Where revenge comes from and where it is going
On his blog yesterday, my friend Nat Smith highlighted the large number of films in western culture that have vengeance at their heart. He went on to express a desire that more films were made that showed the power of forgiveness, a point I agree with.
As he's seen far more films than I have, from all parts of the world, I presume his use of “western” was intentionally adjectival. So why do western films in particular have revenge in them? I was reminded of a summary I read of Ronald Muller's Honour and Shame, which identifies three building blocks that make up the worldview of every culture: fear, shame, and guilt...
“In each case man strives for the opposite so that the dynamic becomes fear/power, shame/honour, and guilt/innocence. Muller observes that most of the 10/40 window is shame-based, the Western nations (Northern Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand) are primarily guilt-based, and primal religions and cultures (such as tribal Africa, much of Asia and South America) are mostly fear-based...
"Our Western culture is primarily guilt-based – we maintain a foundational belief in right and wrong, and plot everything on a continuum between guilt and innocence (as we define them!). Wars are justified on the basis of established guilt, and situations that aren’t clear disturb us – e.g. the hungry child who steals."The article goes on to describe how Muller charts this way of thinking back to the founding of the Roman Republic. By this analysis, we shouldn't be surprised that western films are more concerned with revenge. That's not a bad thing in itself for the stories we tell, after all, Hamlet is - on first examination at least - a revenge tragedy, as is The Expendables 2. Good and bad art can come from anywhere.
Whilst acknowledging, as Muller does, that right and wrong is not all there is, it's helpful to think about what this sense of justice tells us about ourselves and the world. Here’s another quote from another remembered read. Miroslav Volf, a witness of the horrors of the Balkan wars, argues for God’s right to vengeance:
“If God were not angry at injustice and deception, and did not make a final end to violence - that God would not be worthy of worship... The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God... My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many... in the west... [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die... [with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” (Quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God)This is not to absolve Tarantino et al. but to recall what stories of revenge point us to: the setting right of all things, which our stories illustrate our yearning for. This is God’s work, and it liberates us to live and tell the stories of forgiveness that Nat wants to see:
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ (Romans 12:17-20)