Some cultures have no central government. Their only social organization is the family, including the extended family that constitutes a clan, and the organization of clans into a tribe. So in the absence of laws, a police force, and a judicial system, tribal societies have one way of enforcing justice: Revenge.
If someone kills a member of your family in a hunting accident, it falls upon you — or the oldest male in your family, or perhaps the oldest brother of fighting age — to take revenge. This can be done by killing the guilty party, or, failing that, by killing someone else in the guilty party’s family. This, of course, means that the designated avenger will, in turn, kill someone else from your family. Which will mean another round of retribution. And on and on, until the violence burns itself out, or the two families exterminate each other, or until peace is made by joining the two families by a marriage, or the paying of a “man price,” or by making a formal treaty of reconciliation.
This system of attaining justice through personal vengeance is called “feud.” Often, feuds are carried out not just among families but between clans and entire tribes. Sometimes the feuds go on for generations, in a general state of war that exists between two tribes, long after the original offense is forgotten.
Indeed, it does not always take a killing to set off tribal vendettas. Violations of someone’s honor can also lead to bloody retribution and counter-retribution.
In America, we have the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, which took place back in the hills where the central government had scant presence, so that the social system reverted to the more primitive state of family justice.
Today, youth gangs — which reject the legal system for a life of crime — take on the social organization of primitive tribes, in which merciless vendettas become a way of life. Much of today’s gang violence, from assaults to drive-by shootings, is caused by feuds between rival criminal groups. Often the gang violence is payback against someone for violating the gang world’s byzantine codes of honor, in which the way you wear your hat can be a signal of “disrespect.”
Many of today’s global trouble spots are essentially outbreaks of tribal feuds. In Rwanda, violence between the Hutus and Tutsis left over a million people dead. American troops found themselves caught in the middle of tribal feuds in Somalia and Mogadishu. The Middle East is a hotbed of ancient grievances and primal hatreds. The Islamic terrorists are bent on vengeance against the West for, among other reasons, driving the Muslims out of Spain in the fifteenth century. The terrorists kill innocent westerners as payback for the medieval crusades. Avengers never forget. And they never forgive.
The Levitical laws, addressed to a tribal society, restricts and re-channels the impulse for revenge that is natural to such societies. “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” puts strict limits on retribution. The cities of refuge give slayers protection against the avenger, until the Levites render a judicial determination of whether the killing was an accident or intentional. The avenger is reduced to the role of the executioner, but he may act only under the authority of lawful judges.
The New Testament forbids personal revenge altogether. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves,” says the apostle Paul, “but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). God Himself is the only legitimate avenger, who can be counted upon to enforce the claims of justice. But Paul, echoing Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, goes even further, calling on Christians to not only foreswear retribution but to do good to the person who has harmed you: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (v. 20).
And then, immediately after this teaching against vengeance, Paul discusses the “governing authorities” whom God has appointed and through whom He punishes evil doers. The lawful ruler “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Human beings are not to take vengeance but to leave it to God, who, however, acts not only through His eternal judgment but on earth, through the lawful vocations by which He executes His justice. Thus, these texts became an impetus for the dismantling of the tribal feudal systems in favor of a central government and the rule of law.
Justice is indeed necessary for any society. God will take care of that through the laws of the state. But individuals are not to take vengeance on their own. Christians are to forgive. Christ bore God’s justice, accepting the full retribution that our sins deserve. So now God forgives us. And now, since sin is atoned for, we are to forgive each another. And yet, the way of our fallen world is to treasure up wrongs, build up resentment, and to pay back the person who hurt us. Even Christians can easily slip back into that mindset, grounded as it is in self-righteousness and legalism. Though we confess that we have been saved by grace, we often forget to extend that grace to others.
Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle of retribution — which destroys individuals, breaks up families, and wrecks entire societies — is forgiveness, which, as someone has said, is the only way to change the past.