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The Vengeance Virus


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I want to make a proposal to you, that each of us is infected with a virus, which is circulating freely within society.

This virus is not transmitted by airborne droplet infection, nor by touching contaminated surfaces. No, this virus is passed on with words. We pass this virus on to our children by the words we say. We increase each others viral load as we discuss with words.

I call this the vengeance virus.

We are unaware that we are sick with the vengeance virus because it dresses itself up to look like justice.

Vengeance says that because someone has done something wrong, they must suffer wrong themselves.

Because someone has caused pain, they too must feel the same level of pain.

Vengeance says things like, "How would he like it if someone did that to him", "The punishment must fit the crime", "There'll be hell to pay, and he deserves it.", "Well she had it coming, and now she's getting a taste of her own medicine!"

The problem is clearly seen in our prison system in England. It is in a woeful state, but that is not surprising, because we have such conflicted views about what we expect prison to achieve.

Our prisons are supposed to protect wider society by taking dangerous offenders out of circulation. They are supposed to be a demonstration to society that crime does not pay to discourage others from offending. They are supposed to be an unpleasant experience to demonstrate retributive punishment. And finally, they are supposed to make the offender a better person!

This vengeance virus critically affects our political, moral and theological views. It changes how we think about punishment, about atonement, about hell, but worst of all it changes how we think about God. You see, this virus will make you certain that He is a vengeful God, who deals out punishments that fit the crimes.

Wait, you say, doesn't scripture teach that He is a God of Vengeance.

Yes, you'll find that in scripture, but you'll also find this in ...

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 : If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall ... bring him to the elders ... of his town. They shall say ... ‘This son ... is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. ... ’ . Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.

And you'll also find this in ...

Exodus 21:20 : “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property."

And we could read scores of similarly disturbing verses from the Old Testament.

As someone raised to believe every word of scripture is true and useful, I was never taught about verses like this. They are simply avoided in every church that claims to have this literal fundamental inerrant view of scripture.

But I now think it is clear that the scriptures are a progressive revelation of God and his great plan to extend his Kingdom in this world and thus save it.

Paul described the revelation of God in the Old Testament as like seeing a shadow of something good. He also said that although it's better now, what we see is more like a blurry reflection in a mirror than a faithful complete revelation of God.

But of course the most authoritative statements that show scripture to be a developing revelation of God, are Jesus own words on the sermon on the mount, prefaced with "You have heard ... but I tell you ..."

Matthew 5:38-45 : “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven. "

So consider how the developing picture of God regarding vengeance is treated in scripture:

In Genesis, in the very beginning, Cain murders his brother, and from there the vengeance escalates, as a sevenfold retribution for injury is considered acceptable. A few generations further on, Lamech demands a seventy-fold retribution for any injury. Then God's way is partially revealed as the Moses Law limits vengeance to be even-handed - eye_for_eye - a bruise for a bruise. Later, the apostle Paul tells us that the Old Testament law provides a dark and distorted view of what God wants, and our behaviour is not to be guided by the law but by Jesus Christ's words. Jesus himself says, 'turn the other cheek, love your enemy, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.'

Many Christians interpret the lake of fire in Revelation as God's punishment - because it fits this idea of retributive justice.

Likewise, many Christians interpret the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the parable of the sheep and the goats as God's punishment - because it fits their existing view that justice means the punishment must fit the crime. Many Christians interpret Jesus' suffering on the cross as God's punishment transferred from us to Jesus - again because they expect God the Father to express justice by violent deserved vengeance.

Some of us have this view sleeping in the backs of our minds. Because we have been so conformed to the world, so squeezed into thinking a certain way by society, that we consider vengeance to be natural and fair and just. But it isn't.

We need to stop seeing everything through the distorting lens of retributive justice or vengeful violence, and instead see everything with the mind of Christ, who said "Turn the other cheek when you are struck".

But in answer to the prayers of centuries, God's kingdom is coming. We see the evidence today. The death penalty is abolished in many countries. The world latterly has seen Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King. The climate change pressure group Extinction Rebellion is strongly and declaredly anti-violent. As are an increasing number of protest groups. And societies worldwide are beginning to understand that prisons that focus on vengeful punishment, only dehumanise and degrade which makes criminals worse. We are seeing the idea of restorative justice, which rather than punishing, seeks to address root causes of crime, and remake relationships, and restore what has been lost.

So how does this feel to you? Do you think that God's Kingdom, that Jesus politics applies only to individuals? Do you think "turn the other cheek" cannot apply to nation states? Very many Christians feel that way.

Many think that it's okay for an individual to turn the other cheek, but you can't run society that way.

Some think getting your own back with destructive retribution is not right for individual relationships, but it's fine for the national law courts to do it on our behalf. Prisons are not supposed to be holiday camps, say the newspapers. Men who have been dragged up in a broken care system, with abusive parents, expelled from school, not able to read and write, turn to selfishness and evil crime, and fill our prisons, and we think somehow that justice is served if they are painfully punished. This is not God's definition of justice. He has turned away from vengeance, and is into restoration.

Scriptures tell us that God said "Vengeance is mine", says the Lord. 'Don't you get involved in vengeance - leave that to me'. So tell me this - when Jesus Christ hung on the cross (and in that moment as Isaiah tells us) he experienced all the sin of the world, felt it in all it's horror , the abuse of every child, the cruelty of every day of every war, the hatred of every vendetta, the horror of every murder and the heartbreak of every betrayal. And when that all was laid on Jesus Christ, and then he prayed "Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing" what do you think was God's reply?

Do you think he said, "Nah!! No chance!" ?

'Turn the other cheek' said Jesus in his mountain sermon, 'so that you will be children of your Father in heaven'.

I think this means God the Father turns the other cheek! That's the way I read it. I'm not sure how you can read it any other way!

Some say that all this idealistic stuff will have to wait until Jesus comes back again, and until then, we should just be allowed to let the status quo carry on running the world as it always has.

Let me say this ... Jesus is the Saviour of THE WORLD. Yes, he's the personal saviour of individuals, and that's how this all progresses. But the gospel is not about individual salvation - the first step is about establishing the politics of the Kingdom Of God in the transformed minds of individuals worldwide. But that must lead on to step 2 - when we accept that our primary paramount overriding citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. Then step 3 when we realise that to pray "Thy Kingdom Come" necessarily means these Kingdom politics deposing the world's abusive power structures which favour the wealthy, the privileged, the educated, the healthy, the intelligent, the beautiful, and tread down the rest.

And thus we not only pray then, but as well work so that our justice systems become restorative rather than retributive. So that our education systems are honest about our national shortcomings. So that the victories of individual nations result from sacrificial love conquering hearts and minds rather than resulting from ever more powerful upgraded weapons. And there will always be times when violence is the only way to protect victims, as in the case of the holocaust. But violence which is restorative, not retributive.

We pray and work to establish this new community of God's Kingdom.

So our response to international acts of terror is not to respond with violent abusive punishment, or to take up arms, but to resist that knee-jerk reaction, and instead to bring our own previous foreign interventions and behaviour to the sermon on the mount, and begin an honest conversation from there.

So our response to the abusive drug addicted parent, is not deliberately painful retribution, but it is to both pray "forgive them father", and to actively provide positive restorative support. And alongside that to address the safety of society and potential victims using whatever necessary and valid non-retributional aspects of the legal system are deemed best - which could still be incarceration or isolation from victims if the offender is irredeemably dangerous. But this is not retribution, and the offender should be helped to understand that.

And our response to those who seem to hate what we stand for is to think about what has engendered the hatred. And to be humble enough to truly listen in a conversation.

In a country where national enemies were reviled, and the powerful encouraged hatred of foreigners, and those on the fringes of society were dehumanised and rejected and left on the street, Jesus spoke different words and lived a different life. And called us to follow him.

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