The Fine Line Between Justice and Revenge

SEPTEMBER 2019   |   Pastor Zachary Pudlo
Imagine a person who lives the same day over and over again…like Groundhog Day. Except this day is an absolute nightmare. Each day this person is chased by murderers. But instead of receiving help, bystanders only film as this person runs in fear for her life. Sounds terrible, right? What if this person is being punished for a crime she committed. She watched and filmed a little girl get murdered instead of helping her. So her punishment is to have her memory erased every day, so she relieves fear and terror anew every day. Does the punishment fit the crime? Or is this cruel and unusual punishment?
This is the plot of an episode of Black Mirror. The episode leaves the audience feeling a little queasy almost. Is this criminal woman receiving the justice for her assistance in the murder of the little girl? Or is she simply the recipient of revenge? That’s the tension that one feels at the end of the episode. So, what is the difference? When is justice going to far? When does justice become revenge?
Cultural Justice Systems
Every justice system is different. However, ancient justice systems often resembled each other as they were mostly based on the principle of Lex Talionis, or the Law of Retaliation. In other words, an eye for an eye. The ancient Jewish justice system basically followed this principle. Read through sections of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and you will find this type of law, i.e. “If a man borrows an animal from his neighbor and it is injured or dies while the owner is not present, he must make restitution.” (Exodus 22:14) Ancient justice systems were truly about equality under the law. If someone caused damage to another person, they were required to repay exactly that amount of damage. One can find similarity in ancient civil laws across many cultures.
Justice was intended to make things even, fair. In many Eastern Cultures there is a different principle at play…honor. When injured or humiliated, the honorable thing to do is retaliate. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Japanese Americans desperately wanted to fight against the Native Japanese. They felt the attack on Pearl Harbor was shameful and the only way to retain honor in their family and in their culture was to retaliate. Interestingly, in many Far East cultures if someone in a family is injured or shamed, it would be shameful to not seek out a similar response to the person who injured them. We might call that revenge, ancient cultures would call it justice, Far Easterners would call it honor.
The Cultural Tension of Justice
So what’s the proper form of justice? Recently the Justice Department of the United States announced the return of the federal death penalty. As with any policy, there are a number of people who are outraged by this. Many in Eastern Cultures wouldn’t bat an eyelash at this. A few months back, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for the abolishment of the death penalty altogether. Again, not everyone praised this proposed form 0f justice.
Within the past few months I have read about two different Christian families who both had family members murdered. Both families expressed their forgiveness to the murderers of their family members. However, while one family asked that the murderer not be given the death penalty, the other did. The one family thought it was most Christ-like to spare the life of the murderer, while the other family wanted to spare future families the pain of losing a loved one through the increased fear of a death penalty. Which family is being more loving?
True Delineation
These are difficult questions to answer, aren’t they? Especially when you think about what God’s word says about forgiveness and justice. Jesus has a lot to say about forgiveness. Even in the Lord’s prayer Christians pray that God hold us to the same standard of forgiveness that we hold others to when we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But there is also a section in Romans where Paul writes that the government “is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing.
He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Ro 13:4) The sword was not used for giving spankings. It was an instrument of death. In other words, God is giving the government complete permission to take someone’s life in the name of justice. So what’s the correct course of action? Is it to forgive, or to repay with justice?
The two aren’t mutually exclusive. The answer truly lies in the heart. Jesus says this in Matthew 18:35, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Forgiveness starts in the heart. One can forgive and still ask for justice. The problem comes when the act of justice is done in revenge. As soon as an “act of justice” is done with the intent of returning damage, that’s when the act is no longer a matter of justice, but of revenge.
A heart of forgiveness is what’s needed in order for justice to not be revenge. If the two families I mentioned above had forgiven the men who murdered their family members from their hearts, then either course of action, capital punishment or incarceration, is perfectly permissible in God’s eyes.
What I found amazing was the fact that each of those families went on record to say they had forgiven the murderers of their family members. How is that possible? What leads a person to have that kind of character, that kind of forgiveness in their heart?
Had these families sought out revenge, they would be no better than the murderers. They knew they were no better than those murderers in their heart of hearts because they too had shown anger and hatred at times. And knowing how much they had failed to be loving led them to realize how much they had been forgiven for their own sins. They knew they had been forgiven by God for the same exact sins as the men who murdered their family members. So they couldn’t do anything but forgive.
A forgiven heart is a forgiving heart. The only way for your hearts to change is to examine your own failures to love. And then see the love God shows you even in your lovelessness. That’s what leads to a forgiving heart. And that’s what separates revenge from justice.