The voice of vengeance

Psalm 88 (Morning)

Psalm 91, 92 (Evening)

1 Maccabees 1:41-63

Revelation 19:11-16

Matthew 16:13-20

All atrocities are awful, but some atrocities are so awful it’s hard to even hear them all the way through the recounting of them. Our reading in 1 Maccabees may well be in that latter category. It’s really hard not to flip the page or click the “back” button when we read of the gruesome bloodbath that was perpetrated upon the people of Judah; the thought that they were partially betrayed by their own people is almost equally repugnant. Our reading in Revelation doesn’t exactly portray a God oozing with warm fuzzies, either. It would be great if we could all go, “Well, that was a long time ago, and we’ve come a long way since then.”

Unfortunately, “how far we’ve come,” is pretty debatable. The sad fact is that so-called civilized humans still commit plenty of atrocities upon one another–and that lethal combination of empire admixed with greed and control is often the root cause. Even sadder is when zealous belief is thrown into the mix, and no religion–Christianity included–gets a hall pass on this. We had the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition to show for it. Christianity’s own participation in atrocities in the name of religion is probably the most damning thing detractors of religion most often highlight as a pivotal reason for their non-belief or anti-belief stance. It doesn’t help that some Christians try to sidestep this by means of apologetics that sound, at best, hollow, and, at worst, like an abused spouse defending the perp. (I cringe every time a Biblical literalist defends the notion of an angry, righteous God who demands the blood of everyone around, including God’s son, as “righteous justice” or the notion of a “jealous God.” That sounds more like Idi Amin to me.)

As Christians, we are called to live in a terrible tension. Our fundamental book of faith contains the same uncomfortable paradox we find in our daily journey within our human condition–the coexistence of both abounding love and unspeakable horror. Our tendency is to put on blinders, focus only on the nice parts, and skip the ugly parts. (Believe me, I thought long and hard about only focusing on today’s Gospel reading and bagging the rest.)

When we take time to read the deuterocanonical books, particularly I and II Maccabees, we also see something that is as old as the human condition–the deep desire for oppressed people to have a deliverer, and particularly a heroic one of epic proportions. It’s the stuff all our action movies are made of–imagine the movie with Judas “The Hammer” Maccabeus–(I’m thinking played by Scott Adkins, or if you want to go a little more “old school,” maybe Russell Crowe)–we feel good because the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Maybe part of the tension when we are exposed to atrocities comes from that place that wishes for vindication and maybe even, at times, just as much bloodshed. An eye for an eye. We come face to face with our own sinful human condition in the wish for vengeance. Any of us who have had to live with the residue of a violent crime committed upon a loved one have felt the monster inside us, saying and wishing upon the perpetrator things we never knew were capable within us.

But our Gospel reading today reminds us that there is another way. In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear Jesus’ commissioning of Peter, and see images of a power so strong “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It reminds us there are other kinds of heroes–people like Desmond Tutu, who found a way to stand up to atrocities not with a sword, but with love. We are reminded all the time in Holy Women, Holy Men of people throughout time who performed acts of epic heroism without ever raising a hand in anger. It’s a means that goes against our human nature and our desire for retribution–but it’s the strongest and best lasting defense we have against atrocities. However, it only works when we can learn to set boundaries and limits on that voice inside us that trades on vengeance.

What is the work we are called to do when we remain open to hearing about the atrocities committed throughout the world, or even when we read about ones of old committed in the Bible?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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