"There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness."--Josh Billings
Something profound happens to me whenever I reflect upon the parable of the Prodigal Son. This ungrateful, selfish brat conveniently desires to return home only after he runs out of money and can barely survive. Yet, he experiences his father’s extraordinarily lavish mercy. This is not the kind of mercy that merely forgoes punishment or retribution, but a mercy that welcomes, restores, and celebrates this returning son. This radical and offensive display of mercy moves me. It unleashes an unquenchable thirst for mercy in our world. I’m sort of infatuated with Mercy. I daydream of a world that operates out of that kind of mercy. But then…
When my son disregards my repeated warnings to get off the table and then falls and hurts himself, I sigh with satisfaction.
When the driver who cuts me off gets pulled over by the police, I smugly smile.
When the friend who betrays me apologizes, I stubbornly hold a grudge.
When I deliver an insult that outwits the person who insulted me first, I stand a little taller.
When an ideological opponent is proven wrong, I dance in victory.
When my political opponent is humiliated, I laugh.
When my religious opponent falls, I rub it in.
And when the vile terrorist gets shot in the face, I gleefully rejoice.
See, I’ll flirt with Mercy and praise her many virtues. Mercy is great for a spiritual fling, for a good theological roll in the hay. But the moment Mercy wants to jump off those red-lettered pages into the real world, Mercy gets kicked out of bed faster than an STD-infested hooker. See, I like Mercy, I really do, but I love Revenge. Mercy lives in parables I revere, in the dreams that give me spiritual butterflies, in my ideal fantasies of how the world should be. And that’s where I want her to stay. Revenge is a lover much more suitable for the real world. Revenge lives with me in my daily attitudes and actions, in my heart. I may have an occasional rendezvous affair with Mercy, but I’m married to Revenge. Because when push comes to shove, Mercy is shown the door and Revenge gets the ring.
For me, the death of Osama Bin Laden is not primarily about whether the government had the right to kill him (although I know that discussion is happening), but what our ideal attitude and heart should be in the midst of this reality. Many are discussing the implications of bible verses like Romans 13, Ezekiel 18:32, and Proverbs 24:17 in this matter. For me, I acknowledge the government has a serious duty to protect the innocent by stopping dangerous mass-murderers like Bin Laden. Bin Laden lived by the sword and consequently died by it. He perpetuated hatred, fear, violence, and murder. Ideally, I’d rather see dangerous people like him captured and imprisoned instead of killed, but I realize that is not always possible. Yet, somehow cheering and gloating over his death in a patriotic frenzy does not align with the highest ideals of my faith. There’s a difference between acknowledging the government’s authority to kill a terrorist like Bin Laden, and reveling in it. I can both affirm that what the government did was permissible, without taking pleasure in the death of another human being. So, I don’t sit here condemning the government for taking out Bin Laden or even the people who are cheering his death like it’s a Super-bowl victory. I sit here thinking about what’s in my own heart. When I heard that Bin Laden was killed, I wasn’t thinking about the government’s “divine mandate” to execute justice, or the fact that Bin Laden wouldn’t be able to harm anyone ever again, or anything so noble. I thought “that bastard finally got what was coming to him.” I felt superior and savored the thought of Bin Laden getting shot in the face. No matter how many valid reasons exist to justify killing Bin Laden, I still must face the heart beneath it all that harbors revenge.
I’ve read a lot of ugly things this week. Celebratory cheers over Bin Laden in hell, cries that his body should have been desecrated, and regrets that Bin Laden didn’t suffer more before dying. Many of these comments were from Christians. And while I never voiced such thoughts, perhaps some of these comments reflected what was lurking inside my own heart.
As Jesus hung on the cross, in agonizing pain, He was moved toward compassion for his enemies, the very people who mocked him, plotted his arrest, oppressed His people, spat on him, humiliated him, tortured him, and nailed him to the cross. In the very MIDST of His suffering, He cried out on their behalf, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His heart was FOR his enemies, hoping for their reconciliation and restoration before God.
I don’t pray like that much. My prayers usually devolve into something like, “Father, forsake them, for they know exactly what they’re doing!” I don’t want my enemies to receive mercy and I certainly don’t want to ask for it on their behalf.
Deep down, I love revenge. I live it, justify it, often approve of it, and even root for it. Revenge feels good, sometimes it even feels right. Revenge is a seductive lover. But Mercy stands on the sidelines, down on one knee, proposing to a world caught in the violent cycles of Revenge. But marrying Mercy means divorcing Revenge and the addicting attitudes that go along with it: the sense of superiority, the self-righteous comparisons, and the surges of glee and revelry that arise when an “enemy” gets their comeuppance. Living a life with Mercy means relinquishing that gavel we are constantly wrestling out of God’s hands to wield in judgment ourselves. It means crying out on our enemies’ behalf, even in the midst of unfathomable suffering caused by their hands. For that is the way of Christ.
All life is sacred.
Death is always tragic.
Violence (no matter how well-intentioned) has ugly ramifications.
And Mercy has the power to liberate both the oppressor and the oppressed.