Preaching Grace in a Culture of Revenge

July 30th, 2012
This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

On May 1, 2011, we all sat glued to our televisions or Internet news source awaiting a huge news story to break at any second. I specifically remember my husband predicting what the news would be, and he was right: Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks had been killed by U.S. forces. The world watched as people showed their emotions about this breaking news story—people celebrated in the streets and gathered outside the White House holding American flags, chanting “USA! USA!” Our Facebook pages exploded with people crying out that justice had been done, and America had defeated the enemy. Others expressed disgust in the way people were celebrating and gloating over someone’s death, even if that person happened to be Bin Laden.

It seems that human nature overtakes us in these moments where we see “justice” being done. Even at a young age, we are almost programmed to celebrate the death of the “bad guy.” I remember watching Disney movies as a child and in almost every one, it seems like the death of the villain was to be celebrated and led immediately to the “happily ever after.”

I’ll admit that one of my favorite TV shows right now is Revenge: a story of a young woman who sets out to avenge her father’s betrayal and death and will do whatever she can to manipulate and destroy those who were behind her personal tragedy. Often, she succeeds, but at the end of the day, death, destruction, and a loss of control are the result of her need for revenge. Yet, it seems that this need for justice and revenge is something ingrained within us. When we have these feelings, it seems that for that time, we do not see the bigger picture. We have this feeling of satisfaction, but then we realize that perhaps there is more to the story. As Christian leaders, we know there is more to the story—there is God’s story of hope and redemption, and a redefined sense of justice.

So, how can we as pastors and church leaders preach grace in a culture of revenge? For many of us and our congregations, grace is not always the initial choice or instinct to follow. When someone has done us wrong, we usually jump to wanting revenge or justice to be served to the person. However, at the end of the day, we are called and challenged to grace rather than revenge. Here are some thoughts and ideas about how we might be able to guide our churches to practice grace when feelings of revenge threaten to prevail:

Turn to Scripture

Our scriptures are rich with texts concerning God and justice, and the idea that justice belongs to God alone. As Christians and church leaders, it is our job to embody and preach love, even if it means we are called to “love our enemies” (Luke 6:27). We are also challenged to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

One particular Gospel story stands out to me and models the biblical and Christological teaching about grace and justice. It is the story of the disciple who cuts off a man’s ear. Found in all four Gospel accounts is the story one of Jesus’ disciples cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave upon Jesus’ arrest. An unnamed disciple quickly grabs his sword and without thinking, cuts off the man’s ear in a fit of anger, protection, or possibly self-defense. It’s easy for any of us to see why he acted this way: his friend, his master, his Lord was about to be arrested, tried, and killed. The immediate response would be to act, even irrationally or violently, and try to change or fix the situation. As Jesus always does, he steps in and puts everything into perspective by saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Only in Luke’s Gospel are we told that Jesus actually healed the man’s ear after the disciple’s violent act. This small, but significant event of the Gospel story reminds us of our humanness and our tendency to jump to violence or revenge instead of taking the path of grace as Jesus did. Jesus healed the ear of the man who played a role in arresting him and scolded one of his disciples for seeking revenge instead of grace. We are called to follow.

Teach Doctrines of Grace

Our doctrinal heritage teaches us that God’s grace is manifest in all creation, even in the face of evil, suffering, and violence. We know that even though we are broken people, God promises to restore and transform us through divine grace. When we are threatened by the evils of this world, such as terrorism and violence, we are asked to acknowledge our own shortcomings and consider how we might bring about evidence of God’s transforming and renewing grace out of any given situation. We should remember John Wesley’s General Rules: Do no harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God. When we live these rules and put them into action, we remember that we are not called to seek revenge or rejoice in one’s downfall, but to prayerfully act in a way that makes room for God to transform and renew, and to do a new thing in us and in the person we may seek revenge upon.

One of the most emotional and controversial issues surrounding justice and revenge is the death penalty. Many believe the death penalty to be the ultimate form of justice and believe that through an offender’s death, healing and closure may begin. On the other hand, many see the death penalty as inhumane and an unacceptable form of punishment and justice. The United Methodist Social Principles state that “we believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings…we must see all human life as significant and valuable…” (¶164, G) Whether or not you agree with this stance, it is clear that as Christians, if we believe in the transforming power of the resurrection, we are called to believe in God’s transforming power in all human beings. That being said, we are also called to repentance through Jesus Christ. Instead of seeking revenge, could we call upon our faith in this transformation and repentance of the person who has done wrong?

Turn Feelings of Hatred and Revenge into Works of Grace

I have a parishioner whose son was murdered by a man many years ago. This mother was heartbroken and deeply grieved over her son. But by the grace of God, she eventually came to a place of forgiveness and grace for the man who was responsible for her son’s death. Out of this forgiveness, she shared the Gospel with the man who had hurt her so deeply, and he came to know Jesus Christ. Her strength and faith are constant reminders to those around her that grace and forgiveness are possible through Jesus Christ, and enable us to live and grow in him.

I am also reminded of a woman whose daughter was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Out of this tragedy, she started chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) in her area, which continue to thrive today and offer hope and support to families that are victims of drunk driving. Hope can come out of tragedy. Why not share similar stories and experiences of turning feelings of revenge into works of grace and mercy? We are called to channel these feelings into evidence of God working in our world.

Preaching grace in a culture of revenge is not an easy feat, especially when human emotions and our need for justice in the midst of violence and wrongdoing take over. Therefore, it is important to stay grounded in God’s word, in our understanding of what it means to surrender our feelings of revenge to God, and in our reflections on Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness, grace, and mercy. We are called to teach, preach, and embody these qualities in our ministries and begin to shape a culture that will seek grace first, will pray for justice in a healthy manner, and will redirect feelings of revenge into examples of hope and love in the midst of tragedy. This might take practice for many of us, but it is indeed a challenge worth undertaking.

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