The drug of comeuppance no longer satisfies me. I’ve tasted it too many times, mostly in movies, or in the rolling celluloid fiction of my mind. The high has vanished now, leaving in its place a shadow that looks like Saint Peter drawing a sword at Gethsemane, an echo that sounds like a Savior disappointed, even slightly alarmed.
Comeuppance is a thing we all covet to some degree, as evidenced by its mass-market appeal. Storytellers go to great lengths to keep their heroes from glorying in victory though. Disney plays variations on the theme of throwing villains off cliffs. Clint Eastwood types have post-shootout crises of conscience, or they leave town. Antagonists get taken down by accidents, or by their own machinations. The dynamic of oneupmanship between enemy and hero gets neatly answered. Real life is rarely so simple. Good justice might be poetic, but I don’t think it should always rhyme.
Like everyone I know, I grew up with bullies. I didn’t really see them as people very often, just elements, forces of nature, things that could be avoided by a degree of manipulation. Imagine rain. You can’t really beat it, but you can stay dry with a raincoat. There was no avoiding the weather of cruel schoolmates. There was only keeping one’s head down, using a side entrance, or on rare occasions, spitting out a timely riposte. These aren’t always manipulation, of course, but for me, the spirit was certainly there. I grew street smarts. Street smarts are made to work by manipulating a situation, reading terrain, and making it work for you instead of against you. Troublingly, manipulation is itself a bully’s game. Underneath it (again, for me), was that desire for comeuppance, the longing for young oppressors to get what was coming to them, or better yet, to admit they were wrong.
The problem with comeuppance is that it’s not extemporaneous, in a very literal sense of the word. We understand things done extemporaneously are done with no preparation, but the Latin ex-tempore literally means outwith time or out of time. When the villain gets his in the story, he gets it within time. With the exception of Revelation, Daniel, and lesser smatterings of apocalypse salted through the literary corpus, all judgment is both temporal and partial. It is not God’s final judgment; therefore, it is not an ultimate word.
Even in dealings with the diabolical, we do well to temper our sense of heroism. On days when I wish to see a villain beg for mercy, I hear a warning in Jesus’ admonition to his disciples. In Luke’s account, seventy-two of them go out with instructions to preach and heal the sick. Then back they come with, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!” You can almost hear the mix of emotions in Jesus’ response.
“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” he says. “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 20:18-20)
“Yes, indeed,” he seems to be telling them. “Satan is defeated, and through me, you partake in that victory. Yet there’s danger in being grossly happy over this particular thing.”
Revelation, perhaps predictably, is understated in its description of the devil’s doom. Even in a book that, if we may say so reverently, is gloriously Lovecraftian as a creature feature, Satan’s end is a little dry. Yes, there’s a battle, and he’s thrown into the lake of fire. Yet it’s followed by John’s simple “tormented day and night for ever and ever,” and we don’t hear from Ol’ Scratch again. No one really gets to see him squeal. I kind of want to.
In missing Jesus’ point, in reveling in an enemy’s fall, even The Enemy’s, perhaps we become something other, something self-obsessed.Adam Whipple
What is the danger in this? In missing Jesus’ point, in reveling in an enemy’s fall, even The Enemy’s, perhaps we become something other, something self-obsessed.
I’m not often one for changing the lyrics to old hymns; we move menhirs at our peril. Still, I chafe at the verse in “Be Thou My Vision” that sings, “High King of Heaven, my victory won.” My victory? My own? My precious? That’s too easy a thing to say, especially for an American like me. Irish journalist Mary Byrne, in 1905, translated part of the original Old Irish as “With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety.” She followed this with a verse translation that reads, “Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations. Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.”
Even Eleanor Hull’s later translation, from which the ‘my victory’ line is drawn, has an alternate reading: “High King of heaven, Thou heaven’s bright Sun, O grant me its joys, after vict’ry is won.” There, the ownership of such victory sings more as though it belongs to the Lord than to me, the singer.
Real fights don’t feel victorious. The few times I’ve been part of a physical altercation, the emotions were overwhelming. I can revisit with great clarity the moments of fights or possible fights, even down to colors and smells. Adrenaline courses, and the busy scribes of the subconscious start writing in capitals. Given time to reflect, the wolf in me that wishes to glory in some outcome feels eerily akin to the wolf I saw in the other person or persons involved.
In arguments of various stripes—fights not with bodies but with words—our ideology is built not only on its coherence but on our tactics and the way we employ them. We cannot become wolves and bullies. What I want—what I used to want—was for people to change their minds. I still desire this, but in hoping so jealously for it, I have felt the vapidity of coveting such a thing. Hearing scripted nonsense in my head—those with whom I disagree finally admitting their wrongfulness—I can also hear my own continual hunger for something more.
The little book of Obadiah is a powerful indictment of Edom for the way they stood by, and even profited, as Babylon sacked Jerusalem. This was a divine punishment rendered. Yet even to take a prideful, arm’s-length joy in it, for Edom, was deadly. “Do not gloat when your enemy falls,” says Proverbs 24. “When they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove, and turn his wrath away from them.”
Let’s say, ideologically, that I get everything I want in an argument. Two things happen. Firstly, I find myself in grave danger of an unassailable and all-consuming self-righteousness. Secondly, being in triumphant possession of others’ admissions of error does not make me love them. And I am commanded to love people.
Perfect justice belongs to the Lord and shall be rendered in His time only. Kairos, not chronos.Adam Whipple
Do not hear in this a disavowal of orthodoxy or of non-contradiction. There is always room for discussion. We follow Scripture, and we pray the Spirit guides us into all truth. It is natural, in most disagreements, that someone is wrong. Yet if Scripture cannot be broken, I can also depend on the fact that, on some level, the person who is wrong is me.
Regarding cruelties both large and small, we look for earthly justice—insofar as we may render it—to reflect Christ’s justice. As lawyers may note, this is a great way to beat our heads against a wall. Our justice system is not perfect and must never be recreated due to its native fallenness. Our native fallenness. Perfect justice belongs to the Lord and shall be rendered in His time only. Kairos, not chronos.
I love the new-seeming focus in school systems and parent groups on the dangers of bullying. We must continually confront ourselves with the harm that we cause and, in following Jesus (and by His own grace), make efforts to better serve our neighbors. Part of that, I think, means not becoming bullies ourselves: refusing to cheer when the cruel are punished. This confrontation of the self means recognizing that cruelty, since the Fall, is seeded like a poison plant in the heart of each of us. I, for one, am thoroughly exhausted by my own continued belligerence, along with that of everyone else. It feels as though a combative spirit is demanded of me, a constant sword. In better moments, I want nothing so much as to lay it down.
Chased down for years now by a Sho Baraka line, by the book of Proverbs, and by my own addiction to shifts in the earthly power dynamic, I finally wrote a poem to codify my thoughts, or at least to wrestle with them. I’m not sure it is complete, but here it is in part.
from “Fear and Trembling, Southbound, 2022”
“Do I want peace,
or do I want power so I can try it?” —Sho Baraka
Once, we came easy, intuiting and fearful,
to biting tongues, thin-lipped when bullies got theirs.
Darian MacMahan sniffed out trouble to taste it,
for example, another grade school farm-punk
laurel-crowned by hiding his fears in cruelty.
He bet our Sunday school teacher, a Navy Seal,
that he could whip him in a straight wrestling match,
till amid a chorus of laughing boys,
the man tied him in a granny knot
in our small basement classroom and sat on him;
it was different than mornings of sandpaper nerves
when going to school again meant walking
past the boy, past his orbit of hungry sycophants,
knowing his father had chastened him after a phone call
the previous evening: your own parents, confronting.
Then after the boy died early, drunk-wrecked,
the reverend shooed away the unsure gang
guzzling piss-cheap beer in the churchyard, grasping
with Protestant, redneck blindness the gut-deep emotion
of an Irish wake. They were still boys, and gone
was their leader, flame-to-glory in boondock martyrdom.
Now in every wiry, bookish child is a skeeving,
rat-hearted thing that gnaws the faces of bullies
until they weep penance. What we hope to know by grace,
unspoken, is that not all hungers can be quelled.
Some grow like crocodiles, to fill available space.