I’ve been reading John Grisham‘s latest novel, “A Time for Mercy,” this past week in the midst of an unusually frigid winter storm named Uri that rarely ever hits this part of the USA. We’ve had rolling blackouts, freezing water pipes and single digit temperatures along with snow and ice which has kept me indoors for a week until it finally warmed up enough yesterday to go out and buy some groceries. I haven’t experienced this type of winter weather since I left the Midwest back in the early 1990’s, and I never expected to experience it where I currently live which is less than an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, the worst of it has now passed through our area and the current temperature outside as I am writing this blog post is 57 degrees.
As I was reading Grisham’s novel with a battery powered reading light during the first power outage this past Monday, I kept thinking about the topic of mercy. I published a blog post a few months ago on August 7, 2020, titled “Agents of Mercy,” after the tumultuous summer of rioting we encountered here in America in the midst of the Covid pandemic that is still ongoing, and which was followed by a very contentious and divisive presidential election that didn’t seem to end but lingered on long after election day was over in early November.
In our world today it seems that mercy is in very short supply. Whether it’s the presidential election or racial injustice or the current cancel culture movement or even a personal wrong done to us by others, we seek out justice that too often centers on revenge.
In an article published on February 6, 2014, in Psychology Today titled, “Don’t Confuse Revenge With Justice: Five Key Differences,” by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., he clearly shows the distinctions between justice and revenge:
The terms “revenge” and “justice” often get muddled. And that’s hardly surprising. In the course of history, the two have been frequently used interchangeably. You may even be familiar with the phrase “just revenge.” Still, as meanings alter and evolve over time, the connotations of these two words have increasingly diverged. It’s now uncommon to see them used synonymously. And doubtless, revenge has borne the brunt of the various semantic changes that have transpired.
Yet certain overlaps between—and ambiguities within—the two terms do exist. Before delineating the chief distinctions that can usefully be made to separate them, let me at least hint at what some of these inconsistencies might be.
It would be convenient to advance the claim that justice is fair and revenge is not. But as the words “just revenge” suggest, revenge—depending on its underlying conditions, motivations, and execution—might be either just or unjust, fair or (frankly) outrageously out of proportion to the wrong originally done. There seems to be equivocality tightly woven into the term that’s less perceptible in the related concept of justice. All the same, the well-known phrase “miscarriage of justice” warns us to be careful about distinguishing between concepts that, finally, must be understood as both relative and subjective.
Although I believe that the differences between revenge and justice enumerated below generally hold true, I’d emphasize that they are generalizations, so you’ll probably be able to think of some exceptions. There are instances when revenge can legitimately be understood as a type of justice, and justice a kind of revenge. Moreover, as discrete as I’ve tried to make each of the five categories below, a certain amount of resemblance and repetition has been unavoidable. That is, my “dividing lines” may at times seem a bit arbitrary.
1. Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational. Revenge is mostly about “acting out” (typically through violence) markedly negative emotions. At its worst, it expresses a hot, overwhelming desire for bloodshed. As perverse as it may seem, there’s actual pleasure experienced in causing others to suffer for the hurt they’ve caused the avenger, or self-perceived victim (cf. the less personal Schadenfreude).
Justice—as logically, legally, and ethically defined—isn’t really about “getting even” or experiencing a spiteful joy in retaliation. Instead, it’s about righting a wrong that most members of society (as opposed to simply the alleged victim) would agree is morally culpable. And the presumably unbiased (i.e., unemotional) moral rightness of such justice is based on cultural or community standards of fairness and equity. Whereas revenge has a certain selfish quality to it, “cool” justice is selfless in that it relies on non-self-interested, established law.
2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon. The driving impetus behind revenge is to get even, to carry out a private vendetta, or to achieve what, subjectively, might be described as a personal justice. If successful, the party perceiving itself as gravely injured experiences considerable gratification: their retaliatory goal has been achieved—the other side vanquished, or brought to its knees. Just or not, the avenger feels justified. Their quest for revenge has “re-empowered” them and, from their biased viewpoint, it’s something they’re fully entitled to.
On the other hand, social justice is impersonal. It revolves around moral correction in situations where certain ethical and culturally vital principles have been violated. When justice is successfully meted out, the particular retribution benefits or protects both the individual and society—which can operate effectively only when certain acceptable behavioral guidelines are followed.
3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication. The intense effort to avenge oneself or others can easily become corrupting, morally reducing the avenger’s status to that of the perpetrator. Two wrongs do not make a right and (ethically speaking) never can. Degrading another only ends up further degrading oneself. Even if a kind of justice might be served through an act of revenge, it could still be argued that there’s nothing particularly admirable or evolved in retaliating against a wrong by committing a “like” wrong. Or to behave vengefully is, at best, to take the low road to justice.
In opposition, justice is grounded in assumptions, conventions, and doctrines having to do with honor, fairness, and virtue. Its purpose really isn’t vindictive. That is, bloodthirstiness has no part—or should have no part—in precepts of justice, at least not in the way the term is presently employed. It’s based on established law, and its proceedings are designed to dispense to individuals precisely what is deserved: nothing more, and nothing less.
4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure. Revenge has a way of relentlessly repeating itself (as in interminable feuds, such as the Hatfields and McCoys)—and ever more maliciously. Revenge typically begets more revenge. Whether it’s an individual or an entire nation, it takes place within a closed system that seems able to feed on itself indefinitely. Unlike tic-tac-toe, tit for tat is a game without end. One side gets satisfaction, then the other is driven to get its satisfaction, and then, theoretically, ad infinitum. There can be no resolution, no compromise. Each faction (say, Israel and Palestine) has its own agenda, its own sense of right and wrong. And the righteous rigidity of each side usually demands that some trusted outsider intervene if matters are ever to be settled.
Justice, in contrast, is designed (by individuals or officials generally not linked to the two opposing camps) to offer a resolution far more likely to eventuate in closure—especially if, in fact, it is just (equitable). And when justice is done so is the conflict that led up to it. Beyond that, punishments for wrongdoing carry an agreed-upon authority lacking in personal vengeful acts, which are calculated solely to “get back” at the assumed perpetrator. Technically speaking, so-called “vigilante justice” isn’t really justice, or social justice, at all—though at times it may appear to be. Taking matters into one’s own hands may sometimes seem justified, but it hardly meets the more rigorous criteria for consensual, or community, justice.
5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance. The motive of revenge has mostly to do with expressing rage, hatred, or spite. It’s a protest or payback, and its foremost intent is to harm. In and of itself, it’s not primarily about justice but about victims’ affirming their inborn (but non-legal) right to retaliate against some wrong done to them.
And because it’s so impassioned, it’s typically disproportionate to the original injury—meaning that it usually can’t be viewed as just. The punishment may fit the crime, but it’s often an exaggerated response to another’s perceived offense.
On the contrary, justice is concerned with dispassionately restoring balance by bringing about equality—or better, equity. It centers on proportion as it equates to fairness. Not driven by emotion, restorative justice—meted out by a court of law—seeks to be as objective and evenhanded as possible. It’s not, as is so much of revenge, about doing the other side “one better” but about equitably—or properly—punishing wrongdoing. In fact, the ancient “law of the ‘talion’” (an ethical standard originating in Babylonian law and present as well in the Bible and early Roman law) focuses on what is commonly known (but, hopefully, only metaphorically!) as the “eye for an eye” conception of justice. In brief, the kind or magnitude of justice meted out is contrived to “correspond” as exactly as possible to the gravity of the original injury. (Quote source here.)
This world does not operate on grace; it operates on the basis of merit, on the basis of justice. Quid pro quo, this for that; you do this, you get that. That is the way the entire world operates—on the basis of justice or equity.
Early in my ministry, I went to preach in a jail, and a man snapped at me that all he demanded was justice. I said if he got justice, the floor would open up and send him to hell.
What we need is mercy, not justice.
Consider the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the famous couple accused of being Soviet spies who gave away our atomic secrets. They were convicted of espionage by the jury and were sentenced to death. Their lawyers said to Judge Kaufman, “Your honor, all my clients ask for is justice.”
Judge Kaufman replied, “What your clients have asked for, this court has given them. What you really mean, is what they want is mercy, and that, this court is not empowered to give.”
But that is precisely what our God—the Judge of all of the earth—is able to do: grant us mercy. That is the wondrous news of the Gospel.
While none of us is perfect, and none of us has lived up to God’s standard, and all of us have fallen short, Jesus Christ came to do what we are unable to do. In His mercy, He saved us by His blood. (Quote source here.)
It’s inevitable. People in our lives, even people we love, will wrong us in one way or another. Look at Jesus. He never did anything wrong. Still, He was gravely wronged, to the point of death.
When someone wrongs us, often we have the natural urge to want to harm them back…. We’re all susceptible to giving in to the spirit of revenge. But we must try our best not to give in. Though exacting revenge may feel like it will relieve us and set things right, it never does. In fact, trying to get revenge only ever makes things worse.
It says in Scripture, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.'” (Rom 12:19-20). It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK, even good when appropriate, to express feelings and emotions. But to channel our anger into exacting vengeance only breeds more hurt. We must replace desire for revenge with mercy, as Jesus did.
Scripture commentator Scott Hahn says of this Scripture passage, “Heaping coals of kindness on one who has wronged you can cure him of vices, burn away his malice, and move him to repentance.”
Love and mercy can bring healing into just about any situation. God, of course, transformed the death of His innocent Son into the saving act of Redemption.
On the other hand, prudence requires us, in certain situations, to take reasonable steps to protect ourselves from harm. For example, avoiding someone who has shown they mean you harm is not revenge so much as mercifully protecting the innocent.
Though we should not seek revenge, this does not mean that God is unfair. Hahn continues, “God overlooks no evil or wrongdoing but will exact justice on the Day of Judgment.” The Lord will set everything right at the end of time. For now, we can trust that God can bring forth a greater good from our suffering if we let Him.
In the end, God is the only one whom we can count on to never hurt us. No matter how much we might harm Him, He is all-merciful. He merely asks us to treat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the same way. (Quote source here.)
With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers [and sisters], as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all. For just as you have many members in one physical body and those members differ in their functions, so we, though many in number, compose one body in Christ and are all members of one another. Through the grace of God we have different gifts. If our gift is preaching, let us preach to the limit of our vision. If it is serving others let us concentrate on our service; if it is teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set ourselves to it. Let the man who is called to give, give freely; let the man who wields authority think of his responsibility; and let the man who feels sympathy for his fellows act cheerfully.
Let us have no imitation Christian love. Let us have a genuine break with evil and a real devotion to good.
Let us have real warm affection for one another as between brothers [and sisters], and a willingness to let the other man have the credit.
Let us not allow slackness to spoil our work and let us keep the fires of the spirit burning, as we do our work for God.
Base your happiness on your hope in Christ. When trials come endure them patiently, steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer.
Give freely to fellow-Christians in want, never grudging a meal or a bed to those who need them.
And as for those who try to make your life a misery, bless them. Don’t curse, bless.
Share the happiness of those who are happy, the sorrow of those who are sad.
Live in harmony with each other. Don’t become snobbish but take a real interest in ordinary people. Don’t become set in your own opinions.
Don’t pay back a bad turn by a bad turn, to anyone. Don’t say “it doesn’t matter what people think”, but see that your public behavior is above criticism.
As far as your responsibility goes, live at peace with everyone.
Never take vengeance into your own hands, my dear friends: stand back and let God punish if he will. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’.
These are God’s words: ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head’. Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered with evil…
Take the offensive . . .
Overpower evil . . .
By good . . . .
YouTube Video: “Mercy Came Running” by Phillips, Craig & Dean: