Injustice, Revenge, Violence …and Forgiveness! (Volf)

(This post was originally published August 2017)

Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace is a very thoughtful and interesting book on identity, reconciliation, oppression, justice, and so forth.  I don’t agree with everything Volf says, but I am enjoying the book.  This morning I ran across his section on forgiveness, which was very helpful.  Here are a few quotes worth noting:

“Instead of wanting to forgive, we instinctively seek revenge.  An evil deed will not be owned for long; it demands instant repayment in kind.  The trouble with revenge, however, is that it enslaves us.”

Volf continues by talking about “the endless turning of the spiral of vengeance.”  That is, vengeance leads to violence, which leads to revenge, which leads to violence, and so forth.  Furthermore, vengeance spirals because we can’t undo what we’ve done.  If a person could undo something, “revenge would not be necessary.  The undoing, if there were a will for it, would suffice.  But our actions are irreversible…and so the urge for vengeance seems irrepressible.”

Volf then explains that forgiveness is the only way out of this spiral of revenge and violence:

“Forgiveness breaks the power of the remembered past and transcends the claims of the affirmed justice and so makes the spiral of vengeance grind to a halt.”

Of course, forgiveness has everything to do with the cross.

“The climate of pervasive oppression in which [Jesus] preached was suffused with the desire for revenge.  The principle, ‘If anyone hits you, hit back!  If anyone takes your coat, burn down his house!’ seemed the only way to survive….  Lamech’s kind of revenge, which returns seventy-seven blows for every one received, seemed, paradoxically, the only way to root out injustice (Gen. 4:23-24).  Turning Lamech’s logic on its head, however, Jesus demanded his followers not simply to forego revenge, but to forgive as many times as Lamech sought to avenge himself (Mt. 18:21).  The injustice of oppression must be fought with the creative ‘injustice’ of forgiveness, not with the aping injustice of revenge.  Hanging on the cross where he was sent by an unjust judge, Jesus became the ultimate example of his own teaching.  He prayed, ‘Father, forgive them…’ (Lk 23:24).

And here’s where it trickles down into our own lives and situations:

“Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice….”

The above section and quotes are found in Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, pp 119-123.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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