The End of Revenge: Our Fascination With Getting Even

When Vester Lee Flanagan left behind his attempts to explain the unexplainable--the reason he shot two former colleagues in cold blood during a live television broadcast--the rationale he gave was simple revenge; revenge for the mass shooting at a church in Charleston; revenge for mistreatment by his formal employer.

After reading the accounts of his work history and personal issues it seems obvious that Flanagan had some sort of serious personality disorder. So revenge is too simple to be a satisfactory explanation, if one is even possible. But it's out there now, so we should talk about it.

America is a revenge culture: Revenge the television series, revenge porn, revenge games in sports... vengeance is a mainstay of foreign policy and a thematic obsession for film, television, and female pop-musicians.

Oscar winning director Quentin Tarantino has made a career of capitalizing on our lust for revenge. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, these are all formulaic revenge films.

  • Step 1: show an innocent (or beautiful) person being horribly wronged.
  • Step 2: build the audience's self-righteous anger to a fever pitch.
  • Step 3: give the victim some kind of weapon (exotic is better).
  • Step 4: let the victim kill any and every person who has wronged them.
  • Step 5: list to the audience applaud... paycheck.

It's an effective formula for pop film success. But it's a tired script, and not a very redemptive story to tell.

Where does the desire to take revenge come from? It stems from an innate desire for justice. When someone has been wronged we want to see the scales tipped back in their favor. An appropriate disincentive given to the offending party seems fine, but the offended party usually takes things too far, and the disincentive turns into full-on revenge.

Swiss researchers once used brain scans to study the effect of revenge on the human brain. Subjects were given a partner and asked to play a simple game where the duo could work together to win a pot of money. At the last second, their partner would double cross them. Subjects were then given the opportunity to exact revenge on the cheating partner for up to sixty seconds. When scientists scanned the brain of revenge takers the pleasure centers of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree.

Human beings experience revenge as pleasure, but the effects are short lived. Researchers removed the opportunity for revenge from half of the participants in a similar study, then asked subjects to rate their feelings immediately following the double-crossing, then again 10 minutes later. Those who could not seek revenge had significantly more positive feelings than those who were allowed to exact revenge.

Revenge seeking allows a person to ruminate on the offense for longer than is healthy. When revenge is off the table, we are more likely to let the offense go, even to forgive. That means that if you take two victims of injustice--one who seeks revenge and one who forgives--and look at the long-term impact of that choice, you will find the person who chose to forgive will be more healthy and whole.

Revenge presents the person with an ethical quandary. The moment we choose revenge we simultaneously forget how messed up we all are, and we effectively absolve ourselves of our complicity in the row. Even if we are completely innocent in that particular situation, as members of society we are all part of the problem. We are all part of the darkness.

Perhaps this is why Jesus told the disciple Peter that if you live by the sword you die by the sword (Mt. 26:52), and why the apostle Paul strictly forbid seeking revenge (Rom. 12:19). When you exact revenge on another person, you not only sign up for the same treatment, you ensure that the cycle of retribution will continue.

The cross--God's ultimate act of redemption, and the central revelation of God's heart of the world and for what the kingdom of God is all about--was the intentional forgoing of God's right to vengeance, or retribution. It was the rejection of violence as an effective means of redemption.

If anyone in history had a case for revenge, it was Jesus. But he didn't take it. Why? Because Jesus was always asking the question, how will it end? The brokenness, the violence, the wars, murder, abuse, injustice, suffering--how will it all end? His answer was the cross. He swallowed up death. And when he did, he killed revenge.

How does it end? God will forego vengeance, absorb evil.

When we imitate Jesus, we imitate Jesus on the cross. As our lives take on the shape of Jesus's life--forgiveness, the rejection of violence & vengeance--then we meet the world with a powerful story, an true story that has the power to change things. We tell a different story.

When the world says war, we say peace.
When the world says violence we say friendship.
When the world says despair, we say hope.
When the world says vengeance, we say forgiveness... every time.