How Does Vengeance Not Manifest Itself

By Tim Keller

Tim Keller's church confronted unique challenges to be the Gospel when the World Trade Center disaster brought tragedy to its community. More than 3,000 people worship weekly at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in two locations in Manhattan—three services at Manhattan's Hunter College Auditorium and one service at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church.

From the church office several miles from Ground Zero, Tim and his staff mobilized the church's sizable mercy ministry, within hours of the disaster posting a host of services on their website: listed pastors and staff to contact about the death or injury of a loved one; loss of job and/or apartment; need for financial assistance; news about deaths, injuries or missing persons; free crisis counseling; and opportunities to volunteer or help financially. Fifteen thousand cards with the same contact information were distributed widely in an effort to reach those in need all across the city—a tactic made necessary, in part, by the far reaching devastation, and also to point people to Redeemer's website.

Volunteers also contacted every person on the church rolls, and home fellowship leaders mobilized to monitor the needs of their members. In addition, the Redeemer staff posted web pages on "How to Help," "Prayer Guidance," "Things to Remember in Our Prayers," "Psalms to Comfort and Encourage" and "Helping Your Children Cope." Tim provided theological counsel in a section entitled, "Questions on Everyone's Mind."

Director of Communications Cregan Cooke says that Redeemer has been deeply affected by the loss of life in the September 11 tragedy. "Almost everyone knows someone personally who was lost or someone who was affected by the tragedy, and stories continue to come in of people in our congregation who have experienced personal loss." In the Sunday following the disaster it was evident how deeply people were moved as church attendance soared from the usual 3,000 to more than 5,000 worshippers.

"Most everyone I've talked to says it's hard to describe how you feel," says Cregan. "When you start to express it, you're overcome with grief. The magnitude of watching a catastrophe and knowing lives are being lost as you watch is hard to put words around. People are left in shock, and are coping with depression and anger. But we've also seen an outpouring of caring. We're hoping through showing compassion and extending care to our neighbors all around the New York City community, to bring the Gospel to bear on this tragedy."

Following is the response Tim Keller provided to questions about vengeance.

How Does Vengeance Not Manifest Itself in the Christian Community?
In most people's minds there is a false "either-or" between vengeance and forgiveness. But that is a mistake. Forgiveness is not simply resignation or capitulation to evil.

In vengeance we simply pommel the enemy to hurt them worse than we were hurt. Our motivation is neither the common good nor the upholding of justice and truth per se. We simply want to assuage our own pain by seeing our enemy in worse pain than we were. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is not "letting him off scot free." Forgiveness is a means of giving up the hate and the desire for personal vengeance so that we can then pursue justice and maybe even reconciliation. I have personally found that I can't really confront a wrong-doer effectively about his or her sin until I have forgiven it. Then I am sometimes able to help the person see their wrong, or at least I am able to wisely pursue justice and restitution. But if I keep my heart full of hate, I never get anything done except fuel the cycle of retaliation. When I aim not to bring a person to see the truth, but rather only to hurt them, I never get anywhere. In other words, forgiveness does not "let a person off— rather it frees my heart to pursue justice and/or reconciliation, depending on the reaction of the wrongdoer.

At the very least, forgiveness prevents me from becoming as evil as the other party. The basic plot-dynamic of The Lord of the Rings revolves around the conundrum of the Great Ring of the Dark Lord. The "good" people have found his ring, but they can't use his own power against him without becoming just like the one who made it. They can, as it were, defeat the Dark Lord, but only by becoming an evil Dark Lord in his place. Unless we forgive our enemies, our anger could turn us as demonic as it has turned them.

Now that we know what forgiveness is, how can we do it? I don't know how to do that without embracing the message of the Cross. The Cross means at least that a) God so hates evil and injustice that he is willing to come suffer himself in order to end it, but b) we are so tainted by evil as well that Jesus had to die so that we could be forgiven. Both of these truths are absolutely essential for forgiveness. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf puts it perfectly:

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans and exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the {Cross} for long without overcoming this double exclusion... When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover the torturer's humanity and imitate God's love for that person. And when one knows that the love of God is greater than {my} sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of the justice of God and so rediscover one's own sinfulness. (Volf, The Spacious Heart, p.57)

Rev. Dr. Tim Keller is Senior Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan, New York.