Vengeance is Mine

Let us pray for the victims of Hurricane Harvey:  Gracious and loving God, please bring peace and safety to those suffering from the effects of Hurricane Harvey.  Let them know that, just as you did following the Great Flood, that the rainbow of perseverance and the dove of peace will always follow the waters of life and death.  Let them know that you are with them in their pain and suffering.  And that you will take up their cross, side by side, as the rebuilding and repurposing of lives takes place.

I.    Exegesis
    Our scripture lesson today talks about what it means to be a good, loving, and genuine follower of Jesus Christ.  St. Paul relates a lesson by Jesus for how Christians are to love one another.  Included in this list are such things as hating what is evil and loving what is good.  This dualistic, neo-Gnostic approach to morality, while readily found in the usual case – that is, loving one’s neighbor as ones’ self.  Hating evil and loving the good becomes a much more challenging case when it comes to Jesus’s commission to love those who commit evil against you.  Regarding your enemies -- those who sin against you -- Jesus takes a pacifistic approach:  live peaceably with your enemy, feed and clothe your enemy, “do not overcome your enemy with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Does this Gospel lesson resonate for victims – victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey – or the victims of crime or physical violence?
    Jesus knows of our human desire for revenge.  Yet, as for vengeance, Jesus tells us to “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  [Romans 12:19-21].  Jesus commands us to “turn the other cheek,” but, in a complex society where victim’s rights are recognized and valued, Christian theology requires more than “leaving vengeance to God.”  
Contemporary society requires us to consider the position of the victim – for if we are to aspire to a truly “distributive justice,” a justice that makes all involved a whole person -- we must consider the victim.  We must determine whether any penalty assessed against the perpetrator of a crime must also entail a close examination of the needs of the victim – so that the victim’s needs, be they counseling, healing, protection, safety or prayer – can be incorporated into the triad of distributive justice among the lawgiver, the perpetrator, and the VICTIM.  [PAUSE].

II.    The Asian Conception of “Han”
Throughout its history, the church has been concerned with the SIN of people, but has largely overlooked an important factor in human evil: the lingering pain of the victims of sin.  The victims of wrongdoing express deep bitterness and helplessness.  Such an experience of pain is called han in the Far East.  This concept has been developed and expounded by Korean-American theologian Andrew Sung Park in his book, The Wounded Heart of God:  The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Han can be defined as the critical wound of the heart generated by unjust psychological repression, as well as by social, political, economic, and cultural oppression.  It is entrenched in the hearts of the victims of sin and violence, and is expressed through such diverse reactions as sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, resentment, hatred, and the will to revenge.
Han reverberates in the souls of survivors of the Holocaust, Syrian refugees, victims of racial discrimination, battered wives, children involved in painful divorces, the victims of child-molestation, laid-off workers, the unemployed, and exploited workers.  Han also reverberates in the lives of addicts and former addicts.  Han is a cry for help – a cry for mercy – to a God who is often pre-occupied with vengeance.  Han comes from the wounded soul of the victim, a victim who often remains nameless in the calculation of punishment for the victimizer.

IV.    Case Study
A.    When I was in seminary, I served as a Chaplaincy Intern at Paoli Hospital, a 250-bed regional trauma hospital located in Chester County.  During my patient visitation rounds in November 2016, I called on “T.G.”, a Caucasian woman in her mid-40’s, who was the victim of horrendous domestic violence.  This visit turned out to be one of the most profound experiences of my ministerial training. 
I introduced myself to T.G. as the Spiritual Care Team intern and asked T.G. how she was feeling today.  T.G. had thick bandages around most of her head, her face was swollen and she had bruises all over her body. T.G. said that she was “incredibly sad.”  I asked permission for her to share her story with me.  T.G. seemed as if she really wanted to share her story, and her eyes were animated.  She told me that five days prior, T.G.’s long-time (20 year) domestic partner (we shall call him D.M) beat T.G. nearly to death with a hammer, in what she called an alcohol-induced attack.  T.G. told me that she and D.M. had been together for a long time and that he rarely showed his violent side unless he was drunk.  T.G. admitted that she too was a chronic alcoholic.  
T.G. told me that D.M. cracked her skull open and broke several bones in her body.  D.M. had beaten her so severely that he thought that he had killed her.  T.G. told me that she could hear D.M. call her mother to tell her that he had “finally” killed her.  
T.G. was brought to her local hospital in Western Florida, where she underwent cranial surgery and was put into a medically induced coma to stabilize her brain injury.  Within 48 hours, T.G.’s mother and sister had arranged for her to be flown to Paoli Hospital, near her childhood home in Malvern.  Upon admission, T.G.  suffered from uncontrollable seizures, which the doctors said were the result of her brain damage as well as medications that the medical team were using to decrease the swelling in her brain. 
B.    I asked T.G. to share with me the cause of her sadness.  T.G. said that she was sad that she let herself fall into a long co-dependent relationship centered on alcohol abuse.  She said that she was sad because the doctors told her that she may never work again.  She said that she was sad that the doctors told her that her injuries were so severe that she may never regain full functioning in her arms and legs.  Moreover, she said she was ashamed that she had to be “rescued” by her mother and her sister, who had been estranged from her for nearly a decade.  Finally, she told me that she was sad that she had “let God down” because she was a very religious Christian in her youth.  Through her tears, she told me that she was ashamed that God would never accept the person she had become.
C.    I re-assured T.G. that God had not abandoned her.  God never stopped loving her…even in the darkest times.  God was always there…all she needed to do was to be open to God’s loving grace.  I asked permission from T.G. to share a prayer with her.  She said that she wanted – needed -- God to forgive her for “throwing her life away.”  She said that, if God led her out from her current health crisis and stopped the seizures, she promised that she would try to “get sober.”  Like Job, who suffered famously during a contest between God and Satan, T.G. never blamed God for her condition.
D.    After listening quietly to T.G. tell her story, I could not help but cry along with her.  I tried to restrain my own tears, but T.G.’s story was so sad (to me) that I was overcome with emotion.  I apologized to T.G. for not being much help to her and for succumbing to my emotions.  Silently, my heart bled with such great sadness that I thought I could not continue, but then I thought of how much greater T.G.’s pain and Han must be.  And then T.G. said that “she had more tears than both of us.”
 As I prayed with T.G., she took both of my hands in her one unbandaged hand and pulled my hands close to her heart.  She closed her eyes as I prayed and I could hear her whisper “please Jesus come” several times.  I prayed for T.G. to be embraced by God’s healing touch, I prayed for God to be present with T.G. right then, right now.  I prayed for God to let T.G. know that He had never abandoned her.  I prayed for God to walk each step with T.G. as she begins many long months of recovery. I prayed for God to give strength to T.G., her mother and her sister, as they re-connect after many years, and I prayed that God would give each of them patience and understanding as they tried to renew their familial bonds.  
I then asked permission from T.G. to pray for her ex-partner, D.M.  She paused, then said yes, and she cried uncontrollably as I prayed that God show mercy on D.M., to give him the grace to understand what terrible harm he had brought upon T.G. and her family.  Next, I prayed that God might enter D.M.’s life to change him from a life of evil to a life of good.  I thought about the mercy that several Amish families showed to the family of a murderer when seven Amish girls were killed eleven years ago.  I also thought about the mercy that several southern Christian families showed to the family of Dylan Roof, who had killed seven members of a Bible study group.
Looking back, I came to understand that FORGIVENESS, true and heartfelt forgiveness, IS A SIGN THAT CHRISTIANS VENGEANCE BELONGS TO GOD.  It is a sign, however, that we as a Christian people cannot leave victimization and oppression to stand unopposed.  Yes, “vengeance is mine,” says Jesus.  But care for the victim, lifting up the victim in spirit, and walking with the victim on her journey back to wholeness IS OURS.
E.    At this point, T.G. seemed to be in better spirits.  It seemed like a weight was lifted from her.  T.G. began to smile and she asked me, “Do you know what these seizures haven’t taken from me yet?”  I said “what”?  T.G. said that she still can do her impersonations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Carol Burnett.  Which she did…and we both found ourselves laughing and crying at the same time.  After about a 25 minute visit, T.G. asked me to go to the hospital gift shop and buy her a couple of crossword puzzle books.  The nurses said that they would help her gauge her recovery.
When I returned, T.G.’s door was closed.  She was asleep and the attending nurse said that I shouldn’t go into her room or disturb her.  I asked the nurse to give her the puzzle books at the appropriate time.  I knelt next to the door to T.G.’s room and I said another prayer for T.G., her family, her medical care team – and I prayed for mercy for D.M.  I then went to the third-floor family waiting area and cried alone for another ten minutes – the sadness and the pain had to come out of me at that point.  T.G. was moved to a private location for security reasons the next day.  I have been thinking about my visit with T.G. for several months now, wondering whether I was able to absorb some of her sadness, and whether she and God had ever reconnected.
After I reported this case to my Chaplaincy supervisor, I was immediately admonished for asking T.G. to pray for her former partner, D.M.  I was told that it was “too early” to bring up the idea of praying for the perpetrator, and that, from a clinical pastoral care standpoint, asking T.G. to re-live any aspect of her attack was wrong.  And yet, isn’t this what God is asking us to do in today’s Gospel?

V.    Application of “Han” to Our Own Lives
Andrew Sung Park’s conception of the Korean/Asian conception of “Han” presents us with a novel challenge to the traditional doctrine of Original Sin.  Sung Park writes that Christianity’s historical dualism of Original Sin/sinner should be expanded to include considerations around the victims of sin:  sin and sinner/oppressor cannot be understood without examining the effect of sin upon the victim/oppressed, upon whom sin is committed.   For Sung Park, Han is both individual and cultural, that is, Han can be experienced individually as the result of traumatic experiences caused by sin, and Han can be experienced culturally as the result of society-wide traumas caused by sin (or not), such as after the Holocaust, the Korean War, or Hurricane Katrina.   The emergence of Han raised novel questions for me: Why had I not conceived of sin as impacting victims and oppressed persons before?  What is the relationship between sin, guilt and shame?  Sung Park prescribes an open and honest process of forgiveness, which includes the victim and which is designed to expiate the victim’s Han-ridden shame, as the appropriate response to sin.   
The Korean/Asian conception of Han is theologically based in the story of Cain and Abel.  [Genesis 4:1-16].  As the scripture goes, Abel’s sacrifice to God was warmly accepted, whereas Cain’s sacrifice to God was rejected.  Out of jealousy or spite, Cain murders Abel, whose blood soaks the earth.  The story continues:
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’  And the Lord said, ‘What have you done?  Listen; you brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”

[Genesis 4:9-11].

    The Cain and Abel story is one of the few scriptures to consider the role of the victim in a crime.  Virtually all other “vengeance” stories in the Bible treat punishment as arising from God alone.  And yet, we must ask ourselves, have we as a society productively addressed the Han felt by slaves and descendants of slavery?  Have we as a society productively addressed the Han felt by soldiers returning from war?  And have we as a society addressed the Han felt by victims of the opioid epidemic?
Our great commission to love one another requires that we do these things – perhaps not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the victim. [PAUSE]. 

V.    Prayer
    [1.    Vengeance is the Lord’s]
    [2.    But if distributive justice enables victims of crimes or natural disasters addresses the needs of victims to be heard, “their blood crying from the soil,” then distributive justice is OF GOD.]
    [3.    Allow us to love our neighbor, including our enemies, but at the same time, let us love and care for victims or domestic violence, child abuse, violent crime, or psychological terror.  Let us be the intercessor for the victim.]    


[1] Andrew Sung Park, The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 15-20.

[1] Id., pp. 22-30.

[1] Id., pp. 83-85.  Examples of this process of forgiveness include the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” convened in South Africa following apartheid, and the introduction of “Victim’s Impact Statements” in criminal trials in the U.S. and Europe.