Someone recently asked me the difference between those two words. Frankly, before answering I had to go back to the very basic definition, as in the dictionary definition of both words. We all surely know what those words mean. Yet, the definitions are tainted with our own history, personal experiences, religion, tradition, culture and so much more. Therefore, the definition of those words can easily be diluted, hijacked and/or misinterpreted quite easily. So, let’s start with the basics and allow me to remind you, even if no reminder is needed, I am not a scholar by trade.
Justice: the quality of being just, impartial, or fair – the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.
Vengeance: punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense.
Well, that cleared things up. Two words, two definitions, two meanings, and they are not similar at all. They are not even distant synonyms. One example where both words are used is the Christian holy book. Actually, all monotheistic holy books talk about vengeance and justice.
The Old Testament in the bible is all about vengeance– “Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death” – Leviticus 24:19-21.
Some would say that’s justice because it was written in the holy book as a set of laws, but it sounds like vengeance to my 21st century secular brain. “An eye for an eye” sounds profoundly direct, unambiguous, and clear. It is hard to even debate what the verse means. It’s as plain as day.
On the other hand, the New Testament, is all about forgiveness. The examples are plenty.
Colossians 3:13 – “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”.
Luke 23:34 – “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots”.
Luke 3:37 – “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven”.
Matthew 6:14-15 – “14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”.
Once again, the examples are plenty and they can all be found in the New Testament. Vengeance is thrown out the window because it came from wicked people living in a wicked world. Jesus came to offer humanity a brave new world, one based on forgiveness and love towards our trespassers and enemies. I must say, I adhere to the new world plainly. Basically, the old rules, the set of rules that governed the old, wicked world, the old justice system must be discarded.
Moreover, justice is about settling the score in a manner that isn’t filled with vengeance because let’s not forget, vengeance always comes from an emotional place. Vengeance is there to respond to an affront and even the score. Vengeance is designed to satisfy a biblical, for lack of a better word, need for retribution. Vengeance is about an equal punishment as the definition says. A bad deed cannot go unpunished and frankly, it shouldn’t. That is our way of righting wrongs, so to speak.
Now, what is just? What is fair? How do we define fairness? That’s one of those existential questions that has kept humanity sleepless since our ancestors started roaming this blue planet of ours. I ask again, what is fair and just? Hell, if I know. Let’s say a person kills your only child, out of malice and premeditation. What is the appropriate response to that unspeakable crime? How do you even the score? Do you kill their child in retribution? The child didn’t do anything to you. The parent killed your child, not his own child, so, the killer’s child is as innocent as your departed child. Vengeance requires we punish them. How do we punish them? The childless parent deserves justice, perhaps even vengeance. So, I ask you, how do we settle this unimaginable score? If a person embezzles money from people and they end up having nothing, what then? What is the appropriate punishment? Jail time? Restitution of the money? What if the money is gone? What then? Another example: rape. How do we punish rapists? What is the appropriate punishment for that unspeakable crime? Does the rapist get raped as vengeance or revenge? Can justice help or is vengeance more appropriate? I could ask a million questions like these, but I am sure you get my not-so subtle point.
I guess that’s where the justice system comes in to try and help if we could even call that “help”. The justice system is there to attempt and stop people killing, hurting, or simply going all crazy and medieval on each other every day for minor and especially major offenses. The justice system is there to regulate society and avoid our descent into utter chaos. That isn’t easy at all because we are dealing with emotions and as we all know, emotions are not rational. They are irrational, by definition. And let’s not hide our primal reflex to hurt those who have hurt us. We all have that initial and primitive need for revenge. We have an almost infinite desire to satiate our thirst for vengeance because we are simply hurt. It is elementary. A hurt person needs to hurt others, as if they need that act to pass on that negative energy, that pain, that sorrow.
Justice is there to try and stop us from tearing each other into a million pieces. Justice attempts to introduce fairness in a world where it exists in limited quantity. Vengeance is there to satisfy a primal need for revenge and once again, revenge is based on emotion, and we are usually ruled by our emotions. That’s why we have passed laws stopping the death penalty. The justice system in the western world is about punishment and rehabilitation. Yet, I firmly believe some souls are beyond rehabilitation. Some souls will always hurt people, no matter what happens. I am not being cynical. Research has proven that some people, a minority thank all the gods, are unfortunately wired to hurt, maim, kill, rape and causing pain and chaos.
Societies evolve, the laws evolve and hopefully, people evolve as well. Once again, I am not being cynical, but I know we all have a dark side within us. It might be dormant most of the time, but it is there, ready to jump out and take over at the slightest opportunity. Humans are complicated and complex. I can talk about forgiveness all day for minor offenses. I wonder how I would speak if someone killed my whole family, in cold blood, because they simply wanted to do so. How would I react? I am certain I would want vengeance, not justice. The latter is slow, it is imperfect, it doesn’t necessarily heal wounds. Nevertheless, vengeance doesn’t heal wounds either. It might satisfy that primal need for revenge imprinted in our DNA after millennia of evolution but it rarely, if not never, offers lasting peace of mind.
We all want vengeance I believe, and we don’t always get justice. Or do we want justice, which we don’t always get, and we don’t get vengeance? Frankly, I don’t know. Justice allows society to function somewhat harmoniously, and some would argue the opposite. I guess it is easy to talk about justice when one hasn’t been hit with a grave injustice. The world is complicated, is it not?
Just one man’s opinion.
Now smile and go on with your day!