I would generally consider myself a pacifist. I say “generally”, because I don’t really know how I’d react in a given situation. If, for instance, a crazed hobo woman attacked my daughter, I’m fairly certain I would resort to physical violence in order to get her to stop. So maybe I’m a pacifist when it comes to larger communities, like nation-states and youth groups. Because of my semi-pacifist philosophy, I’ve always had one major hang-up with narrative morality, an idea this blog’s esteemed owner discusses in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. That hang-up is this: when played out in story, revenge is sort of awesome.
For instance, I’m reading through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series right now, and there are plenty of characters in this epic, sprawling fantasy series who I want to pay. And I don’t want them merely brought to justice in a court of law and imprisoned for life. They are evil people, and I want them to die the most painful deaths possible. Most of them do end up dying horrific deaths, simply because (SPOILER ALERT) a lot of people die in these books.(END SPOILER ALERT)
Of course, the characters in Martin’s novels aren’t real, but real life has its share of bad guys. The latter half of the 20th century seemed to mark a turn away from Old Testament-style justice. Adolph Hitler: committed suicide to avoid capture by the Red Army. Joseph Stalin: died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 74. Pol Pot: died at home of a heart attack. Slobodan Milosevic: heart attack while under trial for war crimes. Saddam Hussein: hanged after being convicted for crimes against humanity. The point is, the deaths of some of the 20th century’s worst people were decidedly unlike that of your average Bond villain.
Then, in the last six months, Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi died extremely violent deaths. The former, of course, was shot in the head during a raid by US forces. The latter was captured in a hole, beaten viciously, and, according to some reports, took around 30 minutes to die after being shot in the head and chest.
Now, I know I am supposed to love my enemies, to pray for them and even bless them. I know this because it is discussed pointedly in Romans, Luke, 1 Peter and 1 John. But what’s curious to me is how these deaths feel to me from a purely narrative standpoint. And, if I’m honest, the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi feel somewhat…well…right. As much as I tell myself the death of a human being should never be celebrated, I do at least feel some satisfaction knowing these men are gone. Gaddafi was a madman who ruled with an iron hand, who lived in unchecked opulence while his people suffered. Osama Bin Laden was Osama Bin Laden. One of the key components of Protestant Christianity is the belief we do not get what we deserve, that through following Christ all sin is absolved, but there is still a very real part of us that wants to see certain people get what’s coming to them, from cruel despots to schoolyard bullies. If narrative morality is ingrained in us by our creator — and I think for the most part it is — why is vengeance so undeniably gratifying?
The easiest answer is to say we want justice, and that’s partly true. We yearn for God to put the world right. But there’s more to it than that. One of my favorite stories takes place in Corrie Ten Boom’s book Tramp for the Lord. Ms. Ten Boom is lecturing in Germany when she is approached by a man whom she quickly recognizes as a particularly brutal Ravensbruck guard. Before he can speak, she forgives him:
“For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”What we truly want is for villains to repent. Ideally, we want a villain to understand what he did was wrong, and redeem his horrible actions. When that doesn’t suffice, we want him to realize he was not as powerful as he thought. This is why, when a villain dies in a story, we are shown his reaction one last time as he plummets to his death or realizes a bomb is about to explode. We want to see him recognize he is a broken man.
The question from there is whether we want our villains forgiven, and I suspect that’s a matter of perspective. Did anyone really want Die Hard to end with John McClane forgiving Hans Gruber, grasping hands, and experiencing God’s love? Doubtful, but this is partly because Hans Gruber is not a real human. He’s an avatar for evil. Real people are a lot messier, with compounding factors like traumatic childhood experiences and mental illness.
Like all sin, we each have our limits. The tools God gives us to push those limits — empathy and a willingness to cede control of our lives — are crucial in determining our reactions. If I had known Muammar Gaddafi, or Osama Bin Laden, I wonder if that glimmer of satisfaction I felt would’ve been diminished completely, and a story read as justice served would more closely resemble a tragedy.