Vengeance is Good?

One of my biggest critiques of Aristotle as a young man was his assumption of the essential goodness of vengeance. As a Christian, all I could think was that such a notion could not be more at odds with divine revelation:

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.”[1]

But reading Aquinas helped me see a method of reconciling the two points of view:

We should look to God for nothing save what is good and lawful. But we are to look to God for vengeance on His enemies: for it is written (Luke 18:7): Will not God revenge His elect who cry to Him day and night? as if to say: He will indeed. Therefore vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful.[2]

In other words, vengeance. Now, Aquinas goes further and elaborates a theory of governance and punishment, I’m not interested in that. But rather in the idea that vengeance is a good to be desired by God’s people. It’s a frightful good, especially in light of St. Stephen’s prayer that his evil murderers be forgiven. But are there circumstances, perhaps after Christians have prayed for their enemies to repent, showed them mercy, and even fasted on their behalf that it becomes appropriate to ask God to do justice, and if they hold an official position, to distribute that justice (read: vengeance is the distribution of justice for wrongs done)?

A few verses later in Romans, Paul makes clear that human beings can justly punish from the perspective of governing officials:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.[3]

Not only so, but King David prayed:

11    Malicious witnesses rise up;

they ask me of things that I do not know.

12    They repay me evil for good;

my soul is bereft.

13    But I, when they were sick—

I wore sackcloth;

I afflicted myself with fasting;

       I prayed with head bowed on my chest.

14        I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;

       as one who laments his mother,

I bowed down in mourning.

15    But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered;

they gathered together against me;

       wretches whom I did not know

tore at me without ceasing;

16    like profane mockers at a feast,

they gnash at me with their teeth.

17    How long, O Lord, will you look on?

Rescue me from their destruction,

my precious life from the lions!

18    I will thank you in the great congregation;

in the mighty throng I will praise you. [4]

 

References

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 12:19.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 13:2–4.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ps 35:11–18.

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