Screaming For Vengeance

I recently participated in a mass evacuation from a Starbucks.  It wasn’t the result of a fire or a hostage crisis, but from the raised voices of an all-too-common “break-up coffee date.”  In the pre-coffee shop era, break-ups tended to happen in private spaces where the crying and arguing could happen unabated.

Then we realized that breaking up with someone in front of an audience meant that they’d have to restrain themselves.

While popular, it’s a bit of a risky gambit; when it works it’s like tearing off a bandaid quickly.  When it doesn’t work it’s like witnessing the aftermath of a fender-bender in downtown Rome, both sides emotionally grapple with one another while trying to maintain their rapidly evaporating public demeanor.

Once it’s clear that there’s no stopping the break up, the conversation devolves into an argument about the many details that surround each partner’s personal, and often sexual, shortcomings.  Disagreements may have brought an end to their union, but each party is agreed that neither one of them is leaving until they’ve proven that they are right and the other is wrong.

Assertions of “rightness” pour out like steam from under the hood of a rented Fiat.

This is when a swift and unified, yet unorganized, voluntary evacuation of the Starbucks begins.  Only the stranded Baristas are left to witness their utterly macabre endgame.

We spend a lot of time trying to figure out, then prove, whether or not we are “right” about something.  We do this because we fear the consequences; social, personal, and moral, of being wrong.

Whether or not we’re actually correct, believing we are is what thrusts us into action.  Consider political pundit Ann Coulter.  Coulter is very smart, she spends her time dissecting the liberal left while passionately asserting a personal and political righteousness that stems from her well advertised Christianity.

“My thinking is that only trauma produces intellectual breakthroughs, the plus side is watching liberals get hissy; the downside is — there really is no downside…  I’m a Christian first and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second, and don’t you ever forget it.”– Ann Coulter

Because she’s “right”, Coulter launches herself headlong into dramatic statements that resonate with many in our nation.  Speaking of terrorism she famously said, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity… We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war…”

Unfortunately history reveals that being “right” about something can still have terrible consequences.

In Genesis 34 we find the story of Jacob’s daughter Dinah.  Scripture tells us that Jacob and his family set up their tents outside the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan.  Dinah went out to visit the women of Shechem and in the process she was taken captive and raped by a prince of the city.

After forcing himself on Dinah, the Bible tells us that the prince fell in love with her and wanted to make her his wife.  When news of this reached Jacob he waited in his tent for his 12 sons to return from the field.  Hamor, the father of the prince came to Jacob and offered a lofty bride-price for his daughter’s hand in marriage to his son.

When word of the event reached Jacob’s sons they returned from the field in a fury.

In the bargaining process, Hamor offered to allow open commerce between Jacob and the people of his city as well as marriages-in-kind for Jacob’s sons.  Jacob’s son’s balked at these concessions because they considered the people of the city “unclean” due to their lack of religious ritual circumcision.

They offered their sister’s hand in marriage only if Hamor, the prince, and all of the men of the city would become circumcised.  In his haste to marry Dinah, the prince wasted no time in being circumcised and having the men of his city do the same.

Three days later, while the people of the city were still incapacitated from the circumcision, the households of two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, strapped on their swords and entered the city.

They killed the prince.

They killed Hamor.

They killed the men of the city.

Then they hamstrung the oxen.

They took the goats and the donkeys.

They took the money.

They took the women.

They took the children.

Then they took back their sister and they went home.

Because the human heart has a powerful thirst for retribution.

When Jacob learned what his sons had done he was as furious as he was terrified.  He had sworn an oath and his sons had broken it.  If the other Canaanite cities learned about this they would certainly attack them, and his family would be unable to defend themselves.  He confronted his sons about their treachery, about how they had dishonored him, and how they had endangered the lives of the entire family.

Their response was simple and effective: “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

Their anger was as justifiable as their desire for justice was appropriate.  In taking their sister before asking for her hand from their father, the prince had shamed their entire family while hoping to buy his way out of it afterward.  His pride and entitlement  didn’t just cost him his life, it cost the entire city an unfathomable price.

When our Shechem hits the fan we don’t get the right to set the terms after the fact.

Even if we didn’t mean any harm.

Even if we didn’t know any better.

Even if we were acting in a moment of passion.

Even if we truly did “love” her.

Like the prince, our moments of impulsiveness can carry a price tag that we deserve, regardless of whether or not someone finds satisfaction in demanding payment.  Which brings us to Simeon and Levi’s response:

“Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

Genesis 34 ends with their self justification.  Genesis 35 tells us that as they fled to a new location a “terror from God fell upon the cities” of Canaan. After this the story of Dinah isn’t mentioned again …until Jacob is on his death bed.  In Genesis 49 he calls his sons together and addresses them one final time.  This is what he says to Simeon and Levi:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.”
– Genesis 49:5-7

Jacob makes it clear that while their anger was justified, their response was not.  In their understandable wrath they chose to do evil in the name of good.  They covered the face of their treachery with masks of honor.

By using the sacred rite of circumcision in their ploy, they labeled their vengeance as Jihad, sullying the name of God in the process.  When we attach God’s name to our retributive efforts, we demonstrate our failure to understand that God has called us to be angry, but without sin.

In the Book of Proverbs, we find seven things that God hates:

Prideful eyes,

A lying tongue,

Hands that shed innocent blood,

A heart that devises wicked schemes,

Feet that rush into evil,

A false witness,

Men who stir up dissension among brothers.

Simeon and Levi were condemned by their father for committing the seven things that the Lord detests.  They used the righteousness of their anger as an excuse to satisfy a thirst for vengeance that spilled out of their hearts.

Which brings the focus of this moment down to you and me.

In what ways do we use “being right” as an excuse?

To mistreat others?

To get what we want?

To teach someone a lesson?

How do we justify our actions by pointing out that THEY are, immoral, liberal, ungodly, liars, cheaters, thieves, disrespectful, irresponsible, nosy, smokers, drinkers, gamblers, socialists, agenda pushers, illegal immigrants, bad drivers, or just plain “non-Christian.”

“He just did it again, even though he said he wouldn’t.”

Be angry. Don’t sin.

“And she was with that boy we both agreed she shouldn’t date.”

 Be angry. Don’t sin.

“He took the car without asking permission AND came home late.

“Be angry. Don’t sin.

“She won’t stop spending money.”

Be angry. Don’t sin.

If our anger leads us into actions condemned by God, it has become a motivator for sin.  God only allows for anger to spur us on to righteousness.  So how do we know the difference between vengeful retribution and righteous indignation?  I start by asking myself these questions:

What is the condition of my heart?

“Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully as they spoke to Shechem and his father Hamor.” 

Because a prideful and greedy heart calls me to action on behalf of myself… in the name of others.

“They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the houses.”

What will the results of my response be?

Self-righteousness, lies, collateral destruction, scheming, fomenting dissent… ?

This is the kind of spiritual self-check that God requires of his followers.  In our quest to prove our own righteousness, we forfeit the righteousness that is found in Christ.  Don’t forget that God didn’t call us to “be right”.

He called us, then “made us right”.

Our job isn’t to prove our “rightness”.

Only to walk in it.

“For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.” -Romans 8:29-30

7 Responses to “Screaming For Vengeance”

  1. John Woolley October 5, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Anger is a gift from God: it can demonstrate a heart of righteousness and that we are aligned with what God wants for his children. But anger is also a doorway on the other side of which lies the Evil One. Be angry. Keep the door closed. Amen, bother!

  2. Jenni Jerome October 5, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Good words, makes me think of something Dr. Emert said often, probably still does. :) “You can choose your sin, but you can’t choose your consequences.”

    • Jon October 5, 2011 at 11:31 am #

      Soo true Jenni. I’m also struck by this one, “We don’t get to pick what happens to us, only our response.” Hope you are doing well!

  3. MattB October 5, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    “When your Shechem hits the fan…” Nice.

    Great Post Jon, should be a couple chapters in a book.

    “In our quest to prove our own righteousness, we forfeit the righteousness that is found in Christ” = fantastic punch line. Huge implications for the church in mission.

    • Jon October 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

      Dude… we need to get together.

  4. Bob Craddock October 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Great post Jon. You may have saved lives today…

    Must agree with MattB – “When our shechem hits the fan…” Best line of the day.

    • Jon October 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

      Thanks Bob, I’m currently trying to keep my shechem away from the fans…

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