Revenge is Mine but is it Really Sweet?

“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.”  — Romans 12:19 Lex Talionis

Vendetta, revenge, retribution, retaliation, payback, getting even, the concept goes by many names but it all boils down to the same thing:  “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

  • Lex Talionis. the principle or law of retaliation that a punishment inflicted should correspond in degree and kind to the offense of the wrongdoer, as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; retributive justice.

It is interesting that if you look in the Quran, Torah or New Testament, the three major works of the three key monotheistic religions, you will find numerous threats and accusations regarding the execution of the Lex Talionis principle.  However, in terms of the scholarly interpretation of the principle, most jurists or executors of the principle have preferred to rely on some form of restorative justice.  Those whose job it is to interpret these writings have realized that a literal, reciprocal and physical adaption of Lex Talionis would leave the world both blind and toothless.

  • Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”

revengeWhy then, do our political systems and countless pundits seem to be hell bent on applying a literal interpretation of Lex Talionis to world events?  There seems to be a major disconnect between our political systems and our spiritual systems.  Of course, many religious people also seem blind to the fact that their very religion does not readily endorse the idea of revenge or vengeance.  In the writings of Jesus:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. — Matthew 5:38-39

Back to the question, why do our nations seem to more often pursue a policy of Lex Talionis than a policy of restorative or compassionate justice?  Are such principles so at odds with our basic human nature as to render them worthless?   It is that possible that we can only be satisfied by tearing out the eyes or teeth of those who have done us harm?

Let us take a significant emotional event for almost every citizen of the USA.  The 911 bombings.  There was little doubt and probably even less discussion about any possibility of dialogue or détente with Al Qaeda.  In fact, even today, I am sure that most people reading this are aghast at such a suggestion.  Few voices were raised against the subsequent bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Simon Critchley had this to say nearly ten years later about the US retaliation:

“Opposites attract — the awful violence of 9/11 is justified by Al Qaeda as an act of revenge that in turn justifies the violence of America’s and Bush’s revenge. My point is that revenge is an inevitably destructive motive for action. When we act out of revenge, revenge is what we will receive in return. The wheel of violence and counter-violence spins without end and leads inevitably to destruction.”  —-

No doubt it took ten years before Professor Critchley felt safe to utter the above sentiments.

I have to confess, I have never been a pacifist.  Those who know me would laugh at the idea.  In fact most people who know me would probably think that more often than not, I have endorsed the idea of vendetta or that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”  Thus, it might seem somewhat hypocritical for me to suggest that we should perhaps be looking at a different response to aggressive actions by our enemies.  However, such a response might actually be more proactive than reactive.  I seem to notice as I get older that proactive responses work out better than reactive responses.  Does anyone really think that the USA and the rest of the world is safer today after the obscene amount of money and lives spent on our socalled “War on Terrorism.”

“A March 2011 Congressional report[192] estimated spending related to the war through fiscal year 2011 at $1.2 trillion, and that spending through 2021 assuming a reduction to 45,000 troops would be $1.8 trillion. A June 2011 academic report[192] covering additional areas of spending related to the war estimated it through 2011 at $2.7 trillion, and long term spending at $5.4 trillion including interest.” —

The following table shows strictly USA casualties but the total casualties including Mideast civilians, terrorists and opposing military are probably well over 200,000 people.  (

USA Wounded or Killed in the Mideast
US Military killed 6,639
US Military wounded 50,422
US DoD Civilians killed 16
US Civilians killed (includes 9/11 and after) 3,000 +
US Civilians wounded/injured 6,000 +
Total Americans killed (military and civilian) 9,655 +
Total Americans wounded/injured 56,422 +
Total American casualties 66,077 +


A few days ago, Marie Harf, a spokesperson for the US State Department suggested that instead of killing terrorists and destroying the economies of our purported Middle East enemies, we needed to find ways to help build up their economies.  Her suggestion was not simply criticized by many but was widely ridiculed for being naïve, liberal and too compassionate towards our enemies.  Of course, right wing commentators had a field day with bashing her:

Rush Limbaugh:  “This woman is an absolute throwback to 1960s, feel-good liberalism that is senseless.  It’s chickified, it denies reality, and this is the number two spokeswoman at the State Department.  Her boss is not very much more cogent.”

Sean Hannity:  “Among all of the stupid things that I think I have heard about radical Islam, the State Department jobs program has to be ranked the highest among them. I mean because if that’s their mentality, Colonel, then maybe we should give people free housing, terrorists housing, and maybe we should get them Ferraris, and Obamacare.  I’ve seen a lot of terrorists on TV that need dental work.  Maybe free dental care.  Maybe that will make them like us.”

There were few to be found on either the right or left who cared to come out and help Marie defend her comments.  Her subsequent efforts at an explanation only appeared to make matters worse.  Harf’s basic problem was that she wanted to attach a different perspective to the Middle East problem.  A perspective that implicitly refutes the principle of Lex Talionis.   If she was naive about anything, it was in assuming that she had a potential audience for a concept that remains foreign to many people.  It is a concept that thinks our respective enemies might be dealt with on some other plane then revenge and retribution.  It was one that does not exist for the majority of humanity since it is one that chooses to circumvent the principle of Lex Talionis.

“Lets get them Niggars!” 

“What do we do when we get them?”

“Hang-em, what else!”


hanging“Lets get them Injuns!”

“What do we do when we get em? Hang em?”

“Hangins too slow, we shoot em!”


“Lets get them Jews!”

“What do we do when we get em?”  Shoot em?

“No shootins too slow, we gas em!”


b-1bombing2Lets get them Commies!”

“What do we do when we get em?  Gas em?”

“No gas is not strong enough, we bomb em!”


“Lets get them Arabs!”

“What do we do when we get em?  Bomb em?”

“No bombings not precise enough, we drop a drone on em!”


“What goes around comes around” or “as you sow, so shall you reap” is the basic understanding of how karma, the law of cause and effect, works….This can seem like such a vicious cycle of action and reaction.  It’s practically impossible to live in this world without doing some wrong, whether out of anger, revenge, or just inattention. The teachings of the Gita and Hinduism are all about breaking this cycle of karma and transcending the material world and regaining entrance into the spiritual world.” —-Gadadhara Pandit Dasa 

ghandi-quote-on-forgivenessSomewhere this minute, a father, friend, soldier, leader, mother, sister, brother, aunt or co-worker is planning revenge.  Somewhere this minute, someone with a grudge will be planning to kill a whole bunch of people.  Somewhere this minute, someone who feels the need to right the wrongs in the world, will go out and massacre a whole bunch of innocent people.  Somewhere this minute, someone who feels you are wrong and they are right are planning to kill you.

  • Confucius said“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Time for Questions.

Will Jesus’s admonition to turn the other cheek protect you or your loved ones?  Will the principle of Lex Talionis help you rest easier in your bed?  Will following Jesus or Lex bring back your loved ones?  Which principle is more likely to help prevent future carnage and mayhem?  Can we really love our enemies or is this simply a naïve idea that will never work in the real world?

Life is just beginning.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.  But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” — George Washington





2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jeanine
    Feb 26, 2015 @ 03:23:26

    You certainly gave me a lot to ponder. Someone hurts me, or worse, someone I love, I want to exact revenge. is that the Christian way, heck no, will it make me feel better, I can’t say. I have never taken revenge on anyone, although there have been many people in my life who have gotten me so angry in response to their actions, I have wished them dead. All I can say is that when I say my prayers, I pray that I can be a better person. I think it takes far too much energy to waste anytime on people who are just plain evil. I wonder if after 9/11 could we have reasoned with that bastard bin Laden…. I don’t think so….which is why he was one of the people I wished dead…….took a while….but I got my wish…did I feel better..hell yes!!! 😇



    • johnpersico
      Mar 03, 2015 @ 13:44:08

      Thanks for the comment Jeanine. I am not sure it was a question of reasoning with Bin Laden so much as understanding the problems that drove him to become a terrorist in the first place. Its always easier to put out a fire before it starts. John



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