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Redemption and revenge

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 01, 2013 2:05 pm    Post subject: Redemption and revenge Reply with quote

Our family has a tradition of going to see a new movie release on Christmas after we’ve admired each thoughtful gift and savored our favorite treats. This year we were anxious to see the new film version of Les Miserables, a story we have so thoroughly enjoyed when performed as a musical (see the forum, "Simple Gospel"). Because several movies are released around Christmastime, the media keeps us all in touch with their rankings by box-office sales. By one report Les Miserables, though quite popular, was edged out by a very different kind of movie, Django Unchained. The first is a profound and moving story of redemption, the second an often humorous but thoroughly brutal story of revenge.

These are two plots that inform many films, reflecting long-standing traditions in literature and media. Not incidentally, the Bible features both, reinforcing redemption as its ultimate meta-narrative through numerous stories in each Testament. I love seeing the theme of redemption in secular media because I believe God has wired us to desire it and to move us when we see it. Very few people can watch Les Miserables without tears. (The guy sitting next to my wife said he never cries - and then proceeded to cry throughout the movie.)

Later during our Christmas vacation we did see Django Unchained. At many points, we almost left the theater. The shooting and blood moves you, but in a different way. It's either sickening (as it was for us) or it's funny (as it was for those who laughed throughout). For us, the laughter was as troubling as the constant violence. Remember that an elementary school had just experienced the horrific shooting of children by a mentally unstable killer. The trailer for Django had been altered, as a result, and some media publicity was postponed so people could have some distance from this tragedy before indulging again in this dark pastime of graphic violence.

But I'm not reflecting today on our penchant for and desensitization to violence. In fact, what I kept thinking about after the movie was how biblical vengeance and vindication are. Let me explain. Django and Inglorious Basterds, another movie by Quentin Tarantino, both feature a satirical recreation of what people in suffering imagine they can do. It's human to fanaticize about the public and brutal demise of your captors and abusers, especially those who get away with their abuse and profit from it through the passive complicity of the rest of society. The suffering of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the slaves in the South was unimaginable both in terms of the suffering itself—forced separation from home and family, back-breaking toil, and the cheapening of life to the point of senseless killing—but also in terms of how a whole system complied. Your pain and your powerlessness drive you to fantasize about what you would do if you had the power. You would take revenge on your terms and perhaps execute with a sense of artistry, giving the abusers a taste of what they themselves inflicted. What you want is judgment and, when the "system" doesn't care about justice, you are tempted to take matters into your own hands.

This all got me thinking about the imprecatory psalms. These are among the most embarrassing parts of Scripture because they graphically vent what God's suffering people would love to see happen to their oppressors and abusers. Churches regularly omit the offensive sections of these psalms. Psalm 139, for example, has precious sentiments about God's intimate knowledge of us. But who, in a public reading, continues on to include the words of hatred and loathing in vv. 19-22? The exiled psalmist says of the captor Babylon, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” This gets pretty close to the gore in Tarantino's spaghetti western I keep thinking about. The difference between the sentiments of these psalms and Tarantino-type films is that the inevitable fantasizing about vengeance and vindication is brought to God in prayer. He is trusted to take care of the judgment.

And he will.

Judgment is an obvious theme in the Bible, from the flood to the Cross to the eternal damnation of perpetual torment. A great deal of punishment "fits the crime"—whether this be the humbling of proud Nebuchadnezzar who eats grass like cattle or conspiring Haman who hangs on gallows he has designed for Mordecai. Read what Adoni-Bezek says about losing his thumbs and big toes: “As I have done, so God has repaid me” (Judges 1:7). Judgment is also necessarily public. Those who seem to "get away with murder" will be brought to justice before the eyes of their victims.

Where am I going with all of this? To the Cross, the ultimate moment and place of both redemption and judgment. And to the character of God where grace and justice meet. The gospel is not only the story of redemption. It is a story of justice. It promises that all wrongs will be righted by God. We trust God to deliver us from all evil, and lay every savory fantasy of self-vindication in His hands. Valjean and countless others have found freedom in pursuing justice without seeking revenge, laying down even the pleasure of dreaming of it. If you haven't lately, read or reread Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” True freedom comes to those who seek God’s redemptive hand and trust him for the eventual judgment of the unrepentant. We long for both, though we hope most for the first. As Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for...”
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