The Morality of Revenge
by Ben Stone
(audio version at bottom of this page)
Let’s start with some definitions just so we’re all moving in the same direction.
1: to avenge (as oneself) usually by retaliating in kind or degree
2: to inflict injury in return for injury
1: punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense: retribution
1: blood feud
2: an often-prolonged series of retaliatory, vengeful, or hostile acts
We may not all agree on these definitions, but for the purpose of this article let’s assume these definitions as our standard.
So then, if I’m minding my own business and a thief suddenly approaches me at gunpoint and robs me of $20, I will have a natural inclination to seek my money back, and a burning desire to be vindicated. I may be so kind as to be satisfied with a simple return of my money, but most people will have a desire to inflict revenge. This is a natural reaction to having a gun shoved in my face (fear) and being robbed (humiliation). During the robbery I lost more than the mere $20. I lost things that are not so easily replaced like confidence, trust, and even self-respect. The only time tested way of getting back my dignity and my confidence is if I am afforded the opportunity to dominate the thief the way he dominated me. For justice to be served, I must be able to inflict upon my attacker the same fear and humiliation that he inflicted upon me. And I may even desire more than revenge, I may want to punish him beyond what I have suffered therefore inflicting vengeance to teach him a lesson. And if this is just the latest in a series of brutish encounters with this thief, I may have a vendetta against him and want to punish him repeatedly until my desire for vengeance is quenched.
Special note to my Christian reader:
The Christian reading this article may scoff at my praise of vengeance and may fall back on the Biblical quote from the Book of Romans, “…give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” which is itself a quote from the book of Deuteronomy. However I have three thoughts about that. The first being the context of both those quotes is in regards to the “body of believers” dealing with non-believers who are in authority and the question is whether or not violence should be used to bring down that authority. In the book of Romans, I believe Paul is telling the Christians in the city of Rome not to use “wrath” in dealing with their persecutors, but to heap love upon them. In other words, do not engage in violent civil disruptions against Rome, which were common in the day. And in the quote from Deuteronomy, Moses was speaking to the Israelites right before his death at the time that they were about to enter their promised land. He was giving an admonition for them not to seek war with the surrounding pagan nations. I believe he was saying that it will be necessary to carve out your place in the land with the sword, but once established in the land don’t seek a fight with the neighbor States. Let God deal with them. My second thought on the Romans quote is in its use of the word “wrath”. Wrath involves anger and although anger can be justified in many situations, anger tends to fog the mind and impair judgment. So then wrath should not be a driving force in issuing revenge or establishing justice. My third thought on the quote from Romans is that if vengeance were bad why would God involve himself in the business of inflicting it? Isn’t it more logical to assume that the passages are speaking about specific instances and not about the nature of revenge? Otherwise if revenge is actually a bad thing, then we have a god who tells us, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I refuse to accept such a god who holds a double standard. The God I recognize is Unchanging and True.
I have carefully thought this through and have studied the opinions of countless authors and thinkers, and have even spent dozens of hours digging through the Bible to solve this single question: Is the desire for revenge a good thing or a flaw in human nature? My conclusion is that revenge is not only a natural reaction; it is a good and healthy reaction. When revenge is denied, justice is incomplete at best. And when revenge is denied something inside the human psyche burns in pain and dies to some degree. When a perfectly sane person is victimized and then is denied revenge, they lose forever a chunk of sanity. Do this often enough or to such a dramatic degree that the victim comes to the conclusion that they will forever be trodden upon and they will never see complete justice and you will have crushed out the last remaining embers of sanity that warms that person’s soul.
It is my argument that justice has a number of components.
Among these are:
Recompense – A return of or a monetary paying back of what was stolen or damaged.
Revenge – Personally inflicting or witnessing the infliction of equal suffering upon the perpetrator.
Assurance – Knowing that this perpetrator will never do this crime again.
Vengeance – Punishment above and beyond the original damages, inflicted to teach the perpetrator and the community that this behavior is unacceptable.
Further, it’s my argument that when justice is repeatedly denied to an individual or to a group of individuals, the desire to inflict a vendetta becomes wholly legitimate if no other path to justice is available. And when justice is systematically denied, the psyche of individuals and even whole cultures can be damaged to the point that they will no longer recognize justice and will act in ways inconsistent with their own well being.
At times, whole societies enjoyed the benefits of true justice. A partial list of a few of those societies would include ancient Israel during the time of the judges, pre-Cromwell Celtic/Christian Ireland, pre-English-invasion Scotland, The Free Icelandic State, pre-English Australia, native North America excluding the Mexican empires, pre-1800 Scot-Irish Appalachia, the American West prior to the post-Civil War expansion of the State, and the Zomia of upland southeast Asia. But as the State, in its various forms, moved into each of these areas one of the first thing it did was to usurp justice.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. The State has systematically denied justice while demonizing aspects of justice. It has, through its puppets in the media, the schools, and yes, even the clergy, taught that revenge is uncivilized and barbaric or even sinful. Justice is redefined as whatever the State decides in each individual case. Recompense is paid to the State and almost never to the victim. The State, not the victim, dictates the punishment and then the State imprisons and punishes the perpetrator behind closed doors and out of public sight. The State, through immoral taxation, forces victims and innocent bystanders to pay for the incarceration process, all the time making false assurances of safety and security. Then it arbitrarily releases criminals back into society that are often more violent and dangerous than when they were first incarcerated. And finally in desperation, as its failures become more and more obvious, the State begins redefining crime so that almost any normal peaceful activity can be criminalized and punished. Thus we have seen in news reports during this first half of 2011 within the United States, Amish farmers suffering persecution over things like raw milk and cheese. A “Mom and Pop” flower business suffering a SWAT raid for improper paperwork related to an orchid bulb. A teenager’s rabbit breeding business is facing $4 million dollars in fines while earning only a few hundred dollars over the life of the business. Small time chicken farmers and small boat fishermen are being put out of business by lengthy and vague regulations that would cost more to conform to than the business produces. Now we hear of a SWAT raid by the US Dept of Edu over a student loan. And not long ago, a botched SWAT raid on an innocent Marine veteran that ended in his tragic execution in his own home.
This is all perfectly consistent with what one should expect from State “justice” considering, as I have proclaimed so often, the State is only capable of theft, aggression, and lies. To expect the State to produce justice, considering it has no concept of justice, is wholly inconsistent with logic. And yet so many people fear what would happen if the State were not here lording over us with its tyranny. They fail to look back to civilizations that lasted thousands of years without the State, and in fear they cling to the only master they have ever known. Its a kind of mass-Stockholm Syndrome where the victims have become so accustomed to being enslaved that they fear freedom and will voluntarily fill their minds with any excuse to keep from thinking about the obvious.
This brings us to a scary situation. Remember, when aspects of justice are systematically denied the response is two-fold. One is a burning desire to strike a vendetta, and the other is to begin acting in ways inconsistent with one’s own well being. When found together, these two tendencies are precursors to revolution. That’s real revolution, not just sign waving and town meetings, but blood in the streets and snipers on rooftops. And keep in mind, outside of Mexico, a real revolution has never happened in North America. The American War of Independence was a war of secession, as was the failed attempt by the Confederacy during the so-called Civil War. Additionally a revolution never produces the result that the revolutionaries want or expect. Revolutions simply empower the newly formed State to be even worse than the old one.
So then, what are we to do once we recognize this systematic injustice?
I contend that we must peaceably resist all aspects of the State while withdrawing from our dependency upon and support of the State and its various tentacles. If we examine our lives and honestly evaluate every way we depend on the State and every way we support the State, and then we establish a long term plan to remove ourselves from this ungodly system, while helping others see the State for what it is, we will have better positioned ourselves for when this Beast finally runs its course and dies.
Always remember, we existed before the State. And when the State dies and is simply a distant memory, we humans will live on. I may not see those days arrive, but someone will. I write this article for their benefit. So that someday, they may see justice.
The Morality of Revenge (audio version)