Beliefs Ethics Opinion

COMMENTARY: Revenge: An off-limits indulgence for Christians

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Revenge never accomplishes anything _ not for victims, not for criminals, and not for survivors of terrorist crimes. In revenge, satisfaction is momentary, then pain and grief return. True healing comes only through forgiveness.

The followers of Jesus believe one must forgive others as one is forgiven by the passionately forgiving God. But in addition to religious motives, forgiveness is a psychological requirement to healing. As difficult as it seems, until we grant it, only forgiveness can bring peace.

I understand and feel the anger of the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. I understand the need to have the bomber punished for his crime. Yet a hunger for revenge, as understandable as it is, does not heal, it does not bring closure, and it does not grant peace.

Thus, I’m against the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, who was found guilty this week on 11 counts in connection with the bombing, including the murder of eight federal employees. He is a criminal: a twisted, arrogant, and insensitive monster. But no useful purpose will be served by putting him to death. Forgiveness does not mean he should ever be released from prison, however. It merely means giving up the need to see him suffer.

I take this position, among other reasons, because of the pope’s stand against the death penalty. And I will begin to take seriously those Catholic pro-life enthusiasts when they, too, oppose the death penalty; when they begin demonstrating against executions the way they demonstrate against abortion. Otherwise, I see their pro-life stance as many feminists do _ a stand against women.

As a Christian, I believe in the teachings of Jesus (which, like everyone else, I don’t always follow, to my shame be it said). Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek when someone sins against us, and we are forgiven when we forgive those who sin against us.

Although the cry for vengeance is a natural human response, it is an indulgence in which Christians are not permitted to partake _ and so much the better for our emotional healing and our personal peace.

Yet I’m endlessly astonished at how people who purport to be sincere and devout Christians can appear before TV cameras and demand revenge, especially when God claims the only right to vengeance. And I’m equally astonished that when I write on this subject, many devout Christians write to me denouncing what I believe to be elementary Christianity.

Some of these folks are faithful, Bible-reading Christians. Don’t they read the words of Jesus? Or if they do, how do they forget them?

Life in prison is punishment enough to keep Timothy McVeigh from ever blowing up another building and will serve notice to other would-be domestic terrorists that they cannot get away with such crimes.

There is no evidence that the threat of capital punishment dissuades criminals from committing barbarous acts. The death penalty adds nothing to the story, except revenge.