On Payback

On Friday night, I attended a vigil outside our local Islamic Centre that was held in response to the March 15 massacre of Muslim worshipers at Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an eclectic mixture of Muslims and Christians and conservatives and liberals and believers and unbelievers that gathered in a parking lot on a warmish early spring evening, and it was good to come together, to… well, to do what, exactly?

Vigils, historically, have been about devotional watching or observance throughout the night. They are often shared spaces for mourning and can include prayers, liturgies, Scriptures, etc. It almost goes without saying that such things are more complicated in pluralistic contexts like twenty-first century Canada. In the absence of theological or ideological unanimity, our vigils become spaces for speeches, signs, expressions of sympathy and solidarity, condemnations (white supremacy, Islamophobia, “hate,” etc.), and politicking. I appreciated many of the words offered on Friday night; others left me feeling hollow. The words probably aren’t really the thing at these events, anyway; smiles and hugs and handshakes and presence—these things say, “We are your neighbours and we are with you” more than mere words.

But, back to the words. Among those I found myself pondering long after I left were those offered by a young Muslim woman. Her remarks had traversed the familiar terrain mentioned above, but then her words grew angrier. Contra the increasingly popular approach of refusing to name those who commit such acts of terror and thus depriving them of the notoriety they so crave, she repeatedely and unapologetically named the person who live-streamed his massacre of Muslims at prayer: Brendon Tarrant. She called him a monster. She prayed that Allah would pay him back for the evil he had done. Hers were the sort of words that tolerant, compassionate, Jesus-y folks who measure and guard their words carefully (like me) and who have Jesus-y words like “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” lodged inside of us at the neural level would be very hesitant to utter out loud.

And yet. I wonder how many of us who were there on Friday night would have been nursing precisely such thoughts in our hearts and minds in the aftermath of Christchurch (or any act of terror and violence that destabilizes and horrifies us). I hope that sonofabitch gets what he deserves! I hope he feels even a small measure of the pain that he has caused! If there is a God above or a devil below, I hope his evil is repaid in full! I hope he suffers for his ignorance, his malice, his sadistic impulses, his ugly racial tribalism, his naked craving of attention and fame. We don’t say such things aloud. We rehearse platitudes like “Love is stronger than hate.” We condemn “obias” and “isms” and “hate” and congratulate ourselves that such dark impulses don’t reside in our hearts. But we certainly hate the haters, along with the systems and ideologies that feed and are inflamed by them. I do, at any rate.

A few weeks ago, I was in a pastors’ gathering where we were trying to simply dwell with Scripture. Even the hard parts Not explain or interpret, not get busy applying. Just sit with a text and let it tell your story. At one point, our facilitator asked for an example of a passage that someone really struggled with to use as an example. “Psalm 137” came tumbling out of someone’s mouth almost immediately. Specifically, the last two verses:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

It is, to be sure, a cringe-worthy passage, particularly the last verse. The thought of someone taking pleasure in the murder of babies is horrible beyond description. Many of us would gladly expunge these verses from our Scriptures. They sound nothing like Jesus—indeed, they serve as about as helpful an object lesson of what Jesus condemned as anything you might hope to find. But we were asked to just sit with Psalm 137 for a few minutes. Not rush to explain it away. Not try to outdo one another in expressing our revulsion for it. Not frantically distance ourselves from its ugliness. Just sit with it.

And so I did. And for the first time, I was able to hear the awful ending of this psalm in the context of its beginning:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

For the first time, I thought of a weeping mother or father in exile who had, perhaps, lost her own child to the armies of Babylon. For the first time, I thought of what it might have been like to be ridiculed and tormented by captors who had taken everything from you. I tasted the hunger for vengeance in the psalmist’s voice. There is nothing more natural in the world than to long for those who inflict pain to experience it, whether in ancient Babylon or modern-day New Zealand or Mali or Nigeria or Gaza or ­________. The wounds are deep, and the rage and pain cannot but bubble to the surface. The young woman at the vigil on Friday night said what many of us are too polite to say out loud. Psalm 137 says what many of us are too pious to acknowledge. We long for vengeance. This is who we are.

At our best, we unpack these ugly impulses before God and leave them there. We say that vengeance belongs to God and not to us because we know we can’t be trusted with it. Human history is, in many ways, a story of vengeance writ large. We know, even as we acknowledge the darkness within, that a longing for vengeance cannot, must not be the last word. We know that the cycle of revenge has no end—that you simply cannot repay evil with enough evil to make it stop. We know that the righteousness of the violence always depends on which side of the it you’re on.

We know that “love your enemies” is a deeper, truer more hopeful word than “happy shall they be who pay you back.” Or at least we might be persuaded that it ought to be.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Ryan, Very thought-filled words, thank you. I just came from Malawi 10 days ago, my 3rd trip to do trauma healing in the refugee camp, the women sewed me a dress like theirs because I am apparently one of them now. Whatever this means, that will take some unpacking as I return to the comforts of abundant food, well abundant everything. I am nothing like them really, so I am not sure where that statement lands, I need to sit with this one awhile. My words here are in process, really not sure where they all land. But I wanted to enter your conversation with some thoughts, no answers really.

    Revenge. If anyone would want revenge it is these brothers and sisters living in this place of hopelessness. I love that in the lament there is nothing held back, but we know that lament acknowledges the God who is alone who is justice, we leave it in His hands. I cannot tell you the thoughts that I think as I listen to stories of torture, mutilation, repeated gang rape as a weapon of war, husbands forced to watch their wives be brutally raped things inserted into her body, left to die, children raped and slashed and things I cannot write or speak, not even on paper, worse than dashing babies against rocks.

    These brothers and sisters, we need to use these words again in the church, because this is my family, I am one with them in listening and bearing witness to the horrific unspeakable atrocities done to them. The foundation of forgiveness laid for them in witnessing their leader forgiving his parents murderer and taking this same man to live in his home in the camp is their model. There is no easy in any of this, it’s filled with fear that needs laying down, hate that needs laying down, anger, bitterness, and longing for revenge. But he took this man into his home so he could struggle with the reality of laying these things down and not hold them in his mind or heart, rather than talk about the process of forgiveness some day. Like my dear sister Merida, who lay on the floor for 2 days during my training and only got up to sit on the chair and ask this question. “If someone commits suicide do they go to hell?” She has lived in 2 refugee camps for 15 years, a survivor of rape, prolapsed uterus, she had lost 3 children in the fleeing of her country, she still doesn’t know where they are, her husband murdered, and now she just lost her only daughter who had gone to find work, only to be returned to her in a box, after she had died. The leader says this is number 22 of the young women who go away and return dead in a box. (They believe it is a ritual sacrifice) Merida wanted to die, she said if she did not ask the question out loud. the thought would have stayed within her head and she would have been seriously tempted to take her life. She has had enough. GOD DO YOU HEAR ME SHE HAS HAD ENOUGH OF THIS FUCKING SHIT.

    I sat with her and we cried and talked, I said your daughter is safe, nothing can touch her anymore, she is safe in Jesus presence. Imagine what she might be saying to Jesus, telling him everything, maybe Jesus doesn’t need us to tell him He already knows, and His love is tenderly touching her wounds. You know like Thomas touching Jesus nail scars, only its Jesus love touching her wounds. She liked the image of her daughter being safe, that nothing more could harm her, that Jesus love was healing her wounds. And that’s the picture that she wanted to keep inside her heart. Otherwise, she could not go on.

    These brothers and sisters are my teachers, they say very clearly that the way of forgiveness is costly, so much so. Unless we forgive our enemies, God cannot forgive us, “it is written”, they say, we walk this hard truth. (While I take offence at little comments that are stupidly said to me.) They say we “don’t voice our revenge, it would consume us, our lives, it would become the only thing we think about”. And if we did this as a community we would be lost in our hatred. We need the energy to survive, to protect our children, to find food, shelter, safety. We leave revenge in Gods hands. I teach that there are 2 paths, one is the path of grief, we mourn, remember, celebrate the loved ones we have lost, we bring more peace into the world, the other path is revenge, we collectively seek justice for the event, we hold the pain in her hearts, we live in a place of revenge, it is hard to move forward past the loss. They agree with these principles.

    When a whole people group are the targets of hatred, our love and forgiveness feel like they fall short of healing anything. My African brothers and sisters, (the camp represents 6 different African countries), would say there is no other alternative to move forward. If we stay with revenge we are stuck and there is more hatred in the world, if we choose forgiveness we internally battle but bring more peace into the world. It is a good battle. I think they understand at a visceral level this battle, this fight to hold the ground, to walk in the way of love and peace. They are suffering servants in a way I will never understand. They are the heroes of the faith in Heb 11, they walk in the way of faith that all will be made right, someday. They remind me of my African neighbours in Halifax, (part of the legacy of the underground railroad) who would sing while hanging out their laundry when I was a little girl. They sang “We shall overcome….” the words are long in my memory, “someday…”. These are the songs of the suffering servants, who walked without seeing the promises fulfilled. In my short lifetime, I have had the privilege of knowing these people, others have seen many more, all suffering servants walking in the way of forgiveness. I am still learning what forgiveness is, what it means to love my enemies, take up my cross, and walk with those who grieve. I understand in part, I wish I understood the whole. I understand that presence and love are healing I don’t know how but they are. I will leave it there, I have very few places where I can say the hard things, my audience consisting of newsletters folks, may not want to hear these hard truths, I think they prefer the good stories. I wish you peace Sherry

    1. Your words here speak truly, viscerally, poignantly, terrifyingly about themes that I have the luxury of reflecting on in abstraction. I will keep my words few because there is a weight of suffering in stories that it seems like offer commentary is to somehow defile.

      I simply say, God bless you for entering into these horrors with people. God bless them for speaking of their pain and for trying to end the cycle of violence and revenge. They are indeed our instructors in forgiveness and our tutors in lament.

      And may God’s justice indeed respond to these evils in the ways they deserve and heal the wounds of those who suffer so much. Christ have mercy.

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