“I wanted then, as I do now, revenge for what happened. Bring me the head of Osama bin Laden” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen two years ago. Cohen was in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and isn’t shy about acknowledging his desire for revenge. At the root of his foreign policy, he declares (with complete seriousness), is his desire to grab bin Laden “by the throat and tear out his Adam’s apple.”1
Cohen’s sentiment finds a counterpart in the early pages of Scripture. One of the first poems recorded in Genesis is Lamech’s boast. Lamech revels in a vengeful violence: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen. 4:23–24, NIV).
My first impulse is to deride and reject everything for which Lamech and Cohen stand. Lamech’s boast, after all, is specifically countered in Jesus’s command to forgive seventy-seven times (Matt. 18:22). Nevertheless, I’ve often found that my arguments don’t carry as much weight as I’d wish, both with Christians and non-Christians alike. The violence and suffering of 9/11 stands out so strongly in their minds that all my theological arguments—about their vain attempts at peace without eschatology, about Jesus as suffering servant, about the church as a new creation—seem to fall on deaf ears.
But perhaps I’m going about things wrong. What if my carefully crafted arguments against violence are less compelling than singing and giving voice to lament over the evil in the world? What if, as John Howard Yoder suggests, the ultimate source of violence goes deeper than any rationalization we give for violence?2 What if the antidote for Lamech is thus not argument but lament? Perhaps we are to sing the kinds of songs that Jesus himself sang as he suffered (Matt. 27:46 and Mark 15:34). And although we often focus on the way biblical lament questions and complains to God, the writers of such laments also veer toward the vengeance seeking of Cohen, asking God to execute judgment upon their enemies.3 So when confronted with evil and injustice, what can lament do for our feelings of revenge and grief?
Lament recognizes the deep roots of vengeful violence. Cain, the first murderer, recognizes that his fratricide will provoke the broader human community to respond in kind: “whoever finds me will kill me,” he says (Gen. 4:14). This retaliatory reflex, notes Yoder, seems to be wired into humanity.4 Cohen himself alludes to this by confessing surprise at the intense desire for revenge that engulfed him on 9/11 and has persisted for years. If Christian pacifists don’t also recognize this vengeful drive, they make a huge theological and tactical error. Rather than deploring the cry for vengeance and justice, Yoder argues that we must confess that there is something to the “deep demand of blood for blood,” even as it is expressed in the violent war lust of Lamech.5 These biblical laments not only question God and express the heart of those who are suffering; they sometimes demand God to respond in kind to persecutors.6
I understand that this makes Christian pacifists uncomfortable, but lament is unsettling. An analogy may help. Many Christians ignore lament entirely because they fear that questioning God is somehow sacrilegious. As a result, they reduce Christianity to a superficial, bubbly faith, suppressing rather than bringing into the open genuine questions and doubts about God. Here’s the rub: when we hear calls for retributive justice and retaliation, Jesus-following pacifists sometimes advocate the same kind of suppression. Would we scoff at those who try to enlighten us, who tell us we should not doubt or complain to God? Yes, and rightly so. Then we must see why, as Yoder suggests, we also cannot enlighten people out of their vengeful impulses.7 That stripe of optimistic liberal pacifism was weighed and found wanting long ago.
Just as God is big enough to handle our questions, God can handle these expressions of anger and vengeance. And not only can God handle these expressions; God also wants to redeem them in a way that goes beyond both the dead end of retaliation and the suppressive pacifism that wants to pretend vengeful feelings don’t exist. As Yoder puts it, “the gospel is not about delegitimizing violence so much as about overcoming it.”8
This overcoming happens, in part, through the act of lament itself. Laments are performance; they do something. They work on the singers in particular ways. Questions and doubts about God are placed in the context of songs addressed to God, folding the singers’ doubt into a larger performance of faith. Likewise, by placing their cries for vengeance in songs addressed to God, the singers are displaced from bearing the weight of history or vengeance, which enables them to leave vengeance to God (Rom. 12:19).
On the other hand, those who, like Lamech, act on their feelings of revenge must bear an eschatological burden; they must make history turn out right. Lamech’s war cry sustains the illusion of control and perpetuates the illusion that humans can ultimately make meaning out of evil and suffering. In contrast, lament is apocalyptic, revealing that only God can take human suffering and evil and work a resurrection out of it. When Jesus sings Psalm 22:1 on the cross, it is not a cry of defeat, but a victory song. He has resisted the satanic temptation to make history turn out right, embracing the way of lament rather than Lamech.
When we read biblical laments christologically, we see that our retaliatory reflex is not ignored but overcome by naming Christ’s suffering as sacrifice. Yoder contends that “If the phenomenon of violence is not rational, neither will its cure be rational. The cure will have to be something as primitive, as elemental, as the evil. . . . It will have to be sacrifice.” Cohen likewise uses terms freighted with theological weight to describe what he wants: “I don’t think I’m all that different from a whole lot of other Americans who would like to . . . get some satisfaction from all the blood that was shed at . . . the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania, and in Afghanistan the last eight years.”9 Christians need not avoid this sentiment but should instead underscore that Jesus, not my enemy, absorbs the punishment for wrongs done. Jesus, not my enemy, has paid it all.
Rather than suppressing or avoiding those laments that call for payment in kind, we ought to bring them into the open, acknowledge the intense pain and suffering of evils like 9/11, and then point to the blood of Jesus. The wall of hostility crumbles only through his cross. The book of Hebrews, argues Yoder, sees “the end of expiation for bloodshed, the end—not as abrogation but as fulfillment—of the arrangement announced in Genesis 9:6 [‘whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed’] is the innocent death of the Son.”10 Christian pacifists should not be squeamish about the curses of Torah, the bloodiness of the cross, or the wrath of God. Instead, we must sing more loudly than ever that “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe,” recognizing that precisely because Jesus paid it all, our enemies don’t need to. Because we sing that “on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” we no longer seek revenge and instead endeavor to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).11 We do not ignore evil, violence, and injustice, but we name them, express our fury over them, and praise the Slain Lamb for taking “the punishment that brought us peace” on himself (Isa. 53:5). As followers of Jesus, our call is not to rationalize with Lamech but to outsing him.
1. Cohen, “Breaking Our Vow to Sept. 11 Victims?,” Washington Post, September 8, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/07/AR2009090702069.html and Cohen, interview Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR, September 10, 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112717615.
2. Yoder, “A Theological Critique of Violence,” in The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2009), 30.
3. For just a few examples, see Psalms 3:7, 5:10, and 31:17–18.
4. Yoder, “Theological Critique of Violence,” 33 and 41. Also see “You Have It Coming: Good Punishment,” in The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2011), 227–28.
5. Yoder, “Theological Critique of Violence,” 33.
6. Psalm 137, for example, begins in lament and ends with a benediction for those who kill Babylon’s babies as retribution for the cannibalism that took place at the siege of Jerusalem (see Lam. 4:10).
8. Ibid., 33 and 41. Also see “You Have It Coming,” 227–28.
10. Yoder, “Against the Death Penalty,” in The End of Sacrifice, 132–33.