The Christian Alternative to Vengeance

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.3

[Presented at Theologica Pacis conference, Akron, PA, January 2007]

The faith community is central to biblical religion.  In the Bible, from the start (the calling of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 to bring forth a community meant to bless all the families of the earth) to the end (the vision in Revelation 21–22 of the churches witness leading to the healing of the nations), this community has the vocation not simply to serve its own interests but to serve the interests of all the families of the earth.

I have written a little book reflecting on this vocation as a central theme of the Bible as a whole, suggesting what I call “God’s healing strategy” as a narrative key for interpreting the overall message of the Bible.[1]  The “strategy” is simply that God has called together a faith community to know God’s healing love in its common life and to witness to that healing love in a way the serves to bless all the families of the earth, that brings healing to the nations.

This motif recognizes the need the human family has for healing.  We hurt each other.  We violate each others’ dignity, sometimes in terribly destructive ways.  A key aspect of the healing motif then may be seen as the issue of how to we respond to the inevitable harm we do to each other in ways that does not add to the harm.  Based on the Bible’s core message, the community of faith is central in the effort to respond redemptively to harm.  And a key part of redemptive responses, of course, is forgiveness.

When Michael Hardin asked me to prepare a discussion paper for this conference that would discuss the theme of “how the church might look if it was grounded not in victimage but in forgiveness,” I said sure, that I would be happy to since I was in the midst of teaching a course at Eastern Mennonite University I called “Topics in Theology: Vengeance and God.”  I figured I could draw on materials from that class.  This was a new class for me and back in mid-September when Michael contacted me, I wasn’t quite sure where the class would go.

As it turned out, the class pretty much did go the direction I hoped it would – concluding with a lively discussion on forgiveness and the centrality of the church in the embodiment of forgiveness as the ultimate Christian response to harm-doing.

Forgiveness may most usefully be understood not simply as pardon, a letting of wrongdoers off the hook, so much as a way of life, a set of practices, that brings an end to the cycle of enmity but also effects transformation in the wrongdoer, the survivors of the wrongdoing, and the broader community that is effected by the wrongdoing.

When we look at the dynamics loosed by the manifold violations of human dignity in our world today, we may easily recognize how crucial reflection on and, much more importantly, putting into practice forgiveness has become.  Much more common, it would seem, that seeking to break the cycle of harm triggered by violating acts, human beings tend to heighten the cycle with the “automatic” (?) quest for vengeance.  From the perspective of the Bible and its account of God’s healing strategy, we may want to claim, as Christians, that our tradition offers powerful resources for freeing human beings from the spiral of violence.  As we should.  But, of course, Christianity has, as Michael’s wording in his request implies, all too often embodied vengeful, violent dynamics more than healing, forgiving dynamics.

My class was organized to consider the aftermath of hurtful violations of human dignity.  We started with the assumption that when human beings are violated in major ways, major needs are created in the survivors.  By “survivors” we could mean people who survive violent acts themselves; we may also mean people who are the ones left with one of their loved ones’ lives is taken in violence.

The basic need that is created for survivors is that of restoring their dignity, their sense of identity, their selfhood, their honor.  The class was organized around several ways that we tend to seek to restore this sense of dignity: by taking personal revenge, by relying on the state’s retribution, and by seeking some sort of vindication that restores the sense of selfhood without exacting vengeance on the wrongdoer.  Only this third path, our readings and discussion suggested, opens the way to forgiveness.

As this was a class in Christian theology, we then turned our focus to how Christians might understand and embody forgiveness in the face of severe trauma.  But before we focused directly on forgiveness, we needed to spend time looking at theological factors that have influenced Christians not to affirm the practical centrality of forgiveness as the fundamental Christian response to wrongdoing.  That is, we reflected the theology of atonement that emerged in post-biblical Christian theology that seems to have underwritten retributive criminal justice practices.


We may understand “revenge” and “retribution” as pointing toward two different responses to violations.  Revenge has to do with the responses of individuals and groups directly in response to the act of violation that seek to retaliate, to respond to the wrong-doing apart from “official” governmental channels.  Retribution refers to when the state does get involved and takes the role from the victim (and victims’ associates).  With state involvement, comes formal procedures to apprehend, try, offer judgment, and punish the offender when convicted.

One of the effects of the kind of violation we are considering here, is that the victim (and, often, the victim’s associates) feel humiliated as a consequence of what has happened.  And, when people are humiliated, they tend to feel like they have to get even.[2]  Humiliation may be understood as the public violation of peoples’ dignity and honor.  To have dignity is to have a sense that one truly exists, that one has value, that one has an identity, and that one matters in the world.

When one is violated, especially when one’s violation is known by others, one feels that one’s dignity has been destroyed.  The public perception that one has been humiliated causes a powerful sense of shame and intense pain.  The public perception that one is not valuable and lacks dignity creates a powerful sense of diminishment and often fosters a sense of the need to do something that will restore some sense of honor.

In many cultures, people assume that the way to restore this lost sense of honor is to succeed at retaliating against the violator.  Social pressure plays a large role in pushing people to seek vengeance, especially in cultures where a high premium is placed on reputation and honor.

According to Laura Blumenfeld, in her book Revenge, “shame, or the loss of honor, creates the need for revenge” (26).  Shame stems from the sense that one has lost a sense of one’s value, of one’s full humanity.  Psychiatrist James Gilligan 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.[3]  Shame creates an enormously volatile drive to restore the sense of one’s value and even existence.  For many reasons, exacting some sort of revenge commonly provides the hope for such a restoration.  Consequently, the drive for revenge links intimately with the extraordinarily powerful need to overcome shame and dishonor.

Along with shame, memory plays a central role with revenge.  Memory keeps past violations alive and present (42).  The memories keep the hurt alive.  They foster scheming and planning on how to get even, perhaps schemes that require a long period of time to enact.  Filtered through our biases, memories tend to accentuate the “evils” of the enemy and the “innocence” of one’s own people.  Memory as a sustained effort to retain one’s hurt and antipathy toward the victimizer, is based on a refusal to “forgive” (since genuine forgiveness in some sense leads to a “forgetting,” at least of the grudge).  Memory tends to dehumanize the perpetuator, since it is selective and focuses on the one-dimensional aspects of the remembered grievance.

We may understand “shame” in two senses.  The more positive sense is to recognize that we are social creatures who are accountable in our relationships with other people.  We inevitably rely upon other people’s impressions of us and their messages to us for our own sense of self.  Other people, then, do play a valid role in helping us be aware when we are being disrespectful, hurtful, or in other ways violating the social dynamics necessary for our communal well-being.  When we have a healthy sense of self, such signals of problems from our social world (which are noticed when we feel a sense of shame) serve the function of pushing us to correct our misbehavior and seek to act rather in ways that serve the wellbeing of others.

However, our vulnerability to others messages about us may be exploited and have the impact on us not of stimulating us to adapt to community expectations so much as undermining our sense of self.  Shame, in the less positive sense, can have a debilitating effect.  Rather than empowering us to adapt and better function in our social context, negative shame disempowers us, threatens our sense of self, and fosters desperate responses that easily lead to efforts to regain our sense of power by disempowering others.

Blumenfeld notes one particularly problematic aspect of the revenge cycle.  She terms it the transition from “personal” to “collective” vengeance.  Personal vengeance occurs when a person who has been hurt or is closely connected to the victim directly responds to the violation and aims to retaliate against the perpetrator.  Collective vengeance has more to do with groups of people who seek to harm other groups of people primarily because of their identity as a member of the group.

Blumenfeld assumes that revenge must be directly aimed at the offender; aiming it at others reduces it to mere “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, even civilians.  That is how they justify killing children” (181-2).

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 (what we could call “retributive justice”).  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 into the cycle of revenge makes a person quite vulnerable to having one’s (perhaps legitimate) desires for vindication exploited by others.  These vengeful feelings may be easily manipulated by people in power for their own purposes.  “Terrorism” in all its forms (and, almost all modern warfare is a form of terrorism if terrorism is defined as the attempt to terrorize “civilian” populations) exploits this desire for revenge.

Blumenfeld characterizes revenge in this way.  “Revenge demands division.  Us versus them.  It is a simple principle that avengers understand.  If they humanize the enemy, blood revenge becomes killing, which is no longer an honorable response (250).”  This understanding of revenge places it squarely in tension with many important Christian virtues.  Can a Christian, called upon by Jesus and Paul to love everyone, even one’s enemies, authentically take part in revenge if it does require dehumanizing our enemy?  Can we, as Christians, legitimately suspend our empathy?  Does it make a difference if we think in terms not of vengeance but a “non-vengeful” state that acts on our behalf to punish wrongdoers?

From Blumenfeld’s account, a major element of the experience of people who have been violated is the quest for what she calls “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).

In light of this point, we can imagine that seeking revenge by actually killing the perpetrator would deprive the victim of what may be most needed.  Killing the offender would make “acknowledgment” impossible.  Even punishing offenders may make acknowledgment more difficult, especially is the punishment is perceived by the offender as unjust.

Blumenfeld’s account of the dynamics of vengeance reveals what the central dynamics of revenge are.  They are narrative, personal, relational, emotional, and story-based.  Revenge does seem to be a pretty basic human inclination.  It is decisively shaped by how people view the world, the memories they have, the stories they tell and retell.  Western, impersonal notions of retributive justice do not speak to these aspects of life.

Christians could see here the importance of constructing and sustaining in their communal life a counter-narrative both to the narratives of personal revenge and retaliation and of impersonal retributive justice – neither of which seem to speak in life-affirming ways to the needs that are created when some human beings violate other human beings.

Before considering how best to think of this counter-narrative, 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.


Social ethicist Judith Kay, in her book Murdering Myths, argues that an Enlightenment-influenced modern quest for story-free universals has powerfully shaped how our society views criminal justice.[4]  There are many reasons why such an approach would seem attractive.  It provides the hope genuine objectivity and fairness in which the treatment of offenders reflects reality and treats all people the same.  This approach promises to provide a sense of stability and certainty as an alternative to the chaos of vigilante justice and the endless cycle of personal revenge.  This modern approach toward justice also promises to unite diverse peoples, providing a basis for societies made up of diverse peoples to function as a unified whole.

On the other hand, this view of criminal justice as separate from and transcendent over any particular stories has proved to be plagued with serious problems.  It tends to shield the human wielders of power from scrutiny making more likely their abuse of the power they are given.  The structures may blindly be accepted as benign regardless of the actual impact of their policies and practices.

This foundational view of criminal justice creates a sense of inevitability about the status quo, as if “what is” is simply the only option – even when “what is” in actuality is oppressive, unjust, and serves primarily the elite in a society.

Finally, in practice our Western view of criminal justice has pushed forward a focus on retribution and scapegoating convicted criminals as opposed to a focus that genuinely works for the healing of victim, offending, and the broader society.  That is, the illusion that the particular story of retribution is a transcendent universal simply describing reality as it is underwrites violence that is destructive to all in our society.  And because this illusion is unquestioned, our society is unable to recognize just how counter-productive in relation to genuine justice our practices are.

Kay asserts that societies must value the inherent dignity of all people.  When a person violates the dignity of another person, it remains essential that society underscore its commitment to human dignity by continuing to treat the offender as it wants all people to be treated.  A society that mistreats anyone (no matter how “deserving”) is morally diminished.

As well, when offenders are mistreated and, inevitably, damaged as a consequence, they then become even more prone to mistreating others.  Punishment only perpetuates the cycle of abuse and tends to lead to more abuse and more damage to more people over time.  In addition to the damage done to the mistreated offender, those responsible for the mistreatment are themselves damaged as are the institutions that empower the mistreaters.  And, ultimately, the society as a whole that tolerates institutions that abuse is morally damaged.

The problem lies with assumptions about punishment.  The pain and suffering effected through punishment of duly convicted offenders is understood to have great potential for making the offender a better person.  It conditions a person to refrain from wrongdoing in the future in order to avoid further punishment.  It helps one recognize the error of one’s ways.  It balances the scales of injustice that were unbalanced by the crime.  And it helps a person realize how it actually feels to be a victim.

In Kay’s view, though, these arguments are not persuasive.  One of the main problems with the use of punishment is that it tends to make the person punished resent the punishment rather than find it a stimulus for repentance.  With a resentful attitude, the offender is more likely to see their wrongdoing as justified than to confess that it was inappropriate.  That is, the main lesson that seems to be taught is not to get caught, rather than that the wrongdoing should not have been done.

Almost all violent offenders have themselves already been victims of violence.  Their acts (in their minds) generally are already acts of retaliation.  To be retaliated against only deepens the offenders in the cycle of pay back.  Their most likely desire as a consequence of being punished will be to want to hurt someone else.

To use violent punishment infects everyone involved with the pathogen of violence.  The person who is hurt is damaged by the violent act – as is the person who inflicts the hurt.  Beyond the individuals, the institutions responsible for doing violence to offenders are themselves damaged morally, and this damage reverberates throughout the society that has created and supports such institutions.  Violence is inherently bad for all people.  All it does is cause damage.

Hurting offenders does not restore or repay many (if not most) of the debts incurred by the original violation.  The damage done to the original victim is rarely healed through damaging the offender.

The punishment paradigm has the opposite effect on the offender than what is needed.  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.

The practice of punishment often merely reinforces the volatile dynamics of shame, powerless, and victimization for the offender, the very dynamics that quite often lay behind the original act of violation.  What most violent offenders need is help to overcome these dynamics that have characterized much of their lives – punishment only reinforces those dynamics.

Punishment is based on the punisher having the firepower to punish not on the inherent fairness of the process resulting in punishment that is directly related to the offense.  Hence, the dynamics of punishment are easily co-opted to serve the interests of the powerful and wealthy in society.

Punishment does not directly help the victims of the original crime.  Perhaps in some cases that the offenders are punished helps victims feel better, but as a rule they are far removed from the process of criminal justice and their damage is not addressed by the system.

Finally, punishment does not witness to the core message of Jesus that places at the center of human moral life the call to love.

Kay argues, “both revenge and retribution falsely believe the wielding of coercive power to be essential to affirming power and dignity” (87).  These dynamics enter into our lives in response to violations of human beings, people being harmed by violent acts.  When people are violated, what is especially bad is the destruction of human dignity.  In face of this damage to human dignity, people need ways to have their dignity restored.  When we are damaged by violations of our personhood, we must regain a sense of this personhood.  We thus face the basic question: How might our personhood be restored when it is violated?

The story that our criminal justice system must be based on punitive violence is an untrue story – she calls it “the lie.”  She argues, “the internalization of the lie is a key mechanism in how the lower and middling classes end up supporting criminal justice policies and practices that are not good for them or society as a whole” (167).

People tend to have the mistaken belief that when we do wrong we deserve to be punished, that punishment is “good” for us even when abundant evidence points toward widespread negative consequences to violent punishment.  We also grant the state the right to punish – as if this right of the state overrides the rights we all have to be treated with dignity and respect.

The “internalized lie” essentially rests on the core belief in the efficacy of violence – what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.”[5]  This (false) myth emphasizes that violence “works” better than any other alternative in dealing with problems such as the problem of crime.  Tragically, it seems that no amount of evidence to the contrary can undercut belief in this myth.

In the end, Kay suggests, our criminal justice system serves to protect the interests of our ruling class while actually acting against the interests of the rest of society.  Human inclinations toward revenge are manipulated by our rulers to serve their interests – even in ways that work against the interests of society in general.

Kay does not deny that sometimes people violate others in such a way that society needs to segregate these offenders from the rest of society.  However, she concludes that “the focus of activities during incarceration should be the emergence of the human from his most dangerous vices, not punishment for punishment’s sake” (176).

A society that truly seeks to foster healing rather than an enhanced spiral of violence in the face of crime would work to enhance the ability of police departments to apprehend and quickly isolate wrongdoers, with the full protection of the rights of all involved.  However, beyond this effective apprehension of wrongdoers and effect of quick and fair consequences for the wrongdoing, the system would also work to find ways to help victims have the damage done to them be mitigated – including the repayment of property that has been lost and making efforts to deal with the emotional costs of crime.

The system would also work to bring about healing for the wrongdoers – which might well include efforts at reconciliation with the victims.  The system would also seek to help the wrongdoers develop the skills to be able to be reintegrated back into society in ways that overcome the problem of recidivism.

More broadly, a society that truly wanted to minimize crime would work very hard at overcoming the social inequalities that provide the most powerful impact on fostering crime.[6]

Kay ultimately advocates redefining the meaning of justice.  Instead of thinking of justice in terms of paying back violence with violence, she proposes that we think of justice in terms of 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 hurt, violated through acts of violence and harm.  When people’s dignity is violated, a need is created.  Such violations create a break, a hole, a rent in the human fabric.  How is the damage caused by such violations to be dealt with?  How is it repaired?  How are human beings who have been violated to be helped in restoring their dignity and sense of wholeness?

Howard Zehr, in his book Transcending, has collected several dozen stories from victims.  These stories provide myriad insights into the process of responding to violations.  They ultimately show that revenge and retribution may in some cases play a role in the quest for wholeness, but they are not generally that helpful.  Zehr, in the end, advocates for a broader rubric, what he calls “vindication.”  Vindication has to do with a restoration of dignity, a sense that one’s existence, called into profound doubt through the violation, is indeed 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.

In general, the needs expresses by these storytellers may be seen as related to restoring the fabric of one’s rent humanity in face of severe violations.  Some of the ways these needs were met include the ability to find meaningful and constructive things to do with one’s life in the aftermath of the trauma.  In a few cases, survivors sought to continue the legacy of lost loved ones that embodied their values.

In numerous cases, some sort of acknowledgment from offenders of the wrongness of their act provided important aid in the victims and survivors moving on.  Especially when the acknowledgment was accompanied with a sense of repentance and regret did the survivors find satisfaction.

Numerous storytellers spoke of their need to find ways not to add to the spiral of violence with their own anger and vindictiveness.  They sought to find a way to forgive that would free them from feelings of hate and bitterness.

Many spoke of the importance of finding supportive communities, a sense of connection with other people who could share their grief and help them restore a sense of meaning to their lives.  Sadly, in these stories there were few accounts of such a sense of community being experienced.  Several people spoke instead of feeling too much pressure to find “closure,” to “forgive,” and to “move on” by people who 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 articulated a need to come to terms with the transformed reality they now had to live with – that things would never exactly be the same following the violation.  This sense of acceptance, when achieved, seemed to then open possibilities for learning to live meaningfully and productively amidst the sense of loss and pain.

Many storytellers reflected with ambivalence on the theme of forgiveness.  It appears that forgiveness is extremely important yet extraordinarily evasive.  In some cases, people spoke of a fairly clear ability to offer forgiveness, accompanied by a sense of healing and release from the weight of living with the violation.  In other cases, people evinced much less clarity.

Forgiveness does seem for many to 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, to provide a way to 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 the possibility of mutual understanding of what led to the violation, how it was experienced by the various actors, and for victims getting a sense of assurance that they indeed did not deserve what happened to them.

Forgiveness also may open the possibility that offenders may be able to seek constructively to make efforts to make up for what was done.  They may be more able to work at restitution for the damage they have done.  They also may be more able to find healing from their own traumas that likely led them to violate others, thereby at least on a personal level ending the cycle of violence.

There do seem to be some dangers with forgiveness.  On the one hand, it may be granted too quickly, while the survivor is still traumatized.  Such (possibly) premature forgiveness may well short-circuit the healing process and foster the repression and denial of hurts – with the possible long-range consequences that the trauma resurfaces at some future time.

Forgiveness, if unaccompanied by genuine repentance on the part of the offender, may led the offender off the hook too easily and lessen the possibilities that the offender would find some kind of healing from their traumas – healing that likely requires the offender taking responsibility for the violation.

One of the central needs several storytellers mentioned had to do with the value of understanding the truth, as best as possible, of what happened with the violation.  This would enable them to fit the events into their own story, to make better sense of their lives.  Understanding what actually 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 victimization, 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, according to Zehr, lies the stories we construct about what and what we are.  When people experience severely traumatic violations, this constructed meaning is severely damaged.  “An experience of violence represents an attack on those narratives, an erosion of meaning, and therein lies a primary source of trauma” (189).

A fundamental need violated people and their loved ones have is finding ways to recover such a blow 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 the victims and helping them to reconstruct a sense of meaning and identity.  Neither revenge nor retribution serve this basic need very well.

Rather than seeing vengeance as a fundamental human need in the face of violations, Zehr argues instead 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 more positive actions.  Examples from the storytellers include finding constructive, life-enhancing tasks to do that provides a sense of honoring those who have been killed.

(2) A sense that the offender’s wrong is recognized.  We feel vindicated when it is made clear that the violation that happened to us was wrong and not our own responsibility.  This certainly can include the offender being convicted of their violent crime.  The processes of the criminal justice system are capable of providing such an outcome.  However, from the stories, survivors seemed to gain even more power when the offender himself or herself acknowledged their guilt and apologized.  The adversarial nature of our criminal justice system hinders such acknowledgment more than assists in it happening – partly be segregating victim from offender, partly by putting the offender on the defensive and focusing on punishment rather than acts of restitution.

(3) Empowerment.  We feel vindicated when we experience a sense of having power in our lives and not simply being at the mercy of others.  As mentioned above, an important way several of the storytellers felt empowered was when the offender apologized, giving the survivors a sense that they had some power in relation to the offender related to 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.

From Zehr’s recounting of the experience of survivors of violent crime, we see underscored the potential for Christian communities to assist in fostering healing in the light of such violence and to work to break the destructive cycle of violence, retaliation, and revenge.  Zehr’s stories help us identify the actual needs of survivors.

Before we turn more directly to the resources useful for embodying forgiveness that Christian communities might provide, we need to reflect on a theological issue that has often contributed to Christian communities being part of the problem of revenge and retribution more than the solution.  This is the construction of theologies of atonement in post-biblical Christianity that had a major impact on underwriting retributive criminal justice practices in Western “Christendom” during the late Middle Ages and down to the present.


The Christian tradition has always placed at its center the significance of forgiveness.  Jesus’ own message clearly centered on the forgiveness of sins, as did Paul’s proclamation.  However, the tradition has given decidedly mixed messages concerning the social relevance of this message of forgiveness.  In what sense, if any, should Jesus’ message of forgiveness shape our response to issues related to the violation of some persons’ dignity by others?

According to Timothy Gorringe, in his book God’s Just Vengeance, the development of Christian theologies of atonement, the construal of how God is able to forgive sins, has actually contributed to harsher, more retributive responses to wrongdoing.

The standard account of atonement asks, why did Jesus have to die?  God’s holiness prevents God from simply forgiving human sins.  Sin requires payment in order to satisfy God’s justice.  Sinful human beings are powerless to make this payment.  We do not have the capability of balancing the scales of justice that we have unbalanced by our sin.  We cannot pay to God what God needs in order to be able to forgive us.

Only Jesus, as a perfect human being, holiness incarnated, is able to pay this price.  Only his payment would be sufficient.  So, Jesus’ died as a payment to satisfy God’s holiness, to satisfy God’s need for balancing the scales of justice.  If there is not payback to God for the damage caused by sin, God must punish the sinner.  Only a sinless being acting on our behalf can save us from God’s sure punishment.

At the same time, God is also gracious.  Without compromising God’s holiness, God’s mercy motivates God to provide the means for adequate payment to be made through Jesus’ sacrificial death.  God wants human beings to have a way of reconnecting with God and overcoming the rift caused by the human violation of God’s honor by our sin.

This view of atonement reflects a notion that the universe is governed with a scale of justice in which wrongdoing must be repaid with punishment.  Violence lies at the very heart of reality.  Wrongdoing requires payback.

Gorringe argues that this theology has been articulated by and exploited by church leaders who identify with society’s ruling classes.  That is, theology in general, and atonement theology in particular, has served the interests of those who gain the most from the status quo in human culture.

What are some ways that this theology served the interests of society’s rulers?  It provides a strong justification for human authority.  It also provides bases for punishing what is labeled as wrongdoing as defined by the rulers.  This makes is much easier for rulers to suppress dissent, resistance, and counter-cultural sentiments.  The criminal justice system as thus construed places a high priority upon protecting the interests of the people who benefit the most from the present order of things.

The basic logic of “satisfaction” (that we have to do with a holy God who becomes angry with sin and automatically punishes those who violate God’s will unless some sort of payment through a violent sacrifice is made) seems to characterize many gods in many religions.  People adhering to a biblical faith must ask the question whether the Bible provides bases for challenging this general view of God.  Is there something different in the biblical account of God and God’s response to wrongdoing?

In fact, as Gorringe argues, there is.  The Bible does not support a blind adherence to the logic of satisfaction.  Creation itself is presented in the Bible as being good and inherently peaceable, not founded on violence like other creation stories such as Babylon’s suggest.  The God of the Hebrews, Yahweh, is revealed as the God of slaves and vulnerable people, not the God of kings, of the ruling class and of the social status quo.

God’s saving initiative in the Bible is almost always taken unilaterally on behalf of “unworthy” people.  God does not have to wait for satisfaction in order to intervene to bring about salvation.

The people after the Flood of Noah remain characteristically inclined toward evil but God nonetheless acts to provide for their future and to promise never to flood the earth again.  Barren Abraham and Sarah are chosen despite their frailty to parent the elect people of God intended to bless all the families of the earth.  The Hebrews are liberated from their enslavement in Egypt.  The book of Isaiah tells of God’s mercy in forgiving the people after their destruction at the hands of Babylon.  The prophet Jonah is taught of God’s mercy even for Nineveh.  Jesus taught of the “prodigal son” who is unconditionally welcomed back into his father’s household even before he can utter words of repentance.  Paul teaches of a God who loves and redeems even God’s enemies.

Gorrings argues that “the New Testament, far from underscoring retibutivism, actually deconstructs it.”[7]  This desconstruction of retributivism may especially be seen in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching.  “Jesus did not present himself as coming to expiate or atone for sin.  There is no hint in the Gospels of the doctrine of a Fall which needs to be redeemed by a once-for-all sacrifice.”  Jesus forgiving sins stood at the center of his ministry.  “When people’s sins are forgiven this happens prior to the passion and is done in the name of the God who seeks life for all his creatures” (66).

A crucial point of tension between the Gospel accounts and later theology may be seen in how one understands Jesus’ crucifixion.  Later theology picked up on a few isolated New Testament texts that were interpreted as underwriting deference to state power and used these to develop a view that punishment reflects the state acting on behalf of God – turning the actual meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion (which shows the state rebelling against God by murdering God’s own son) on its head.

Gorringe writes, “A story which was a unique protest against judicial cruelty came to be a validation of it.  The community which was supposed not to be conformed to the world now underwrote its repressive practice” (81).

Christian theology, in Gorringe’s account, left the basic gospel message of the centrality of God’s simple mercy behind.  A key expression of just how far mainstream Christian theology moved from Jesus’ message may be seen in the atonement theology of Anselm in the Middle Ages.

Whereas Jesus insisted on the canceling of debts (see the famous petition in the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus “Jubilee” announcement in Luke 4), Anselm makes God the one who insists on debt.  This crucial point in Anselm’s theory – that Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary because of the unpayable debt we owe God – turns Jesus’ message on its head.  A central theme in Jesus ministry was the abolition of debt reckoning.

For Anselm, the human debt must be paid by blood.  The God who rejects blood sacrifice (see Hosea 6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” directly quoted by Jesus) now is presented as demanding just such sacrifice.  Gorringe concludes concerning Anselm’s theory, “the penal consequences of this doctrine were grim indeed.  As it entered the cultural bloodstream, was imagined in crucifixions painted over church chancels, recited at each celebration of the eucharist, or hymned, so it created its own structure of affect, one in which earthly punishment was demanded because God himself had demanded the death of his Son” (103).

In Western civilization, theology underwrote punitive criminal justice practices – and in doing so, also underwrote the social status quo.  Gorringe writes, “Criminal law was critically important in maintaining bonds of obedience and deference, in legitimizing the status quo, in constantly recreating the structure of authority which arose from property and in turn protected its interests.  In its rituals, judgments, and channeling of emotion, criminal law echoed many of the most powerful psychic components of religion.  The inverse also applies: this religion underwrites the criminal law, and its symbolic celebration of property and social class” (172).

Western criminal justice practices have centered on punishment.  Gorringe cites numerous theologians who have justified this theologically, including Thomas Jenkyn, a British theologian writing in 1831: “Sin is a public injury to God and the universe.  It is not in the nature of mercy, nor does it become its character, to forgive such a public wrong without an expression of its abhorrence of the crime.  Such a mercy would be weak indifference, a foolish and blind passion.  Everyone sees that a family governed on such a principle would soon become the pest of the commonwealth.  The ends of government in the punishment of offenders are, first, to show the goodness and benevolence of the law; second, to demonstrate the impartial justice of the governor; and, third, to exhibit the evil consequences of breaking the law and to impress offenders with the hopelessness of escaping the punishment due to crime” (199).

Changes in theological reflections concerning punishment corresponded with changes in broader social thought around the beginning of the 20th century.  “It was not until the end of the 19th century that theologians came out firmly in favor of rehabilitation instead of retribution.  This move coincides with a critique of laissez faire economics, and the growth of a more complex understanding of the human person.  The prisoner was no longer the free moral agent, to be blamed for wrong choices, and able to choose whether or not to reform, but the damaged person, who needed the services of the educationist and psychiatrist” (225).

However, unfortunately, in Gorringe’s view, retributivists remain influential, especially among Christians.  He cites the recent work of British theologian Colin Gunton, who asserts that “forgiveness without punishment is sentimentality,” and the one of the reasons for affirming the satisfaction view of the atonement is because the alternative view “does not require death on the cross.”  As well, Gunton accuses non-retributivist theologies of “trivializing evil” (235-6).

Gorringe proposes that Christians advocate for the “conflict resolution” approach to wrongdoing.  “The most constructive attempts at alternatives explored over the past thirty years are in terms of conflict resolution, and have as their theoretical underpinnings the perception that all crime represents a breach of relationships” (253).  Consequently, efforts are made to work in the realm of restoring and rebuilding relationships.  This leads to a commitment to work within the communities where the violation happens.  “The importance of mediation initiatives is that they do not operate by scapegoating, thrusting offenders outside the community, into jail, but recognize that offenders have to be dealt with within the community” (255).

Gorringe ultimately argues for an understanding of redemption that differs a great deal with the traditional satisfaction understanding of atonement.  “In reflecting on what it is God has done for us in Christ we need to shift the center of our reflection from satisfaction to the biblical roots of redemption and reconciliation.  Christ ‘redeems’ us from the principalities and powers, from the social structures that warp human behavior and produce violence and crime, partly by laying bare the way in which they scapegoat and exclude, but also, correlatively, by inaugurating a continuing practice of reconciliation” (269).


How might we think of forgiveness in a way that will foster healing practices in face of the kinds of violations we have been considering?

We will start by listing some relevant characteristics of Christian forgiveness.

Forgiveness comes from God.  It is part of the order of the universe.  The purpose of forgiveness is to foster healing among human beings.  It seeks to effect transformation in life.  Forgiveness comes to human beings from God purely as a gift.  However, it must be responded to with ethical transformation.  That is, forgiveness is free, but it is also demanding.

Forgiveness has a social component.  We need others’ help to find healing.  It has communal relevance.  The hope with forgiveness is that genuine forgiveness makes possible “moving on.”  It can help end the present power that the violation has over survivors.

For Christians, the possibility of forgiveness rests on an experience of God’s grace.  This grace has to do with restored relationships, genuine healing, and a sense of obligation to be generous to others.  This grace is tied with accountability to God for faithful living.

In his book, Embodying Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones asserts that forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity.  “It is at the heart of Jesus’ life and of the apostle Paul, it is featured in both the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, it is central to the Church’s celebration of baptism and eucharist, and it is a unifying feature among doctrines of God, Christ, the Church, and ethics and politics.”[8]

However, in the Christian tradition, what originated as an exercise in mutual support and accountability in faith communities increasingly turned toward the private and individual, with problematic consequences.  According to Jones, “in Western Christianity…piety turned increasingly inward; God’s forgiveness became principally an individual transaction between God and a particular person, with virtually no consequences for either Christian community or social and political life” (38).

At the heart of Jones’s presentation of forgiveness, we see the assertion that the key to embodying forgiveness is that Christians learn how to be forgiven.  Jones writes, “there is a crying, urgent need for people to learn to become forgiving in their relation with one another.  But for Christians this can only happen when we simultaneously learn to embody what it means to be forgiven – by God and by one another” (47).

It is important to learn to be forgiven because it presupposes the recognition that we need to be forgiven.  Without this recognition, we remain stuck in our wrongdoing and sin.  Openness to learning to be forgiven provides a sense that forgiveness is a mutual, give-and-take, way of life process that is necessary for people to co-exist fruitfully in community together.

Learning to be forgiven is an aspect of respecting our place of accountability in a moral universe.  It is part of our accepting responsibility for our own sins and failures.  Yet, learning to forgiven is very difficult.  It puts us in a place of vulnerability in relation to others that having a veneer of faultlessness does not.  We resist admitting that we are needy, especially in need of others forgiveness.

As Jones suggests, part of the difficulty we face in Christian communities is simply that we have not been trained in being forgiven for actual, real life, failures – and, hence, we have also not developed the skills of genuinely forgiving others.

How might Christians embody Jesus’ message while avoiding the Nietzshean critique that Christianity glorifies weakness and passivity?  We might value anger and other emotions as our friends, and learn how to channel them in non-destructive directions.  We might learn to balance honesty and truthfulness with kindness.  We might become skilled in nonviolent resistance and conflict resolution.  We might learn better to value our human differences.  We might better understand forgiveness as a process and part of the broader context of healing that we need after experiencing violations.  We might learn better to listen to our own hearts and to be self-aware.

Jones argues that “we need an account of forgiveness that represents not a distorted and distorting weakness (as Nietzsche thought and as Christians too often actually embodied) but an alternative form of power, a forgiveness whose power is found in Christ’s cross and resurrection.  For it is this power that breaks apart the cycles of violence and offers a re-turning of the announcement of God’s peace.  This power shows that violence is neither inescapable nor unlearnable.  Nor is it the master of us all” (97).

We may think of stories that show how powerful forgiveness has been in various contexts.  Might it be that violence and coercive power and injustice are actually quite fragile in their dependence upon dehumanizing others?  Forgiveness can be a powerful factor in re-humanizing.

In breaking the spiral of violence, Jesus did not avoid conflict or simply say that whatever people would do would be okay.  Jesus did critique wrongdoing.  He assigned responsibility and demanded accountability from wrongdoers.  When appropriate, Jesus took sides, confronting wrongdoers on behalf of their victims.  In fact, he intentionally provoked the powers and brought “judgment” onto himself.

The power of Jesus’ model, his sinlessness, is how he entered the conflicts of the world as an advocate and prophet, yet still managed to embody nonviolence.  He shows that forgiveness is not ignoring evil, but seeking healing for all involved.  And Jesus’ forgiveness seeks to foster transformation, not simply pardon without expectation of a response.

Jones shares elements of Gorringe’s critique of satisfaction views of the atonement.  He writes of problems with Richard Swinburne’s account of atonement.  “The most serious mistake is that Swinburne’s understanding of forgiveness and repentance collapses Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection into an account of the atonement.  In so doing, he loses the integral significance of Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom in its invocation and embodiment of a transformed way of being community; of how and why Jesus’ nonviolent, forgiving love leads him to the cross; of the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death through raising him from the dead and how that transforms our understanding of the relationships of forgiveness and repentance” (155).

Linking this critique with Gorringe’s critique of Anselm’s legacy, we can see here an argument that there are two general ways of understanding Jesus’ work – one focuses on his death as a sacrifice that enables God to offer forgiveness; the second focuses on Jesus’ entire life and its outcome as illumining God’s mercy and  modeling how his followers might live as merciful people themselves.

Jesus’ call to follow his way lies as the very core of his ministry.  This call empowers his followers to imitate his forgiving love in life.  Jesus models human life as it is meant to be, transformed from the various power struggles, fearfulnesses, and spirals of violence that characterize so much of life.

Jesus’ cross, which we as his followers are called to “take up,” resulted from his resistance to the Powers that have enslaved human beings.  Trusting in Jesus leads to freedom from the Powers and the capability to live a transformed life.  In the Gospels, this liberation from the Powers is manifested in Jesus delivering people from demon possession, from bondage to Mammon, and from physical blindness.

From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus announces the presence of God’s forgiveness, the abundance of God’s love.  He assumes that these are already present; his task is to reveal that presence not to affect it.

Jones emphasizes the presence of God’s mercy when he argues that forgiveness actually comes before repentance and enables us to repent.  In support for this assertion, he translates Luke 7:47 as “therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, hence she has shown great love.”  Thus, we may understand Jesus teaching that the woman “has not earned her forgiveness through the repentance of extravagant love; because she has been forgiven, she is able to repent by showing such love” (161).

Jesus himself, thus, started with forgiveness – and the repentance of the people he ministered to followed.  The famous story of the woman caught in adultery illustrates this.  He first drives off her accusers, then offers the word of non-condemnation, and only at the end calls upon her to show fruits of repentance.

Jones asserts, “forgiveness is a habit that must be practiced over time within the disciplines of Christian community” (163).  He cites formal rituals that help Christians embody forgiveness, in particular baptism and communion.

“Baptism signifies that, by the grace of Jesus Christ, people are set free from patterns of sin and evil, of betrayals and of being betrayed, of vicious cycles of being caught as victimizers and victims, so that they can bear to remember the past in hope for the future.  They can do so because they are given a new perspective on that past, the perspective of forgiveness” (166-7).

In relation to communion, Jones asks, “how can we celebrate the eucharist as an Easter feast if we fail to live as forgiven and forgiving people?  So are we enjoined to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters before we come to the eucharist (see, for example, Mt 5:23-24)” (178).

We could also add the importance of preaching and teaching in the church context, where Jesus’ message of forgiveness is articulated and applied.  The message of forgiveness goes against the grain of our broader cultural ethos, so its explicit articulation is essential.

One may also think of more everyday dynamics in which the church serves as the context for people learning in face-to-face relationships.  Simply the experience of being committed to sustaining relationships in community, to face openly and honestly the inevitable conflicts that arise, of having practical models of people who forgive and find ways to practice reconciliation even in the face of violations, all provide essential guidance and reinforcement for the politics of forgiveness.

The church has the task to train its people so they are “prepared” ahead of time to respond redemptively to the kind of violations that tend to lead to hatred.  “We must seek to contextualize hateful feelings by seeking to develop habits of understanding and embodying God’s forgiving and reconciling love prior to such situation (if possible) so that one can interpret the situation or experience or life in that context” (261).

Such preparation might include developing habits of openness and honesty about one’s feelings, being free to express them to others in appropriate ways that help one to avoid the long-term problems of repression, denial, and pent-up rage that tends to find expression at some point in hatred and hostility and retaliation.

The church also is a place where showing the fruits of forgiveness carries more weight than commands to forgive.  Jones writes, “rather than telling victims and those who are suffering that they ought to forgive, or that they ought to believe in a good and gracious God, the first task of the Church – as people who struggle to embody God’s forgiveness in the pursuit of holiness – is to show solidarity with and compassion toward those who find themselves in extremis” (295).

[Master list of Peace Essays]

[1] Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2000).

[2] Laura Blumenfeld, Revenge: A Story of Hope (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 18.  Page references to this book will be given in parentheses in the text.

[3] James Gilligan, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1996)

[4] Judith W. Kay, Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 10.  Page references to this book will be given in parentheses in the text.

[5] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

[6] Gilligan, Violence

[7] Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University, 1996), 5.  Page references to this book will be given in parentheses in the text.

[8] L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 36.  Page references to this book will be given in parentheses in the text.

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