asks,
“When’s the funeral?”
“You can look in the paper.”
This scene tells us all we need to know about their family history. The boys have been hurt; their mother has been distant.
The three brothers go to the father’s funeral, but not to pay their respects. Son delivers a speech condemning his father’s life even though he “quit drinking and called himself a Christian.” What Son fails to fully grasp is the only end to violence, the only end to sin, is through grace and forgiveness. Son spits on the casket of his father, reigniting a feud between the two sets of half-brothers that ultimately ends in death. Each side retaliates after each act of revenge.
When left to our own devices, we choose sin and death. The vengeful acts between these brothers escalate, ending in a final standoff that finds Boy confronting his half-brothers, unarmed. Son is in the hospital as a result of a previous encounter with the half brothers and Kid is dead. Boy tells his enemies that he is done fighting. For the sake of his future family, he wants the violence to end. Boy realizes there will be no end if he allows the violence to continue. Somehow, he chooses to end the war and, in essence, to choose life.
In the same vein, we see the cycle of violence play out in Rian Johnson’s 2012 film Looper. Here time travel is possible, and as a result, the future mob sends back people they want killed and disposed of. Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “Looper,” a present-day hitman who murders and discards the bodies for the future mob. It’s a good living until the day the future mob sends back your future self for you to kill. This is called “closing your loop” and signifies your retirement as a Looper.
When Young Joe confronts his older self, sent back for Young Joe to kill, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) escapes in an attempt to change his future: He wants to stop “The Rainmaker,” a child in Young Joe’s time, who will grow up to kill Old Joe’s wife. Old Joe has seen the fury of the future, The Rainmaker who uses his telekinetic powers to reign terror. Old Joe is now on a mission to find and kill the child who eventually becomes The Rainmaker. He believes in an act of pre-revenge. That a violent act now will prevent more violent acts in the future.
In the final confrontation, Old Joe stands with his gun pointed at the child’s mother; he plans to kill her, then the boy. Young Joe, too far off in the distance, sees all this play out and realizes the cycle created by this violence. The boy would escape and survive, orphaned by Old Joe. The pain would grow to resentment and revenge, transforming him into The Rainmaker. Old Joe would be the cause of the violence, not the end to it; Old Joe would be starting the whole chain events over again. Young Joe realizes that he (Young/Old Joe) is the actual cause of this cycle; to end the cycle—to close the loop—Young Joe shoots himself.
In Looper, Young Joe follows in the footsteps of Christ to find absolution. Joe see himself as the sacrificial lamb, choosing to take one act of self-harm to end a cycle that results in death for everyone else involved.
Ancient Athenian Law and the Gift of a Pardon
Ancient Athenian law demonstrated an early shifting belief that violence was not the only answer. One interesting caveat to Athenian murder trials was that the family of the deceased held the power of a pardon. This was inscribed as law under the Draconian Constitution issued around 622 B.C. Draco’s inscribed law code was the first written constitution of Athens. One of the remaining remnants of that constitution is its homicide law. This law proscribed, in part, “Pardon is to be granted, if there is a father or brother or sons, by all, or the one who opposes it shall prevail. And if these do not exist, pardon is to be granted by those as far as the degree of cousin’s son and cousin, if all are willing to grant it; the one who opposes it shall prevail.”
The family could pardon the murder of all charges before trial if they saw fit. If no immediate family was around to issue the pardon, the cousins of the victim could issue the pardon if all were in agreement. One could argue that this was just so the families could receive payment or some benefit if the murderer was wealthy. Perhaps this was the case. But it is quite possible the Athenians saw the power of the pardon in a different light. Maybe they viewed forgiveness as the only real way to find closure and end the cycle of violence. Through forgiveness, the parties truly come to an end result; the cycle will not continue. Violence and punishment solve nothing, change can come, and healing as well.
The pardon took the power out of the court and placed it into the hands of the victimized. They were empowered to decide the fate and resolve the conflict. The gift of mercy, an empowering act, offered the victimized new life. Athenians demonstrated mercy through the option of the pardon. Both parties found some relief. The aggrieved family discovered forgiveness and the ability to move on from the tragedy, while the defendant was able to continue with his life, possibly with a newly changed mindset.
We see in Shotgun Stories an attempt to find pardon. When Boy confronts his half-brothers in an effort to end the cycle, he tells them he’s done fighting. He doesn’t offer forgiveness, but the implication is that he wants to preserve what’s left of his life for himself and for his future family. In Looper, Young Joe hopes to end the cycle of future violence before it begins by killing himself, thereby saving the boy’s life to redeem his future.
A pardon can offer an end to the cycle. Many stories point to this hope because this is what we want for ourselves: We want the pardon; we want the forgiveness. These two stories point to a greater reality we long for when we look to the hollow reality of revenge.
The Cross and Retribution
There is an end to violence for us—and not just in stories, but also in a real sense, in everyday life. The cycle of blood for blood, life for life (aka sin) comes to a halt in Jesus. While sin does call for the shedding of blood, Christ has made the ultimate sacrifice to cover all sins past, present, and future. His death on the cross, and subsequent resurrection from the grave, was the sacrifice for all sins. He was the perfect lamb, fulfilled the law, and died the death that was required. We know life in a world where forgiveness, grace, and mercy are all possible. The blood of Christ has already covered every violent act that takes place and every sin that is borne against us.
The cross is the final retributive act of violence. The cycle ends at the foot of the cross.
When we dig a little deeper into the motivation behind our desire to carry out retributive justice against those who have wronged us, we find that pride is at the center. We believe that we know how justice is to be served and what would make things fair. But God often operates on a different playing field.
Saul of Tarsus (better known as Paul) lived a life that should have drawn the ire of God. As a leader in the persecution of the early church, Saul approved the stoning of Stephen and breathed “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Saul deserved to be beaten. Saul deserved death.
But God’s plans were different. God used one of the foremost haters of Christianity and turned him into one of the fathers of the early church. Saul became Paul, who then became one of the largest contributors to the Bible.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “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.” This is a radical shift from what God ordained in the Law of Moses. But Christ knew that He was on Earth to fulfill the law. No longer does “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” hold weight. We have been given the power of the pardon, the power of grace and forgiveness.
The stories of Old Joe and Boy, as well the historical account of Saul, show the destructive nature of our enemy-mentality. God’s Law clamors within us to lash out, take matters into our own hands, set things straight. But we aren’t capable of achieving such justice on our own. Effective justice also requires grace. Young Joe saw the need for a sacrificial act to stop the violence. Boy saw it too. And Saul saw the mercy of God in the sacrificial act of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Stories of extreme revenge, whether fictional or real, help us to see the cycles of vengeance in our own hearts. Like Young Joe, Boy, and Saul, we need our eyes opened to the destruction we perpetrate with our skewed sense of justice. Only then can we look outside our own vengeful tactics and find true resolution at the foot of the cross.
- Deuteronomy 19:21, NIV
- Ronald S. Stroud, Drakon’s Law on Homicide, (1968).
- Draco (lawgiver) available at http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Draco_(lawgiver).html (last visited Dec. 17, 2013).
- Ronald S. Stroud, Drakon’s Law on Homicide, (1968).
- Acts 8:1
- Acts 9:1