Hamerton-Kelly on “Love, Law, and Vengeance”

Excerpt from Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992, pp. 150-156.

Love, Law, and Vengeance

Law is the judicial transformation of the prohibition originally sanctioned by the threat of the recurrence of mimetic violence dissembled as the vengeance of the god. The element of reciprocity in Law is therefore a transformation of vengeance, and for this reason I have called law the myth of vengeance. Law is, therefore, essentially mimetic violence transformed into divine vengeance and then rationalized as retributive justice. In Paul’s Judaism, Law had not yet been fully rationalized and still rested on the idea of the divine vengeance. The Law was still sacred.

The one explicit discussion of the Law in relation to vengeance occurs in Romans 12:9-13:10. Paul exhorts his readers to love sincerely, be forbearing and sympathetic, and especially not to take vengeance by rendering evil for evil. They must leave vengeance to God who has promised to repay, and as they recognize the divine monopoly on eschatological vengeance so they must recognize the state’s monopoly on vengeance in this world. The reciprocity of legal obligation is, however, only an imperfect image of the generosity of love that overflows the bounds of the quid pro quo.

This acceptance of the divine and civic monopolies of vengeance could indicate that Paul’s God is still the primitive sacred, and God’s order still the order of sacred violence, but that would be a misunderstanding. There are two clues in the immediate context to a proper understanding. One is the reference to sacrifice at the beginning of the chapter, and the other is the phrase in Romans 12:19, “give place to the wrath” (dote topon te orge). Furthermore, Paul’s teaching must be placed in the larger context of the Jesus tradition as recorded in Matthew 5:33-48 if it is to be fully comprehensible.

Romans 12:1-2 opens the ethical section of the letter by placing the image of sacrifice as a rubric over the discussion. It is, therefore, not substitutionary sacrifice that the image has in mind but rather self-dedication to God. Sacrifice is a metaphor for moral self-dedication and not a ruse for shifting responsibility on to a substitute. Thus the logic of substitution has been reversed, and instead of being a device for escaping responsibility, sacrifice is here a metaphor for the acceptance of responsibility before God. The metaphor is based on the “thanksgiving” element in sacrifice as an image of the moral dedication to God that acknowledges the creator as the “other” who constitutes the self by relationship.

The noetic element is prominent in the passage — such self-sacrifice is reasonable (logikos) and renews the mind (anakainosis tou noos) — and this gives the following exhortation (Rom 12:3-8) — to maintain the proper order in the community — a moral rather than a sacral basis. In the realm of the Sacred, order is the effect of the filtered violence of ritual and prohibition; here it is to be the result of moral discernment by the renewed mind. Its mark is precisely the rational curb on rivalry by the responsible acceptance of the differentiated functions of an ordered society. In this Christian community the differentiation that is normally achieved by the threat of the vengeance of the god institutionalized in the law is to be achieved by rational self-restraint (phronein eis to sophronein — Rom 12:3). Therefore, not only the explicit image of sacrifice but also the deep logic of the passage attests the dialectical influence of the logic of the Sacred. The passage is in dialogue with sacrificial logic, correcting it in the light of the Cross, and redescribing sacrifice as self-sacrifice in thanksgiving, and order as the free acceptance of prudential constraints, rather than the fearful observance of divine sanctions.

This deep logic continues to form the text in the section on vengeance and love (Rom 12:9-13:10), and thus establishes a presumption in favor of a non vengeful interpretation of God’s action despite the quotation “vengeance is mine, I shall repay” (Rom 12:19; cf. Deut 32:35). The key to the interpretation is the phrase “give place to the wrath” (dote topon te orge) in Romans 12:19. It specifies the meaning of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35. The vengeance of God is the wrath of God that operates when it is given place. The phrase “give place to” clearly means that the wrath operates apart from human participation. It could also connote, however, that the wrath works independently of God’s action, in the sense set out in Romans 1:18-32. There are several indications that the two passages are related. The sinners in Romans 1:18-23 knew the godhead of God rationally from the evidence of creation, but irrationally refused to acknowledge it by giving thanks, and for this reason Romans 12:1-2 urges the rational worship of self-sacrifice. The result of the refusal in Romans 1:18-32 was the “reprobate mind” (adokimos nous — Rom 1:28), and for this reason Romans 12:1-2 describes the renewed mind as able to discern the will of God (dokimazein . . . to thelema tou theou — Rom 12:2). Romans 12, therefore, describes a reversal of the deleterious effects of the refusal of Romans 1, against the background of the presentation of the working of wrath in Romans 1.

The wrath works by self-inflicted harm. God gives sinners up to the consequences of their self-destructive actions, described as the activity of perverse desire (Rom 1:24-31). Thus there is no actual violence in God, and the quotation, “vengeance is mine, I shall repay” must, therefore, be taken loosely. (1) The vengeance of God is to give sinners their own way and not to mitigate the consequences of their freely chosen desires. This is the same understanding of judgment as we find in John 3:19 and in Dante’s affirmation that there is no one in hell who does not freely choose to be there. The wrath is the consequence of living willingly in the system of sacred violence.

The presumption against active divine vengeance is confirmed by another intertextual comparison, with the Jesus tradition as recorded in Matthew 5:33-48. This passage contains the second triad of the six “antitheses” that follow the declaration that Jesus came to fulfil the Law and illustrate the “better righteousness” (Matt 5:17-20). (2) The three topics of the second triad are oaths, retaliation, and love of enemies. The inclusion of the prohibition on oaths with the other two items is odd, until one realizes that the essence of the oath is to call down upon oneself the divine vengeance if one proves false. (3) This concept of the oath is also integral to political order, part of the threat of sacred violence that undergirds it. In ancient Greece, for instance, there were official divine guardians of the oath, the theioi horkioi, who linked people together by the threat of vengeance and were invoked by both sides to an agreement. (4) One might also recall the phrase “to cut a covenant” and the allusion that it makes to the sacrifice that traditionally accompanied agreements. The message was not simply that if one reneges, one will have one’s throat cut like the victim, but the much more complex communication that the order that guarantees the agreement is based on the sacrificial victim and that to dishonor that order is to threaten the return of violence in the form of the vengeance of the god.

The concept of the oath, therefore, depends upon the assumption that God is vengeful, and for this reason it is included in the triad with the injunction not to fulfil the ius talionis and the injunction to love one’s enemies, whose deeper purpose is to deny that God is vengeful. The larger passage is counteracting the generative power of sacred violence, and the section on oaths is no less a part of that strategy than its more explicit companions. Indeed, the final statement that whatever is more than the simple yes or no is of the evil one (or, realm) (to de perisson touton ek tou ponerou estin — Matt 5:37) shows that the text also thinks in terms of the realm of sacred violence and of the proper location of the oath in that realm.

There is a formal similarity between Matthew 5:43-48, the injunction to love one’s enemies, and Romans 13:8-10, the statement on love as the fulfillment of the Law. (5) Both passages have the structure of injunction, reason, and discussion:

Matt 5:43-48 Rom 13:8-10
Love your enemy Owe only the debt of love
To be sons of your father Because this fulfils the Law
If you love your friends only, what do you do that is extraordinary. Since love does no harm to the neighbor, it is the fulfillment of the Law.


This is a common literary structure, nevertheless its occurrence in these two passages suggests a link between them at the level of tradition. The presentation in Matthew 5:43-48 identifies the enemies as persecutors of the church (Matt 5:44), and the command to love one’s enemies in the Pauline passage implies the nature of the enemies as persecutors. This tradition also lies behind Romans 12:14, 17-20; 1 Corinthians 4:12-13, and 1 Thessalonians 5:15, (6) where persecutors are in mind. This application would have been especially appropriate to Paul the former persecutor (cf. Rom 5:10). The theological basis for this inclusive love — that God includes both the good and the bad in the purview of generosity (Matt 5:45) — would also have been especially serviceable to the Pauline theme of the inclusion of the gentiles.

It would seem, therefore, that the understanding of the nature of the divine love is basically the same in the Matthean and the Pauline traditions. The divine love is not vengeful. This is the disclosure of the Cross; vengeance is human violence that finally breaks against God, and at the point of the Cross is disclosed, so that our minds might be renewed by the disclosure and we might take rational responsibility for our violence.

From vengeance Paul turns to exhort his readers to be obedient to the established authorities and to render to every legitimate creditor his or her due — that is, to observe the reciprocities of obligation. The emphasis on the reciprocity of obligation shows that he is aware of the fact that the civil order is based on the threat of vengeance (Rom 13:4-5). He must, therefore, address the question whether the rejection of vengeance on the part of the Christian entails the rejection of the authority of the state. His answer is that it does not, because the state serves the good of the Christian by providing the provisional order within which one can work out one’s salvation. There is no practical alternative at present to the order of sacred violence.

Implicit in the argument is the claim to a state monopoly on violence. At the generative level, this acknowledges the inevitability of the order of sacred violence. We cannot escape its structures this side of the eschaton, we can only withhold willing cooperation beyond what is absolutely necessary. At the historical level it indicates that there were those in the community who felt justified in opposing state authority. The Roman congregation included the same kind of “zealots” as we identified in Galatia. (7) They advocated resistance to the Roman authorities, especially in the matters of taxes and tolls (Rom 13:7), vengeance against Rome for its oppression of the Jews, and against Christian gentiles who did not observe the Law. They are the ones primarily in mind in Romans 12:19, who are not to avenge themselves but to make place for the wrath, and especially they are not to use the imagined right to revenge to oppose the state.

Like so much of Paul’s writing, the argument is fundamentally an interpretation of texts from the Old Testament (Lev 19:18; Dent 32:35; Prov 25:21-22). Vengeance is forbidden in several Old Testament and Jewish texts (Lev 19:18a; Prov 20:22; 24:29; cf. 2 Chron 28:8-15; Sir 28:1-7; T Gad 6:7; 1 QS 10:17; CD 9:2-5), (8) but they all explicitly or implicitly restrict the range of application to fellow Jews. The evangelical injunction in Matthew 5:43-44, which is reiterated in Romans 12:17-18, is that this restriction must be lifted and that vengeance is forbidden against anyone, and love commanded for all (panton anthropon).

Most prominent among these Old Testament texts is Leviticus 19:18, which clearly restricts nonvengeance to fellow Israelites, and which probably lies behind Romans 12:19. Paul ignores the restriction and, in addition, makes another point altogether — namely, that the individual should not take vengeance into his own hands. In the LXX Leviticus 19:18 reads: “Your own hand shall not vindicate [you], and you shall not bear a grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (kaiouk ekdikatai sou he cheir, kai ou menieis tois hyiois tou laou sou kai agapeseis ton plesion sou hos seauton). (9) The LXX emphasizes the prohibition on private vengeance by introducing into the translation the clarifying note “your own hand” (he cheir sou) and Romans 12:19 adopts this interpretation alluding to Leviticus 19:18a by saying “do not vindicate yourselves” (me heautous ekdikountes). Thus Paul defends the state’s monopoly on vindication. In this world the state has the monopoly on vengeance, and therefore the zealots should not seek to vindicate themselves against the state, but rather leave vengeance to God in the sense of giving place to the wrath.

But the order of reciprocity in the state is only provisional and imperfect, and the true order is the order of love (agape) that rests upon an impossible reciprocity. Thus Leviticus 19:18 takes us from the prohibition on private vengeance to the injunction to love the neighbor. Romans 13:8-10, having confirmed the authority of the civil powers and the duty of ordered obedience within the structure of reciprocal duty, takes up the question of the relationship between love and the Mosaic Law. The civil law prohibits private vengeance on the basis of the constitutional prerogative, and the Mosaic Law prohibits it against one’s fellow Jews on the basis of the divine prerogative; but the real answer to the problem of vengeance is the love that fulfils all law, both divine and human.

Therefore, the argument comes to a climax and conclusion in the impossible reciprocity of love, the debitum indelibile. After we have discharged all our human and divine obligations, we will still owe the debt of love. “Owe no one anything, excepting to love one another; for he who loves has fulfilled the other law” (medeni meden opheilete, ei me to allelous agapan; ho gar agapon ton hetron nomon pepleroken — Rom 13:8). Contrary to the usual translation of this last verse, “for he who loves the neighbor has fulfilled the Law,” I translate “for he who loves has fulfilled the other Law,” taking heteron with nomon as the object of pepleroken rather than as an adjective used as a substantive as the object of agapon. On this reading the “other Law” is “other” by comparison with the civil law Paul has just been discussing in Romans 13:1-7; that is, it is the Mosaic Law. (10) Paul is saying that both types of law, the civil and the religious, are fulfilled by the insatiable reciprocity of love.

Love breaks the bounds of reciprocity. It is the one obligation that we can never discharge, and as such points to the new creation; it is the opening in the otherwise closed system of Law based on vengeance. “Owe no one anything, except [the obligation] to love one another” (Rom 13:8) expresses the point that love sums up and transforms the Law from a system of vengeance into a provisional structure for the expression of love in this world. The exposition reaches a climax in the quotation of Leviticus 19:18, which is presented as an alternative to vengeance. The prohibition of vengeance now applies to all people, not just to one’s fellow Israelites. The issue all along has been the transformation of the basis of order from the reciprocity of vengeance into the open-endedness of love. Thus the Law has been fulfilled, and been shown to point beyond itself to the new order of the new creation.


1. In the same way as the statement in the latter part of the quotation that one heaps burning coals on the head of one’s enemies must be taken loosely.

2. On the organization into triads, see W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, The Gospel according to St. Matthew 1, 504.

3. Cf. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1839) 179 (in OED): “Which swearing or oath, is a form of speech added to a promise; by which he that promiseth signifieth that unless he perform, he renounceth the mercy of his God, or calleth to him for vengeance on himself.”

4. TDNT 5, 458.

5. Davies and Allison, St. Matthew, 548-66.

6. Ibid., 551-52.

7. Marcus Borg (“A New Context for Romans 13,” 205-18) places the section from 12:14 through 13:7 in the historical context of the “zealot” movement.

8. Cranfield, Romans 2, 647; W. Klassen, Love of Enemies. Klassen’s attempt to present the OT and Jewish teaching on revenge as essentially the same as that of the NT does not succeed. At best he can show only occasional texts that are liberal in this regard.

9. I note, in passing, that the term menio sounds the note of Achilles’ wrath in the opening line of the Iliad (meviv aeide, thea, peleiadeo Achileos) alluding to the best-known instance of revenge in the culture, an allusion that Paul and his readers, who probably read the LXX and not the Hebrew, would have picked up.

10. W. Marxsen,(“Der heteron nomos: Rom. 13:8″) argues that the phrase refers to the Mosaic Law as compared with the civil law of Rome alluded to in medeni meden opheilete, against Cranfield (Romans 2, 675-76) who takes heteron as the object of agapon, “along with the great majority of interpreters from the earliest times to the present day.” The consensus does not, however, explain why at 13:10 Paul uses the more usual word for neighbor, ho plesion, which is the word used in LXX Lev 19:18. Marxsen argues plausibly that the phrase ton plesion agapan (“to love the neighbor”) was a fixed phrase in the early tradition based on Lev 19:18, and that when this fact is put together with the significantly greater frequency of the adjectival compared to the substantive use of heteros by Paul, one cannot accept the reading of the consensus.

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