The truth is, I am a vengeful person. I just don’t look like it. I sit at home, sedately writing romance stories, helping my daughter with her Algebra, cooking big batches of comfort food, quoting C.S. Lewis and Samuel Johnson on Facebook, and writing long blog posts about Alexander Pope, which no one outside my family reads. I appear mild-mannered enough, though odd.
But when I have just cause to be offended, something happens. My fight-or-flight response kicks in and it’s all for fighting. My body temperature rises and my right hand starts raising itself apart from my volition, a reflex I must then disguise by rubbing the back of my neck.
Then my mind begins to formulate punishments. I am a writer and I am good at this. I know exactly the form the punishment should take. I know exactly which words and actions I can use to set the punishment in motion, to damage the malefactor’s reputation, to bring on remorse and shame. To make. Him. Pay.
I blame my bloodlust on Highland Scottish ancestry by way of the American South. In the Highlands, back in the day, there were valid reasons to respond swiftly and decisively to any slur to your honor, and you had your clan to back you up on this. The chapter on cultures of honor in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is the most lucid treatment of this subject I have ever read. I will not attempt to summarize Mr. Gladwell’s excellent work here; I will only say that if you you live in the south, or may ever come into contact with any southerners or Italians or Scots, or if you know me personally and plan on insulting me, or my husband, or my child, or my friend’s child, or my child’s friend, you should read it. Read it now. It may save your life.
Suffice it to say for the purpose of this writing that I deeply feel any slight to me or mine. When a young man publicly insulted my son in March of 2010, he did not insult Daniel only. As far as I’m concerned, he insulted me, my husband, our girls, and our entire family in America, England, Ireland, and Scotland. My primal impulse was to summon the clan and get out the claymores. Who did he think he was, that little 200-plus-pound punk, saying those things about my son? I ought to put him in his place, and grind him into the pavement, metaphorically speaking. And I could. Oh, yes, I could.
I’m a long way from pre-industrial Scotland, or even 19th-century Appalachia, where defending your honor was an economic necessity tied to your very survival. But something more than environmental factors may be involved here. My elder children recently treated me to a fascinating discourse on theories about genetic memory and so-called “junk” DNA. The upshot is that quite possibly I have thousands of years of vengeful behavior programmed into my DNA, informed and honed by my own personal and particular skill with words. I can’t wield a claymore—I doubt I could lift one—but I can wield a tongue and a pen with deadly power and accuracy. I can’t slay someone with a blade, but I can make him ashamed. I own at that.
But I am more than a descendant of one of the bloodiest clans in Scottish history. More than junk DNA. More than the sum of my impulses. I have been bought at a price, redeemed. I am Christ’s—and I am forgiven.
I have lived for forty-one years, and during that time I have given ample offense to others. I mean offense not in the wimpy sense of something that displeases, but in the older sense of a violation or breaking of a social or moral rule; transgression; sin. When I begin to think on the subject of wrongs I have committed against other people, and against God himself, I become very uncomfortable. The offenses pile up into a panic-inducing heap, a looming mountain. It stinks to heaven. It cries out for vengeance. For blood.
And Jesus paid it. He paid it all.
Suddenly my perspective changes. I see myself for something closer to what I am, not an agent of justice and righteousness, but a compassionless servant strangling a fellow servant over a day’s wages, forgetting the gargantuan debt that his lord forgave him. And the whole matter of vengeance becomes something beneath my notice.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.