“Mine to avenge”

This hasn’t been a good week for my favorite contemporary radio show, This American Life. On Sunday, they ran an episode-length retraction of a recent story about Foxconn, Apple Computer’s Chinese manufacturing partner.

Good for them, I say, and no hard feelings here: Ira Glass and Co. still rule the airwaves when it comes to exploiting radio’s unique strengths to tell a good story. One story from last week’s episode, “Slow to React,” (re-broadcast from 2011) was one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.

The story, “When I Grow Up,” is a journalist’s unflinching, first-person account of a murder he planned to commit. The journalist, David Holthouse, begins: “This time last year I was plotting to kill a man. This time last year I had a gun and a silencer and a plan.” The prospective murder victim, it turns out, raped Holthouse 25 years earlier, when Holthouse was seven and the rapist was 15. (“Molester,” Holthouse believes, is too gentle a term for what this person did.) His parents were good friends and neighbors of the teenager’s parents.

Holthouse never told anyone about the rape—naturally, the rapist threatened to kill him if he did. So he grew up feeling both ashamed and guilty. Did his silence enable his rapist to claim more victims? Holthouse knew the research: he likely wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. Meanwhile, the man, Holthouse learned, was never arrested for other crimes. He was now a husband with children and stepchildren of his own.

Holthouse wanted to do something to right the wrong, but not at the expense of having other people find out what happened to him. He didn’t want to be perceived as “damaged goods”—someone who couldn’t be trusted around kids. (He had made a blood oath with himself, he said, to commit suicide if he ever felt the impulse to molest children.) And he didn’t want his parents to blame themselves.

For whatever reason, he decided that murder was his best option. He formulated a plan, and he believed he would get away with it. He was only saved from carrying it out when his mother found his childhood diary. She read an entry, a few years after the fact, in which he described the incident. Now the news was out. After being confronted by Holthouse’s parents, the man confessed that he had done what Holthouse described in his diary. Obviously, the statute of limitations had run out a long time ago.

Eventually, Holthouse arranged a meeting, in public, with the man, who begged forgiveness. He told him he had wanted to apologize for years; that the incident had weighed on his conscience; and that he hoped—best case—that Holthouse had somehow forgotten about it. He assured Holthouse, repeatedly, that he was the only victim.

Holthouse said, “All the experts say he was almost certainly lying. But then, all the experts also say that it was extremely unusual for him to admit his crime to me, let alone his wife and parents. And he did at least make an admission to his parents. I checked.” Listen to the story and decide for yourself—or, like me, remain undecided.

Regardless, the story bears witness to the power of forgiveness—or as close to forgiveness as someone in Holthouse’s position should be expected to come. What’s clear is that this meeting between abuser and victim enabled the victim to let go of the hatred that had enslaved him for 25 years.

Holthouse explains that while he didn’t grow up in a religious home (is he religious now?), he thought of Paul’s words from Romans 12:19 (which Holthouse quotes from the NIV): “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.'”

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture. Can you?

I’ve talked a lot recently on this blog and in sermons about God’s wrath, as well as our modern squeamishness toward the concept. But isn’t it clear in this case that God’s wrath is a good thing? That the kind of forgiveness that someone like Holthouse can extend to his rapist is underwritten by God’s wrath? That only God can ensure that justice is fully and finally done?

I don’t want this kind of sin to go unpunished. Do you? And, of course, I’m well aware that I have my own sins to worry about. All I can say is, “Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving me.” But the forgiveness that comes through the cross isn’t a matter of getting off scot-free. All of us, even those of us who are Christians, will will one day own up to each and every sin. This is the meaning of Final Judgment. Even though it won’t mean hell, I can’t imagine that it won’t be painful.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on ““Mine to avenge””

  1. I agree with you. Forgiveness for sins does not mean no consequences for them. To some extent it means, “I am not going to blow you away because of this.” (Thus, we won’t get sent to hell, and the rapist won’t get shot.)

    Ultimately, there must be “justice” for the universe to be “just.” Interestingly, and somewhat on point, I think, is the instance of Sodom. Abraham says, “Far be it from you [God] to treat the righteous as the wicked,” and says, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Maybe not the exact words.) And God does as Abraham says: He does “blow away” the guilty, and saves Lot.

    To be entitled to forgiveness to ANY degree depends on repentance. God is not going to forgive anyone who does not repent–he is going to blow them away. I think WE don’t blow people away who don’t repent for the very reason that you said–let God take care of it. He is a lot better at it than we are anyway.

    I think it would not be fair to those who pour out their hearts for God’s service to be treated the same as those who make little effort, even though they may be saved. See 1 Corinthians 3 as to Paul’s assessment on that score. In my case, I don’t think it would be right for me to receive the rewards that I foresee my brothers and sisters obtaining when they stayed true to God, and very diligently, their whole lives, whereas I was a total vagabond for many years and am still not as dedicated as they are. So I won’t chafe at all at seeing them get more–I will think that such an “ending” is exactly as it should be. It is for at least this reason that I don’t see any jealousy in heaven; not only because we won’t “sin” there–we will see that what God does is exactly what should be done. They DESERVED to get more, and I am therefore happy that they did.

    The interesting question to me is, what exactly are we supposed to “feel” towards someone who does wrong and does not “repent.” Jesus tells us that if someone sins against us seven times in a day, and comes seven times and says, “I’m sorry,” we must forgive. Even as God forgives us. But what about those who don’t repent? As I see it, God does not forgive them, so I am not necessarily obliged to do so either. Even though we don’t seek retribution, I can’t quite bring myself to tell some wife whose husband beats her, or the kids, that she should just “forgive and forget.”

    Yet, at the same time, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use you.” So, what is the answer? I don’t know. However, my “best guess” is that “love” and “prayer” in these instances are a willingness to “hope for the best and give them a CHANCE at repentance.” Thus, if they DO end up repenting, great. But, if they ultimately won’t, despite our “best efforts,” then we have “heaped coals of fire on their heads.” So, I really don’t think Jesus is imploring us to “just forget about it” that we have been wronged, even in the short run. Yet, just as God has given us the opportunity, and incentive, to repent, so we are called upon to do likewise.

    Caveat: I don’t think “loving” an abusive husband means sticking around to let him continue abusing. There are “competing principles” such as self-preservation, and particularly preservation of others, such as the kids.

    Finally, even though I don’t feel obliged to “forget it,” I should not let myself be “consumed” with what has been done. That’s for my own sake. There are plenty of bad things that happen–I have to accept that God has allowed that and “move on,” in the sense that I don’t let those things ruin the rest of my life. There is a lot of good going on as well. Paul tells us that “whatever is good and lovely, think on such things.” But I just don’t think that goes so far as to say, if someone were to ask the question, “Have you forgiven him?”, that I am obliged to say, “Yes,” if he hasn’t repented.

    (Too long–sorry!)

    1. I hear you, Tom. We often try to apply Matthew 18, in which Jesus gives specific instructions for forgiving within the church, to situations for which it’s not intended. Even there, forgiveness only comes after acknowledgment of sin and repentance.

      If we could only love and pray for our enemies, I wouldn’t worry much over whether we’ve “forgiven” them. On the other hand, if we need to forgive them, loving and praying for them first would make that much easier!

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