Beyond Vengeance

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2011

When human beings are violated in major ways, profound needs are created in the survivors.  By “survivors” we mean people who survive violent acts themselves and those left when one of their loved ones’ lives is taken in violence.  Major violations create for survivors the need to restore their dignity, sense of identity, selfhood, and honor.  We have several ways we might restore our dignity: taking personal revenge, relying on the state’s retribution, and seeking some sort of vindication that restores the sense of selfhood without exacting vengeance on the wrongdoer.  I believe the third path best opens the way to restored wholeness.


I will define “revenge” and “retribution” as pointing toward two distinct, though overlapping, responses to violations.  Revenge occurs when people, in response to violations, seek to retaliate, responding to wrongdoing apart from “official” governmental channels.  Retribution occurs when the state takes over for the victim (and victims’ associates).  State involvement brings formal procedures to apprehend, try, offer judgment, and punish the offender.

A major violation leads to the victim feeling diminished.  When people feel damaged, they tend to want to get even.  Being violated leads to a loss of dignity and a powerful sense of shame.  A violated person may feel a powerful drive to do something that will restore their sense of honor.  In many cultures, people assume that ones restore this lost sense of honor by retaliating against the violator.  Social pressure plays a large role in pushing people to seek vengeance, especially in contexts where a high premium is placed on reputation and honor.

According to Laura Blumenfeld, in Revenge, “shame, or the loss of honor, creates the need for revenge” (26).  Shame stems from one’s loss of a sense of one’s value, of one’s full humanity.  Psychiatrist James Gilligan, in Violence, argues that this sense of the loss of one’s humanity is probably the most powerful source of psychic pain that a human being can encounter. Shame creates a volatile drive to restore the sense of one’s value and even existence.  Exacting revenge commonly provides hope for such a restoration.  Consequently, the drive for revenge links intimately with the powerful need to overcome shame and dishonor.

Blumenfeld notes the problematic dynamic of the revenge cycle when it moves from “personal” to “collective” vengeance.  Personal vengeance occurs when a survivor directly responds to the violation and aims to retaliate against the perpetrator.  In collective vengeance, groups of people seek to harm other groups of people simply because of their identity.

Blumenfeld believes revenge must be aimed at the offender; aiming it at others reduces it to “terrorism.”  “Collective revenge misses the whole point of revenge.  At its cathartic best, revenge focuses diffuse rage on a specific, guilty party.  Taking revenge on any other person turns its moral purpose upside down.  Stripped down, it is a fancy word for terror.  Terrorists believe that there are no innocent bystanders, that all people of a kind are guilty” (181-82).

Her point underscores the dynamics of revenge.  As a rule, revenge stems from shame, a sense of powerlessness, rage, and displaced anger more than careful moral calculation.  Hence, revenge is usually not about a tit for a tat so much as simply an expression of frustration and an attempt to save face.  Cultivating vengeful feelings and entering the cycle of revenge makes a person vulnerable to having one’s desires for vindication exploited by others.  These vengeful feelings may be easily manipulated.  “Terrorism” exploits this desire for revenge.

People who have been violated share a quest for “acknowledgment.”  “What hurt was the lack of acknowledgment.  That, for many people, is the emotional goal of revenge, more than the desire to hurt.  They want the other person to acknowledge his mistake, to acknowledge the legitimacy of their pain” (292).  So, we may expect that seeking revenge by killing perpetrators may actually deprive victims of what they most need.  Killing offenders makes acknowledgment impossible.  Even punishing offenders may make acknowledgment more difficult.

Blumenfeld’s account reveals that the central dynamics of revenge are narrative, personal, relational, emotional, and story-based.  Revenge does seem to be a basic human inclination.  It is decisively shaped by how people view the world, the memories they have, the stories they tell and retell.

Before considering how to think of a counter-narrative that provides an alternative to vengeance, we need to look in more detail at the impersonal retributive justice with which we in the West have sought to replace “wild justice”—and to see how it also is not an adequate answer to the question of how to respond to wrongdoing.


Judith Kay, in her book Murdering Myths, argues that an Enlightenment-influenced quest for story-free universals shapes how our society views criminal justice.  Such an approach argues for objectivity and fairness in which the treatment of offenders treats all people the same.  This approach promises to provide a sense of stability and certainty as an alternative to the chaos of the endless cycle of personal revenge.  This approach toward justice also promises to provide a basis for societies made up of diverse peoples to function as a unified whole.

However, this view of criminal justice as separate from and transcendent over any particular stories has been plagued with serious problems.  It tends to shield the human wielders of power from scrutiny, making abuse of power more likely.  People may accept the structures as benign regardless of their actual impact.  This foundational view of criminal justice creates a sense of inevitability about the status quo, as if “what is” stands as the only option—even when “what is” leads to oppression.

Finally, Western criminal justice focuses on punishing offenders more than healing victims, offenders, and the broader society.  The illusion of the particular story of retribution as a transcendent universal underwrites violence that harms all in our society.  And because our society does not question this illusion, we fail to recognize how counter-productive our practices are in relation to genuine justice.

Our society believes the pain and suffering effected through punishment of offenders will make the offender a better person.  We believe such punishment conditions a person to refrain from wrongdoing in the future in order to avoid further punishment.  It also helps one recognize the error of one’s ways.  Such punishment, we say, balances the scales of injustice unbalanced by the crime and helps a person realize how it actually feels to be a victim.

Kay argues, thought, that the use of punishment more likely makes offenders resent the punishment rather than find it a stimulus for repentance.  Resentful offenders more likely will see their wrongdoing as justified than admit its wrongness.  Punishment teaches the need not to get caught more than that wrongdoing should not be done.

Most violent offenders have themselves been victims of violence.  Their acts (in their minds) generally are acts of retaliation.  To be retaliated against only deepens the offenders in the cycle of pay back.  Punishment likely motivates them to want to hurt someone else.

The use of violent punishment infects everyone involved with the pathogen of violence.  The violent act damages its victim—and person who inflicts the hurt.  Beyond the individuals, violence damages morally the institutions responsible for inflicting it on offenders.  This damage reverberates throughout the society that has created and supports such institutions.

Rather than helping the offender grow in empathy and compassion, virtues desperately needed by people who are prone to hurt other people, punishment exacerbates anger, resentment, fear, and a sense of self-justification.

Kay argues, “both revenge and retribution falsely believe the wielding of coercive power to be essential to affirming power and dignity” (87).  When people violate others, they destroy human dignity.  In face of this damage to human dignity, people need ways to have their dignity restored.  How might our personhood be restored when it is violated?

People tend to believe that when we do wrong we deserve to be punished, that punishment is “good” for us even when abundant evidence points toward its widespread negative consequences.  We also grant the state the right to punish—as if this right of the state overrides the rights each person has to be treated with dignity and respect.

The “internalized lie” rests on the core belief in the efficacy of violence—what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence” (Engaging the Powers).  This myth emphasizes that violence “works” better than any other alternative in dealing with problems such as crime.  Tragically, it seems that no amount of evidence to the contrary can undercut belief in this myth.

Kay advocates redefining justice.  Instead of thinking of justice in terms of paying back violence with violence, she proposes that we think of justice in terms of the wholeness of each person and society as a whole.  “The concept of justice changes in this new story.  Ultimately, the only response that will ‘fix’ the situation is if people regain their humanity by emerging from their grief and rage, regaining their ability to connect with themselves and with others.  In the long term, justice means the reclamation of human bonds” (183).


Revenge and retribution are both responses to the problems created when people are violated.  The violation of people’s dignity creates a need.  Such violations rend the human fabric.  How might the damage caused by such violations be dealt repaired?  How might human beings who have been violated be helped to restore their dignity and sense of wholeness?

Howard Zehr, in Transcending, has collected several dozen stories from victims that provide insight into the process of responding to violations.  They show that while revenge and retribution may play a role in the quest for wholeness, they are not generally that helpful.  Zehr proposes a broader rubric, “vindication.”  Vindication has to do with a restoration of dignity.  Such a restoration provides a sense that one’s existence, called into doubt through the violation, has been vindicated.  Revenge and retribution may for some people contribute to vindication, but for many, vindication comes in other ways that don’t involve hurting wrongdoers.

The storytellers whose experiences Zehr recounts name a number of “needs” that they have identified as a consequence of their trauma.  The needs expressed by these storytellers center on restoring the fabric of one’s rent humanity in face of severe violations.  These needs may be met through finding meaningful things to do in the aftermath of the trauma.

In numerous cases, some acknowledgment from offenders of the wrongness of their act provided important aid in survivors moving on.  Survivors found satisfaction especially when the acknowledgment was accompanied by a sense of regret.  Storytellers spoke of their need to avoid adding to the spiral of violence with their own vindictiveness and to find ways to be freed from feelings of hate and bitterness.

Many spoke of hoping to find supportive communities with others who could share their grief and help them restore meaning to their lives.  Sadly, in these stories few reported finding such communities.  Several people spoke instead of feeling too much pressure to find “closure,” to “forgive,” and to “move on.”  Others did not seem to understand the depth of the trauma they had experienced and the need for more time and patience with the gradual nature of the healing.

Most simply, numerous people spoke of the need to grow into a sense of acceptance of the reality of what has happened.  They need to come to terms with the transformed reality they now had to live with—that life would never be the same following the violation.  This sense of acceptance, when achieved, seemed then to open possibilities for learning to live meaningfully amidst the loss and pain.

Many storytellers expressed ambivalence about forgiveness.  Forgiveness seems important yet evasive.  Some spoke of a clear ability to forgive, accompanied by a sense of release from the weight of living with the violation.  Others evinced much less clarity.

Forgiveness does for many play an important role in the repair of the rent fabric.  It allows survivors to move on with life and not let the crime define who they are.  It serves as a means emotionally to move past the trauma and end the presence of the trauma as an on-going, devastating reality.

Forgiveness, in some cases, allowed for some level of reconciliation between the victim and offender.  This allows for mutual understanding of what led to the violation, how the various actors experienced the violation, and for victims getting a sense of assurance that they indeed did not deserve what happened to them.

Forgiveness also opens the possibility that offenders may seek constructively to make up for what they had done.  They may be able to work at restitution for the damage they caused and find healing from their own traumas that may have led them to violate others.

An emphasis on forgiveness may also offer some dangers.  On the one hand, forgiveness may be granted too quickly, while the survivor is still traumatized.  Such (possibly) premature forgiveness may short-circuit the healing process and foster the repression of hurts—with the possibility of future resurfacing of the trauma.

Forgiveness, if unaccompanied by genuine repentance on the part of the offender, may let the offender off the hook too easily.  It may lessen the possibilities that offenders will find healing for their own traumas—healing that requires taking responsibility for their acts.

One central need several storytellers mentioned was to understand the truth, as best as possible, of what happened with the violation.  This enables them to fit the events into their own story and make better sense of their lives.  Understanding what happened helps people better to adapt to the true situation they find themselves in, even if it is difficult.  As Sandy Murphy, a woman whose face was disfigured in a brutal attack, said, “The doctors wouldn’t allow me to see my face.  They would say, ‘It’s going to be fine.’  That was a lie.  The truth is important to me.  The truth helped me to be able to stand and say, ‘This is ugly, but you can do it’” (156).

In response to crises created by violations, Zehr suggests three basic human needs that need to be addressed.  (1) The “need to feel that we have substantial control over our own lives, or at least important parts of our lives.”  (2) “The feeling of safety that is rooted in a sense of order.  We need to believe that our world is basically orderly and that events can be explained.”  (3) “Healthy relationships with other people are essential for a sense of wholeness” (188).

At the heart of our identity as human beings lie stories we construct about who we are.  The experience of severely traumatic violations profoundly damages this constructed meaning.  “An experience of violence represents an attack on those narratives, an erosion of meaning, and therein lies a primary source of trauma” (189).

Survivors need to find ways to recover from such blows to their sense of self.  “Victimization is essentially an erosion of meaning and identity, so we must recover a redeeming narrative which reconstructs a sense of meaning and identity” (190).  Efforts to respond helpfully to violations, then, should center on victims reconstructing a sense of meaning and identity.  Neither revenge nor retribution serve this basic need very well.

Rather than seeing vengeance as a human need in the face of violations, Zehr argues for what he calls “vindication” (191).  The need for vindication entails a number of aspects, some of which may tend toward taking revenge, but most of which point in other directions.

For Zehr, vindication might well include elements of the following.

(1) A restoration of respect.  We feel vindicated when we become aware of being respected by other people—and when we gain a measure of self-respect.  It is possible that this respect could be achieved through exercising power to hurt offenders.  However, more likely the respect will be gained through positive actions—such as ones that honor deceased victims.

(2) A recognition of the offender’s wrong.  We feel vindicated when we gain clarity about that the violation was wrong—and not our fault.  This certainly can include convicting offenders.  The criminal justice system may provide such an outcome.  However, from the stories, survivors seemed to gain even more power when offender acknowledge their guilt and apologize.  The adversarial nature of our criminal justice system hinders more than assists such acknowledgment—by segregating victim from offender, by creating a win/lose dynamic, and by focusing on punishment rather than acts of restitution.

(3) Empowerment.  We feel vindicated when we experience power in our lives and don’t feel simply at the mercy of others.  Several of the storytellers felt empowered when the offender apologized, giving the survivors a sense that they had some power in relation to the offender based on how they responded to the apology.

(4) Removal of shame and humiliation.

(5) A recovery of meaning, the reconstruction of a redeeming narrative, a rekindled sense that one’s life has purpose and value.

(6) The establishment of affirming, supportive relationships.

None of these six elements of vindication require revenge or retribution.  Some of them might include either or both.  On the other hand, seeking revenge or retribution might actually work against the realization of some of the elements.

By focusing on healing rather than punishment, restorative justice provides for the possibility of meeting these fundamental human needs for vindication.  The emergence of the restorative justice movement has stimulated a reappropriation of biblical materials that actually helps us understand the basic message of the Bible in new ways.

From start to finish, the Bible tells the story of God’s healing strategy.  Learning from and applying the lessons of restorative justice to our broader social agenda will help all of us better to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14).


Blumenfeld, Laura. Revenge: A Story of Hope Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Gilligan, James. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic Putnam, 1996.

Kay, Judith. Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty. Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination Fortress Press, 1992.

Zehr, Howard. Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims Good Books, 2001.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Vengeance

  1. Rev. Tony W. Bouwmeester

    I wonder if it is possible to view a violation as a death and thereby the overcoming of the violation as a resurrection?
    Biblically this would be supported by the actions of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the upper room declaring, “Peace be with you….The sins that you forgive are forgiven them. The sins that you retain are retained” (John 20:19-23). Jesus acts out the forgiveness by giving peace to those who left Him, and provides them with a formula of forgiveness leading to peace.
    The word for retain is Kratos. Retention (krateo) here can be translated in the sense of, “Keeping something for one’s own use.” I the process of living with unforgiveness our holding on becomes retaliation; in fact we become (like) the perpetrator (mimesis in Girardian terms). We end up desiring what the perpetrator desires leading to an endless cycle of desire and revenge. If in the tenth commandment, “Covet” were translated as the more accurate, “desire”, then the summation, “Thou shalt not desire” would be appropriate and immensely helpful to move toward granting of peace.
    In this process of forgiveness we need to be careful that no pressure is applied to, “Forgive like Jesus did.” In such a case forgiveness may even be a weapon against the victim. In the long run forgiveness can be one sided. Only the victim can forgive. Reconciliation is only possible if the perpetrator acknowledges the wrong done and repents. This I believe is the point where forgiveness produces fruit and restorative justice has its greatest possibility.
    Rev. Canon Tony W. Bouwmeester.

  2. Pingback: Happy Readings! « Celucien Joseph: Scholar, Intellectual, and Cultural Critic

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