Christianity and the desire for retribution

While contemporary Christians have allowed a more expansive (and probably more healthy) expression of sexual desire, they’ve taught a rigid hyper-stoicism about anger and the desire for vengeance. The official policy toward evil is that all of our these spontaneous feelings are disordered and in need of gospel correction. Harsh criminal sentences, bellicose desires to defend the Church, and even strong words in the face of those who contradict the faith are understood to be unchristian, and because they are seen this way they can no longer be seen as having analogous existence in God which could make sense of a divine wrath that punishes sinners in this world and the next.

So on the one hand we have to accept the harsh discipline of renouncing all desires for revenge and inflicting pain in the search of “closure”, but on the other hand we impose the same discipline on God and therefore minimize the possibility that he will punish us with cancer or hurl us into hellfire. What an upside!

Sadly, we can’t make sense out of a human existence where anger and the desire for vengeance are mistakes that can never be allowed satisfaction. To deny them any satisfaction denies them any reason to exist, and absent this the ideal person is one who is utterly apathetic in the face of evil. This view of human life doesn’t just fail at the ideal but seems positively perverse, though the point is moot since it’s not the sort of life that anyone could actually live. There are some attempts to tell hagiographic stories of people with an intellectualized “desire for healing” that “escapes the senseless cycle of violence” that transcends or has completely sublimated the desire for vengeance, but any attempt to make this a christian hagiography will be at least marcionist and will have to ignore large parts of the New Testament too. Divine vengeance is just there in scripture from cover to cover. One could start with Psalm 109, which is plays a structural role in the New Testament.

True, forgiveness is central to christianity, but before contemporary times forgiveness was understood to involve penance as a sort of satisfaction of the desire for divine vengeance. With the pan-condemnation of violence penance lost perhaps its most convincing argument, though a small number of christians continue to practice it ceremonially. Being relieved of the need to do penance is obviously attractive, but the price one pays for it is a negation of the value of his own deeply felt desires for satisfaction and vengeance, and a Vulcan-ideal for human life that is very difficult to imagine experiencing.

This hyper-stoic condemnation of violence got a new impetus after technologicalization of war. War is a paradigm case of vengeance, but technology has given it extraordinarily prohibitive human costs. So war is out, even though the same advance in technology that destroys human life with bombs can also makes supermax prisons, and it’s not clea that we’ve advanced all that far when we give up the vengeance that destroys the criminal’s body but swap it out with one that drives him insane.






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