In the film “Nevada Smith”, young Max Sand (Steve McQueen) has just arrived at his house in the 1890s American West to find that his parents have been horribly murdered by some men he had met earlier. He had even given them directions to his house. Long on vengeance but short on resources, he plans to go after the three men who committed the crime.
Max’s neighbor Ben, an older man, tells him, “Revenge is not God’s way.” Ben’s wife Elvira rebukes her husband and tells him to save his preaching. “Go get ’em Max,” she says.
When Ben objects, Elvira asks,”If he doesn’t who will?” When her her husband says,”The Law” Elvira sarcastically replies,”The Law–what law?”
The wet-behind-the ears Max, a mixed race Indian and white fellow, doesn’t know how to handle a gun or read or write, but with help along the way he sets a course that borders on martyrdom in order to avenge the murder of his parents.
Max has a funny way of garnering help. In a couple of instances he attempts to either kill or rob people, but seeing his youth and naivete’, these folks take pity on Max and assist him.
For example, after he unsuccessfully fights a group of men he suspects are his parents’ killers, he is captured. These men feed Max and give him a place at their campfire.
One of the men says to Max,”Why don’t you go home?” Telling the man that he doesn’t have a home, Max asks,”How can you guys be so friendly after what I tried to do?”
“Well everybody in this world is foolish in his own way,” replies one of the men. “Besides, we were all kids once ourselves.”
“Weren’t we now,” adds one of the other cowboys, setting off a raucous laughter among the group.
(I am tempted to apply these cowboys’ wisdom when working with students.)
Another man who helps him tells Max that he is going to have to wallow in the mud and become just like his parents’ murderers if he is going to succeed at hunting them down. As the story develops, this is what becomes of the formerly innocent lad.
Beginning his pursuit, Max kills one of the criminals in a knife fight, but is himself wounded. After he recovers, he learns that one of the other two men has been sent to prison in Louisiana for robbing a bank.
Arriving in Louisiana, Max robs a payroll in order to get sent to the same prison so he can do the man in. Befriending an using a Cajun woman who knows the way and his own cunning, Max succeeds in killing this second perpetrator in a swamp as the three attempt to escape. The Cajun woman also dies in the process.
The woman had told Max that she would go with him, but made him promise to treat her nice. As she died, all Max can say is “I’m so sorry.” I’m sure she was to.
By this time Max has become skilled and dangerous. After the escape, his appearance even gives him away. A sheriff who tells Max to get out of his town says to him that he has a ‘mean’ look about him.
Eventually, Max infiltrates the gang of the one remaining killer, calling himself Nevada Smith. During a heist Max chases after the man and catches him by a stream. Max strategically shoots him in different places to torture him in the same way the killer tortured his parents.
When the murderer yells at Max to finish him off, Max refuses. “You ain’t worth killin’,” he says and rides away to the screams of the killer calling him ‘yellow’. The film ends there.
As the amateur theologian I am, I was immediately drawn to the remark posed by Max’s neighbor Ben. Was he right? Does God not want us to seek revenge? From what I have learned over a lifetime of attempting to live as a Christian, my first answer would be ‘no’.
This is in spite of having at least one friend (an unbeliever) who at times has encouraged me to avenge poor treatment at work. This pal advises methods similar to the ones used by Max in going after his parents’ killers. They involve subterfuge.
Yet, part of me does sympathize with Max. Elvira was right to question the justice system, especially where they lived. They didn’t call it the “Wild West” for nuthin’.
Furthermore, one of Max’s mentors, a gunsmith named Cord, told him to never back down from a threat. This advice was in symmetry with the culture of the time, which lived by the unwritten rules of The Code of the West. This code required that a man defend himself when necessary.
I personally have a strong sense of justice. I believe things that ought not to be should be properly dealt with. When the authorities aren’t willing or able to do it, what can I do? All I tend to do is get mad or frustrated and sometimes take matters into my own hands like Max.
I may struggle with my belief system these days, but one thing I hang on to, and a concept that is even growing stronger, is the authority of the Bible. Unlike the Code of the West. the Bible is a written code which I know will make my life better, or at least “right” if I live it. So it is in the Scriptures to which I go to look to find an answer to my question “what to do when wronged?”.
Even Max Sand, however, used the Bible as justification for his crusade. He was helped by a priest when he was dragged through a river by some men. The priest gave him a Bible. Upon leaving the priest, Max gave the Bible back to him.
The priest urged Max to keep it, but the latter told the padre that he could remember the most important part for “him”–an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
So I have to be careful. Ma was not a Bible scholar and had faulty hermeneutics. He didn’t know that a student of the Scriptures has to take the whole Bible into account and not cherry pick the verses he or she wants in order to create an excuse for their actions. We have had further revelation since the Old Testament passage to which Max referred.
The book of Acts tells the story of the first martyr of the young church. Stephen stood before the religious authorities of the time to defend faith in Christ. Hal Lindsey notes that Stephen knew he was forfeiting his life in opposing their bogus arguments. Yet, he laid out a thorough case and was stoned for it.
Lindsey also points out that Stephen’s face was like that of an angel as he was being stoned, shining brightly. He had no meanness about him. In addition, Lindsey says he believes that Jesus stood to welcome Stephen as a signal of honor.
Stephen’s actions and those of the Church in the aftermath of his death are in stark contrast to the steps taken by the fictional Max Sand. Stephen was willing to risk martyrdom, but nowhere do you read an account of church members or anyone else going after his killers to seek revenge.
Did this mean that believers thought that Ben’s thinking that “revenge was not God’s way” was correct and that there would be no justice for Stephen? I think not.
The Scriptures note the cry of Christian martyrs for vengeance. The apostle John writes,
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them.(Revelation 6:9-11)
They were looking for Jesus, not other men, to bring about the justice they craved. There would be vengeance eventually, but in God’s way and in God’s time.
This truth is further documented in the Bible by the apostle Paul. He writes,
Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,
“I will take revenge;
I will pay them back,”
says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
This should comfort us in the long term at least. We can live in hope that God will indeed inflict justice on the wicked. That may give little hope in the short run, however. What are we believers supposed to do in the meantime?
Following his exhortation above, Paul continues by telling believers to submit to the governing authorities. From what I can tell, the Law frowns upon the kind of actions taken by Max Sand, although they tended to look the other way in the Old West given the lawlessness there. Therefore, Paul’s comments would preclude me taking the law into my own hands when I encounter injustice, as Max did.
So what should a Christian do when they are wronged and the authorities are powerless, corrupt or indifferent? The answer may surprise you.
Paul writes in the verse following his words about not taking revenge,
“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
burning coals of shame on their heads.”
Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:20)
For me, this is a tough pill to swallow. But if I am committed to obeying God’s truth in the Bible, I don’t have much choice. It’s not Elvira and Max’s Code of The West nor is it The Gospel According to Ben. I is the Word of God, which is my authority. Once I clearly grasp the Bible’s meaning, I have to obey that code and gospel.
If English clergyman George Herbert was correct in saying that living well is the best revenge, then the Scriptures are my source. I’ll let God deal with the rest.