Friday, December 11, 2009

Revenge is a dish best served cold

Spider-Man 3 was on TV last night. Due to mixed reviews, I hadn’t bothered to see it on DVD.

For now I’ll bypass what I think of the film overall and focus on one aspect. The central theme of the film is the notion that forgiveness is better than revenge. There’s an undercurrent of moral relativism, bordering on moral equivalence, in the film. And that’s deliberate, as interviews with Sam Raimi make clear.

The treatment of revenge in Spider-Man 3 illustrates the inability of secular ethics to adequately deal with evil. In many Hollywood films and TV shows, the hero is made to feel guilty about his vengeful feelings. The hero is conflicted and apologetic about his vengeful impulses. And Spider-Man 3 is no exception. This is epitomized by Aunt May’s prim, good-as-gold homily at one point in the film.

It’s not that Hollywood can’t revel in revenge. But gleeful, guilt-free revenge is typically assigned to a juicy villain. For the typical film, vengeance, while it may sometimes be excusable on the grounds of some mitigating factor, like extreme provocation, is fundamental wrong.

That’s ironic since, from the viewpoint secular ethics, there’s no reason why vengeance would be always be out-of-bounds. What’s the source of this inhibition? This disapproval?

I chalk it up to a secularized version of Christian ethics. Because vengeance is problematic in Christian ethics, this has influenced the general culture, including Hollywood directors and screenwriters. Yet the secularized version loses some key qualifications.

In Biblical ethics and theology, revenge is double-edged. On the one hand, there was an avenger of blood in the Mosaic law. The imprecatory Psalms call on God to exact judgment on evildoers. This also carries over into the NT (e.g. Rev 6:10).

So, fundamentally, a vengeful impulse is not intrinsically evil. To the contrary, it can be the pious expression of righteous indignation.

On the other hand, vengeance is a morally and spiritually hazardous emotion for fallen men to entertain. Even if the feeling is objectively just and justifiable, it easily plays into our sinful predispositions.

It also reflects an itchy, overrealized eschatology. A premature demand for the Day of Judgment. For God frequently brings good out of evil.

So Christians are ordinarily required to be forgiving and forbearing–with important exceptions–both for their own benefit and the benefit of others.

It’s a delicate balance. For, in a fallen world, acting in the best interests of one party may come at the expense of another. In case of conflict, the interests of the injured party should normally take precedence over the interests of the offender. But if you personally are the injured party, then you have more latitude to be forbearing.


  1. Steve,

    It's true; biblical ethics (in the New Testament) definitely preclude the Christian from personally taking vengeance on his enemies (cf. Rom. 12:9-21), instead showing love and service to them. And I also like what you said about the "overrealized eschatology" and I grant that some who commit great evil may, by God's grace, repent and turn from it.

    Still, vengeance does belong to the Lord (in this life or afterward), and one of his means of taking vengeance is the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:1-7). I find it interesting that the same Greek word, ekdikos, describing the "revenger" in Rom. 13:4 is the same root as ekdikesis "vengeance" in Rom. 12:19.

    Ekdikesis belongs to God, and we Christians are not supposed to ekdikew on our own behalf. However, the gov't--God's diakonos or "minister"--is called a sword-bearing ekdikos to revenge the wronged against evildoers. It's the physical manifestation of God's vengeance (which, incidentally, is exactly why biblical laws ought to be enforced--for government to do anything else is add to God's role for gov't, IMHO).

    I guess in practical application, Christians can love their antagonists, but the magistrate has the divine responsibility to bring them to justice. To ignore that side of the balance is to let evil increase unnecessarily.

  2. A lot of films do this. I remember watching something where the main character wouldn't kill the evil man cause someone said that doing so "would make you just like him", of course the evil guy gets away and kills folks....