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Vengeance is (Not) Mine

We have a tendency to want to create a God in our own image who we can then emulate.

These were the words of Perry Yoder, professor emeritus of the newly renamed Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN, at a theological studies conference put on by Mennonite Church Alberta that I have been attending in Calgary over the past few days.  We have been talking a lot about how we read the Bible—about the presuppositions that inform our interpretations, about how our various traditions dispose us toward certain possibilities, about what to do about seemingly irreconcilable texts, and myriad other issues around reading and understanding Scripture.  Including, as the quote alludes to, the constant temptation to read Scripture with an eye toward the God we expect (or would prefer) to find. 

For Mennonites, it can be particularly tempting to find a God characterized mainly (if not exclusively) by love, peace and nonviolence.  We are convinced that our task is to imitate Christ, that the way of Christ is the way of loving enemies, resisting force, and promoting peace and reconciliation.  Not surprisingly, we have few problems locating and zeroing in on passages in Scripture that reinforce these themes and the prominence we give them in our worldview.

Except, as nearly everyone is well aware, there are other passages in the Bible as well.  Passages that, far from reinforcing the themes above, seem to actively contradict them.  Difficult passages.  Uncomfortable passages.  Distasteful, embarrassing passages.  Passages we would probably expunge from our Bibles if given the choice.  What do we do with these?  Ignore them?  Pretend they don’t exist?  Consign them to the “less important/relevant parts of the Bible” file in our brains?

One verse we read today was Romans 12:9 where Paul, quoting Deuteronomy, exhorts his readers to not repay evil for evil.  So far so good, for a peace-loving Mennonite.  But then, the justification for this instruction: leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “it is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  Hmm.  Not such an obvious fit for Mennonite theology.  We are to avoid paying evil back because that is God’s job?  But I thought we were supposed to imitate Jesus in his love for enemies and refusal to resort to violence.  How can we embrace peace and nonviolence as an expression of God’s character if another expression of God’s character is vengeance?

Needless to say, a lively conversation ensued.  We didn’t really solve anything (surprise, surprise!), but I think we at least highlighted something that makes us uncomfortable and which we probably ought to continue to explore and wrestle with.  We at least highlighted an area where we are, perhaps, tempted to create a God in our image—in this case, a God who embodies and expresses peace in exactly the way we do (or would like to)—who we can, in turn, emulate.

I continue to process much of what I am reading and hearing these days through the lens of my recent experience in Colombia.  As I think about some of the injustices and inequalities that we saw and heard about there—about kids who are abused and neglected, about ordinary people whose hope is snuffed out by the decisions of the powerful few, about the daily hardships that many must suffer through no choice of their own, about the violence that haunts the steps of so many people in Colombia (and around the world), etc—all of a sudden a God who avenges, who makes right, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.  It seems downright hopeful and necessary, in fact.

Another text we spent a lot of time with today was 1 Peter 2:21-24 which talks about the cruciform nature of the Christian life—about how the life of the Christian is the life of patterning ourselves after the one who refused to retaliate, who committed no sin, and in whose mouth no deceit was found.  It can seem an impossibly hopeless task.  And it would be, perhaps, if it wasn’t for the second half of verse 23 which says this of Jesus: “Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

It seems to me that this is the only sure foundation for those who seek to walk in the path of peace but at the same time to acknowledge difficult passages and difficult realities.  Like Jesus, we entrust ourselves to the one whose judgment, unlike ours, is unclouded by self-interest, self-justification, and the various other limitations that plague our interpretation of our Bibles and our world.  We entrust ourselves to the only one who judges justly.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Yoder summed it up succinctly. That is a very common thing.

    If we read the Bible closely to see what God or Jesus is like in scripture, without all the preconceptions we take to the text, many of us would not find that God or Jesus plausible or moral. That is what Schweitzer found – implausibility and immorality by modern standards. No one sane imitates that Jesus.

    I do enjoy reading the Bible that way, as Schweitzer did, and letting it confront my own ways of seeing life. I don’t feel compelled to imitate Jesus, nor do I want to. In my case, that causes no conflict because such imitation is not part of the traditions in my past, nor is it part of my ecological way now. Religion is so flexible, it seems.

    Maybe Yoder is wrong to frame things that way. Whether one reads the Bible through the lens of a tradition, or through the lens of a scholar seeking understanding of the past, it is a powerful work. If God did speak through the prophets, and still speaks through the ancient myth, then that word will penetrate the reader’s heart as it will. We just can’t count on uniformity of the message received.

    May 11, 2012
    • If we read the Bible closely to see what God or Jesus is like in scripture, without all the preconceptions we take to the text, many of us would not find that God or Jesus plausible or moral.

      Yes, many have certainly come to this conclusion. In my experience, those who do so often find it very easy to identify how the preconceptions of others affect their reading of Scripture and the God they find there, but not so easy to to identify their own. We are often very good at seeing how others create a God in their own image to emulate, but it’s much harder to see how we do the same.

      May 13, 2012
    • Ken #

      I remember that you had this experience at the university.

      It is true that I sympathize with many contemporary views of religion found at universities. In the best cases, scholars try to be aware of their own preconceptions and challenge them. On the other hand, many scholars do not achieve much in this way, and, generally, supernatural beliefs are not found or given credence in universities.

      What I see in universities is increasing skepticism towards the modernistic fallacies about the past – such as the fallacy of believing that ancient people were less intelligent and rational and more superstitious than we are.

      I think that when a person notices that others have created a God in their own image, that person is more likely to eventually recognize that tendency in themselves. What I meant to suggest above is that maybe it is okay that we do this. Maybe that starting point, our own Jesus, is unavoidable. Perhaps that reference point is useful, even indispensable, in theology and life.

      Recently a friend was reading a passage in Isaiah (26:19) that referred to the dead coming back to life. He took that be a prophecy about dead people coming back to life. We don’t know for sure how this was taken in Isaiah’s day. It may have been read purely as a metaphor for the restoration of the nation, or maybe some took it that way and others believed that it did refer to the dead coming back to life as part of that restoration. I lean towards the former belief. I don’t think I lean that way because of skepticism about dead people coming back to life. It is like the case of Balaam’s talking donkey. We cannot be sure of how the ancient world understood that. It seems likely that there was as much skepticism then about talking donkeys as there is now. I remember discussing this genre question with Noel Freedman. He said he thought the people in ancient days probably thought something extraordinary of divine origin had happened to Balaam, even if they did not believe the donkey ever uttered a word. But in the end, the genre question is unanswerable. Similarly, we are confronted in theology with the question of whether or not God really spoke through the prophets and still speaks through the words of scripture. And if we say God did, then the open question is what did and do the words mean.

      Meanwhile, I do talk to animals and birds and keep hoping they will speak to me. Sometimes I am convinced that we communicate silently with our eyes.

      May 13, 2012
      • I think that when a person notices that others have created a God in their own image, that person is more likely to eventually recognize that tendency in themselves. What I meant to suggest above is that maybe it is okay that we do this. Maybe that starting point, our own Jesus, is unavoidable. Perhaps that reference point is useful, even indispensable, in theology and life.

        Yes, I think you’re right about this, Ken. Your Isaiah illustration makes the point well. We cannot escape ourselves and our “locatedness,” whether culturally, historically, epistemologically, or anything else. Nobody access Jesus apart from the limitations of their own context.

        Let me know what you hear from the animals and the birds. This morning I read Psalm 19 which speaks of the heavens proclaiming the glory of God—how the voice of praise is “heard” even when there is no speech or sound. I fear people like me too often close our eyes and ears to the many and varied modes in which the glory of God is proclaimed.

        May 14, 2012
  2. Larry S #

    Ryan,

    Entrusting ourselves to Jesus who will judge justly may “work” if we grit our teeth when someone cuts us off in traffic, if we decide not to counter sue someone, or we decide not to punch back. In other words, this may “work” at an individual level but what about dealing with the kinds of things you saw in S. America? And I write thinking about a very specific individual I am dealing with right now who is victimizing through verbal/physical intimidation a very vulnerable sector of our society (seniors). My blood runs hot as I work within the system using the tools I have but wanting this guy to STOP.

    Stackhouse in his ‘Making the Best of It’ pokes at Anabaptistism (he calls it pacifism) saying that due to our interpretive grid, we relegate ourselves to the sidelines where we can have our purity of heart and hands (p.290). We may be a useful example in the discussion for the broader Church and society but we are not among those who “show up.” (p. 290).

    NT Wright has helped me wait, somewhat patiently, for God to finally judge. Stackhouse has helped me grapple with what it means to make the best of it in our broken and vicious world where victims tremble and scream. And I still hold on to my Anabaptist card although it is a bit frayed at tattered around the edges.

    May 13, 2012
    • Yeah, I struggle with similar questions Larry. It’s tough—do we say that the New Testament witness about refusing to repay evil for evil is only for situations where it is likely to “work” or where it is in some way a realistic response, or where the human cost of our decisions will be relatively low, but that for the really horrible evils of our world, we should resort to the same methods as everyone else—eye for eye, etc? That sure doesn’t sound right to me… But you’re right—how does Romans 12:19 address some of the really awful realities of our world, whether in Colombia or in corrections or anywhere else? About the only answer I can come up with is that there are no easy answers… Sometimes my Anabaptist card seems pretty frayed too… :).

      I remember reading that passage in Stackhouse—I was even a bit critical of it in a review for Direction journal (it’s in the “Publications” tab above, if you’re interested). I appreciated Stackhouse’s book very much, but at times I wonder if “making the best of it” is a bit too realistic as an approach to Christian ethics. It seems to me that an inescapable element of what it means to follow Jesus in a broken world is to live “proleptically”—to live right now according to what we think will one day be. I can’t escape some of Jesus’ really hard words about how we are to deal with evil. I don’t think there was any less evil in Jesus’ day than ours. I don’t think the pattern of Jesus has ever been a “realistic” way of living in the world.

      Of course, none of this is news to you. I know you’ve been wrestling with stuff like this for longer than me, and that you have personally been witness to evils that I remain mostly comfortably detached from. Perhaps there is some wiggle room in how we understand the term “vengeance?” I did a quick scan of the Greek word used and at least one interpretation of it seems to connote a final reckoning or justifying or vindicating or somehow “making right” that is not ours to dispense. Perhaps there is room for creative and determined nonviolent resistance of evil in the in-between times in which we live without resorting to the kind of vengeance Paul has in mind here. But even if that were the case, countless other difficult passages (many from Jesus himself!) would remain… SIgh.

      May 14, 2012
  3. Ken #

    Reading Larry’s and your discussion above, along with with your review of the Stackhouse book helps me to better understand the distinctiveness of the Anabaptist way. (Your fine review also makes me want to read the Stackhouse book. It revealed enough of the book to gain my curiosity, and not enough to satisfy it.)

    I think all Christians must deal with a paradox. We know that nonviolence often falls short of its ideals and yet we are not able to justify violence, even in the name of justice. We cannot find a place of comfort, not the middle and not at either end.

    While there may be violence in the Bible, even holy violence, even involving Jesus in visions of the end, the Bible as a whole leads us away from violence towards mercy. At the same time, it raises up within us the will and the strength to say no to oppression and to risk our own lives for others. And sometimes it stirs us even to violence, which seems unavoidable in such circumstances, but nevertheless leaves us feeling incomplete and unsettled.

    May 14, 2012
    • Yes, paradox is inescapable for a follower of Jesus. We are constantly pulled in two directions—pulled forward by God’s future and the call to be a signpost in the present to what we believe this future will look like, and called backward to confront the ugly realities of the present where the best course of action is often far from clear. There is, as you say, no place of comfort, even if we are guided by the conviction (as I am) that the biblical trajectory as a whole is always toward mercy and away from violence.

      May 15, 2012
  4. Larry #

    using an appropriate level of violence to restrian/stop evil (i.e. policing when it is done well) isn’t vengence in the sense that Ryan’s blog entry uses vengence. emotions are involved – anger, anxiety etc. but in most cases not personal vengence.

    so my comments are likely coming at things from a different slant.

    Anabaptism seems to leave the dirty work to other people. Thus Stackhouse’s critique rings true to me.

    [I’m restricting my thinking here to civil policing – where in my view, issues are less murky than international politics (the war issue).

    May 15, 2012
    • I remember sitting across the table from my wife’s German grandfather as a fresh-faced twenty year old while he ripped into those who refused to go to war in WW2—a war in which he had fought. I had made the mistake of mentioning something about the peace stance of Mennonites (which I, of course, knew virtually nothing about as a twenty year-old!) and that launched him into a very angry accusation of precisely what you say here: “they leave their dirty work to others, but are happy to enjoy the benefits that come from the sacrifice of others!!” I didn’t have a clue how to respond (other than to, with my wife, resolve to never, EVER bring that up with grandpa again!!). I’m not sure I have much more to offer 15 years later.

      I guess I would start by exploring the term “dirty” work. Does “dirty” = “violent?” Or “unpleasant?” “Inconvenient?” “Costly?” “Sacrificial?” As I read Jesus’ words and behaviour in the New Testament, my sense is that the path of nonviolence could certainly be construed as both a display of strength (choosing not to agree to the terms of the “game”) and as extraordinarily costly, sacrificial, inconvenient, unpleasant, etc. I guess I’m just probing the assumption that violence is the only form of “dirty” work. I’m speaking mostly at a theoretical level as opposed to an experiential one, but I think that there are stories and examples in our world about people getting right into the “dirty” areas of the world while refusing to engage in violence. We need to hear more of these stories.

      May 15, 2012
  5. James #

    Interesting discussion, as usual. Just a thought- I don’t think that obedience to Jesus’ commands should normally be seen as means to an end [ie a better world]. The ends that we want may well have merit- but the hermeneutic that the Anabaptists claimed to revive from the NT Scriptures lead to the conclusion that obeying Jesus is an end in itself. We obey Jesus simply because He has the right to give us commands- i.e.- turn the other cheek and love your enemies. Obedience will not necessarily end well for us or those around us- except in an ultimate context. My critique of Stackhouse is that he capitulates to pragmatism more than the Scriptures warrant.

    May 15, 2012
    • It’s a good reminder—obedience to Jesus certainly doesn’t guarantee good endings here and now. Having said, that, I’ve always been a little resistant to “because I told you so” as a rationale for anything (even if I pull it out with alarming regularity with my own kids!) :).

      One of my (many) assumptions about the nature of reality is that Jesus has good reasons for giving the commands that he does and these reasons are for our own good and for the good of the world. I tend to assume that if Jesus asks us to live a certain way, that this way has value both temporally and eternally. To put it a bit differently, one of my theological convictions is that telling and showing his followers how to live in a broken world was one of the ways in which Jesus was answering his own prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Not the only way, or even the most obviously “effective” way, but an important way, nonetheless—and a way that will, as you say, ultimately be vindicated in the age to come.

      May 16, 2012
  6. Larry #

    James, Ryan and I may be redoing previous on-line conversations either on here or on the MB Forum. Regardless, I find thinking about these issues useful. I am not dealing with these issues as a theoretical but a practical level (again dealing with civil policing not Christians engaging in their country’s wars).

    I’ll try to unpack how I am the term “dirty work” (sorry for the metaphor) I was using in two ways. One: those persons in policing who put their lives in harm’s way, who use violence (even lethal force) to restrain an evil doer. Two: those who enter into what at times seems like a morally grey world, where at times deception is used , where exposure to evil hardens, where the world and people are viewed far differently than ever before. So there is a kind of direct and indirect engagement with ‘dirty work.’ In this I include myself. So yes, similar to Ryan’s Grandfather’s use of the phrase.

    I don’t think or assume that “dirty work” is the only work that is sacrificial, inconvenient or unpleasant. However, Stackhouse rings true when he writes that those who do not directly engage evildoers by using violence when necessary retain their pure hands and hearts. So James’ paragraph would relegate keep us from this form of ‘dirty work’ where with holy hands and pure hearts we sit on the sidelines. Does doing so, give one a sense of moral superiority?

    My heart goes out to the gang squad members I meet with almost every week who become far more hardened and jaded than I am.

    May 15, 2012
    • Thanks for elaborating, Larry. Of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his actions in response to the Third Reich come to mind as I read your comment here—especially the bit about entering into a morally grey world where deception is sometimes necessary and where exposure to evil requires a more “direct” engagement with dirty work. As you know, Stackhouse spends a lot of time on Bonhoeffer in the book. I had the pleasure of taking a seminar on Bonhoeffer from Stackhouse as well—it certainly reinforced the extremely difficult nature of the questions we are reflecting on here. The course may not have offered too many concrete answers about Christian ethics in a grey world, but it certainly made me more reticent to judge those who respond to the grey differently. Human beings have had and continue to have truly awful choices to make throughout history—choices in which their convictions are often left in tatters. The only proper response for those of us who have not faced anything nearly as difficult, it seems to me, is to hold our tongues, extend mercy, and entrust them to the God who deals justly with all of his children.

      Re: “dirty work,” I would push back a bit on Stackhouse’s assumption that to refuse to engage in violence is a way maintaing pure hearts and hands. The assumption seems to be that those who adopt this position are standing on the sidelines exulting in their piety while leeching off those who are doing the real work of resisting evil through violence. I simply don’t think this is a fair reflection of how some (not all) people have practiced nonviolence throughout history or in the present.

      I think of the work that organizations like Christian Peacemaker Teams do around the world… Or MCC… Or even some of the folks we met in Colombia who are in some pretty dirty areas of the world acting with courage and conviction to point toward a different way. One MB pastor we met in Colombia talked about how he was summoned to a meeting with some guerilla groups in the area who were upset with him and his church for refusing to pay “protection fees” for the rice plant they had opened up in the region to give people growing options besides coca leaves (for cocaine). The pastor looked these people (all armed with automatic weapons) straight in the eye and said he refused to pay them anything because he followed Jesus and he wasn’t going to lend any support to violence in the region. Eventually, these guerilla leaders backed down and allowed him to keep the rice plant without paying them off. It was an incredible story to hear. I certainly didn’t get any sense that this guy considered himself “morally superior” to those he was engaged with, nor could it be claimed that he was standing on the sidelines nursing his piety. He was right in there, resisting evil, only through different means.

      Anyway, enough rambling. I realize one story does not constitute a Christian ethic, and that there are other situations that have not ended well, etc, etc. I simply offer it as food for thought…

      May 16, 2012
      • Larry S #

        Ryan, I have a similar story (like the pastor/guerilla) of my friend who runs a recovery society standing in front of a group of HA’s. Similafr outcome to your story and my friend was willing to risk following Jesus in this way.

        I hope this communicates the point I’ve been trying to make: in our society we need police willing/able to stop persons involved in violence by using force. from what I’ve observed there seems to be an emotional, spiritual and moral cost associated with directly engaging in those activities. our tribe does not have to pay that bill.

        May 16, 2012
      • But perhaps our tribe has to pay another bill? A bill that, while not costly in the same way, also has significant emotional, spiritual, and moral costs attached to it?

        I am sympathetic to Stackhouse’s view. Really, I am. I think that Anabaptists have, at times, placed too much emphasis on the age to come at the expense of coming to a coherent and compelling vision for the present. Perhaps the Reformed tradition has done a better job historically, here, than we have. But, as James alludes to below, I also think that Anabaptists, at their best, in word and deed, bear witness and direct our attention to the horizon that pulls all of us forward into God’s new world.

        May 16, 2012
  7. James #

    This is a conversation that will sound repetitive, given its complexity and so my push back might seem like a broken record [now that’s a metaphor for another time 🙂 ]. I think language that suggests that those who see obedience as the driving paradigm, as not paying “the bills” misses the point. The cost and rewards of obedience will at any point seem disproportionate. In the Scriptural reading that the Anabaptists used, the balance ultimately takes place at the end of the age. My critique of the Reformed world view that Stackhouse represents is that it locates its balance too heavily on the earth as we know it.
    That said, the earth is where we live and we cannot ignore it- but we do so with the paradigm of “in the world but not of it.”
    It is also important to note that any world view will have those who misuse it for their own ends. My father was in the CO camps during WW2 and his perspective of many of his fellow COs was that they were indeed there to escape their civil responsibilities. Likewise I am sure many from the Reformed tradition use the licence to violence that they feel they have- as an excuse for their own violent instincts. Neither represent their traditions worthily.
    Hopefully, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the Reformed view of violence because I expect them not to take cheap shots at the Anabaptist reading of Scripture.

    May 16, 2012
    • Larry S #

      as I read James’s and Ryan’s last posts I feel a tug at my anabaptist reading of Scripture – we are ‘pulled forward’ into New Creation. And yes, Ryan our tribe pays its’ bill. after I used the metaphor of paying a bill – I remembered the term ‘butchers’ bill’ which was probably deep in my memory when I used the comment. “butchers bill” is the term used for the battlefield dead. but perhaps that term could also be used for the blood of the martys?

      and yet as much as I may feel the tug of my anabaptist roots, i like where Stackhousecomes out – he seems to understand my world.

      thanks for the dialogue – peace (with honour) 🙂

      May 16, 2012
      • Larry S #

        – the line I was remembering went something like ‘paying the butcher’s bill’ – from my reading about WW1

        – Scot McKnight has an interesting blog entry about rethinking Penal Substitutionary Atonement that went up today (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/05/17/justice-and-peace-and-atonement/) called Peace Justice and Atonement.

        Darrin W. Snyder Belousek introduces his book: Atonement, Justice and Peace: the Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church.


        from the blog post ….This book, then, does two main things. First, it presents a comprehensive, critical examination of penal substitution and offers a biblically grounded, theologically orthodox alternative understanding of substitutionary atonement. It should thus prove helpful to those who are wrestling with the biblical basis of penal substitution or wondering whether one can reject penal substitution but still affirm substitutionary atonement.

        Second, it reorients our thinking about justice and peace—economic justice, capital punishment, the war on terror, ethnic-religious conflict—from the perspective of the cross. It will thus challenge both “evangelically”-minded Christians to become concerned with social issues precisely on account of the cross and “socially”-minded Christians to engage such issues from a “cruciform” perspective.

        I suspect that Snyder Belousek would offer a challenge to my thinking
        it looks like a good book

        May 17, 2012
      • I read that review this morning, as well, Larry—and have added the book to my wishlist :). I expect it will have some overlap with the book MB professor Mark Baker and Joel Green wrote a few years back (Recovering the Scandal of the Cross).

        May 17, 2012
  8. Ken #

    I have heard among hikers another expression for “dirty work.” When someone wants to stay uninvolved in conflict, the expression is “he wants us to carry his water.”

    A quart of water weighs a couple of pounds.

    I have made many good friends hiking in the wilderness, friends who are always willing to carry water for each other.

    One friend with whom I have hiked spent many years working undercover investigating and ultimately arresting a major organized crime boss. All those years he led a life of pretending to be someone he was not, saying things that were untrue, to gain the confidence, and even love, of a man whom he was trying to imprison. He despised a man who loved him as a son. Maybe that was the only way we could do what he did. Maybe he despised himself, even while knowing the importance of what he did – betraying one who loved him. That is a lot of water to carry. I could not have carried it.

    Thank you, Larry, for carrying my water. You have one of the heaviest loads on earth.

    May 17, 2012
    • Larry S #

      thanks for your post Ken

      up higher in this thread you wrote: I do talk to animals and birds and keep hoping they will speak to me. Sometimes I am convinced that we communicate silently with our eyes.

      as a good BC resident my comment is thus: I bet the animals and birds will speak to you if you toke on some BC bud 🙂

      May 17, 2012
    • Ken #

      A couple of nights ago I had dinner next to a lake with birds and ducks and geese, including a few Canada geese. Behind bushes nearby a man in a red shirt began throwing stones at the them. I felt so angry to witness this cruelty. I wished a ranger had been there to stop him, or a rattle snake to bite him.

      Yesterday evening, I met a rattlesnake on a trail. It was doing nothing. I waited quite a while for the snake to leave the trail. Eventually it moved under a bush next to the trail and I risked passing quickly. Looking back I watched it coil up next to the trail.

      Down here, no BC bud. The food store sells flower essences that bind us with all things natural.

      May 17, 2012

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