Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Holy: Fear, Faith, and Divine Wisdom by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That seems to be the refrain these days, particularly in politics. The more you terrify people, the more likely they are to vote, protest, and otherwise engage in political activism.

Well, maybe not. Apparently, hammering people with more and more reasons to live in terror actually tends to demoralize and paralyze us.[1] A little bit of fear goes a very long way. A certain amount does indeed motivate people – like a deadline, for example; that nervous energy can make us highly productive, efficient, and focused. Moreover, Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, argues that we need to listen carefully to our bodies’ fear response, because our society has trained people – particularly women – to suppress gut instincts that otherwise would have saved them from violent situations.

Interestingly, when we understand not only how to recognize warning signs but also how to trust our intuition to identify potential danger, we feel empowered and live with less anxiety and fear the rest of the time. Validating the ‘gift of fear’ makes us less fearful. Nonetheless, there must be something lucrative to the politics of fear, because studies have shown fear is at an all time high in America, particularly the use of fearmongering as a political strategy. It turns out, fear sells, big time, and it is a pretty great way to further ideas of us vs. them and to undermine a sense of community, of the “neighborhood.”

I recently watched the documentary about Mister Rogers and his theology of loving thy neighbor. Fred Rogers not only modeled a radically respectful and affirming way to interact with children of all ages; he also used his show to address issues of racism, feminism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and many other common, ignorance based stereotypes. A lifelong Republican, Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian pastor whose ministry lay in reaching out to children to help them understand that each and every one of them is unique and beloved, exactly as they are.

Naturally, Rogers addressed issues of fear for children, such as in books about When Monsters Seem Real, songs about feelings of fear, and lessons about, for example, turning off the TV if something scary comes on (and waiting, so the children watching could practice). It comes as no surprise that Rogers’ wife Joanne expressed how horrified he would be that our administration has traumatized immigrant children by taking them from their parents and then having the parents deported. The 55% majority Republican support of Trump’s policy only goes to show how far fear can take us. Any of us.

The Hebrew Scriptures frequently talk about a fear of the Divine: the wise and the righteous “fear” the Holy, while those who do not “fear” stumble, sin, and commit grave injustices (e.g., Gen 20:11, Deut 6:13, Prov 9:10). What are we to make of this concept? Is the ancient theology of retributive justice revealing its nature-based roots, such as some see in the violent, seemingly punishing storms of climate change today? Or are these authors perhaps using biblical satire to depict a ‘monster-God,’ in order subversively to critique the fear-based politics of authoritarian rulers of their day?[2]

Another compelling explanation delves into the specific Hebrew word used in these cases, better translated as awe, respect, and understanding of the glory of Holy Wisdom. From a nature-based perspective, I resonate with the idea that an ancient culture, with a theology fully embedded in the Creation, experiences the Creator of such mighty storms and mountains with such deep reverence. But if that’s the real meaning of the Hebrew, why did English translators choose the punitive, retributive translation – fear? Were these (male) biblical scholars immersed in theologies of divine retribution, possibly viewing the Hebrew Bible through the Apocalyptic Judaism of the New Testament period?

Either way, today we have a climate of intense hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, droughts, and wildfires; and though the poorest communities suffer the most, natural disasters fall upon the just and the unjust alike. The argument for Divine Retribution, while supernaturalist, persists because it stems from a reality in which, for whatever reason, actions eventually yield consequences for the whole earthly community.

Would a little more ‘fear of the Holy’ help us out here? We use the expression, to put the ‘fear of God’ into someone. Do we really mean fear of retribution? I admit that there is a little bit of the ‘monster-God’ inside me – and maybe the biblical authors intended us to understand the idea not just as a critique of the powerful, but also as the universal human desire for vengeance. Part of me doesn’t just want healing for the whole Earth; part of me wants the president who implemented such a traumatic policy to feel a punishing pain equal to that he caused. Part of me wants a big monster-God to rain down fire and judgment on the toxic, patriarchal, violent abusiveness I see all around us. I want to curse it with all the witchcraft I can muster.

Maybe that’s the fear part I need most to heal from. Maybe that’s why MLK worked so hard to preach the Beloved Community – because he recognized the seductiveness of vengeance. Maybe I need to rage out my grief, to roar my monster-Goddess into the depths of the earth and sky and sea, so that I can then turn, unburdened, cleansed, renewed, to the healing work of liberation for the whole Creation. Put down your vengefulness, whispers Holy Wisdom; vengeance is mine alone (Rom 12:19). Vengefulness is poison. Let it go. We don’t have to fear ‘them’ – because there is no ‘them.’ There’s just us. All of us. Broken, angry us. Precious, holy us. Maybe we all need each other. Please – won’t you be my neighbor?

[1] See also J.W. Bolderdijk et al., ‘Values Determine the (in)Effectiveness of Informational Interventions in Promoting Pro-Environmental Behavior,’ in PLoS One 8, 12 (2013).

[2] Ellen Davis talks of biblical satire (see Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge University Press, 2008; 112-3. David Penchansky talks about the “monster-God” depicted in Genesis, in which ancient Hebrews would have recognized a subversive critique of oppressive leaders of the day (see What Rough Beast? Images of God in the Hebrew Bible, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, 5-17).


Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Categories: American History, anxiety, Children, Community, fear, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Friendship, General, Human Rights, In the News

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22 replies

  1. sadly but true. I have found if a leader is not forceful and consistent to all subs then he/she will appear to be biased to some and not respected by others. As for votes, the candidates speak with a forked tongue.


  2. in my family Mr. Rogers was mocked as being too sissy, not manly enough, I was not at home much then, but I remember that Jimmy Carter was tarred with the same brush. So my brothers… well no need to go there.

    If God is a God of vengeance, he doesn’t do a very good job of it, Look at all of those priests who have gotten away with all of it, for one.

    I have found that I don’t have to pretend bad things don’t happen, speak the truth about conflict pain and suffering, nor do I have to rush to forgive, while at the same time not harming or wishing for harm, justice is another thing. And let’s hope there is a way to achieve it non-violently as King taught.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. The “fear of God”?? Like, afraid to be “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? That’s why I have no regard for that god. He is evil, wicked, mean, and bad, and nasty (as the Smothers Brothers once said in some other–funny–context). I loved Mr. Rogers. I used to come home from teaching freshman comp to freshmen who’d rather be anywhere else and listening to Mr. Rogers say, “I like you.” How comforting that was!
    Another memory from graduate school just popped into my head. We had lots of foreign students, most of them privileged young men from Saudi Arabia and surrounding nations. We American women always stayed as far away from their grabby hands and nasty mouths as we could. Yes, we were afraid of those guys. For good reason.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well said. Where is the room for grace in such a theology? I think it’s more about humanity than divinity, and our propensity for seeking vengeance. Thank you for sharing your memories. I love how Mister Rogers ends his show saying that there is no one in the world just like you, and I like you just for being yourself. As an identical twin, that meant a lot to me!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I must confess that the thought of a big hand from the heavens reaching down and annihilating the Donald kind of fills me with glee. More realistically, climate change swallowing his fancy hotels in Florida could happen. Tho I would grieve for the people more then take satisfaction in retribution.
    The psalmist, and others, ask: “Why do the good people suffer while people who do evil prosper?” I like your conclusion Tallessyn, and invitation. I’m happy to be a neighbour.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Barbara. I’m very glad it was helpful. I think vengeance is completely understandable human emotion. I’d love to believe that Love is stronger – i guess that is my prayer. Blessings to you, neighbor!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I truly like and appreciate this essay – thank you. Fear *is* powerful and, as you say, “goes to show how far fear can take us. Any of us.” More people need to explore their inner selves; few do. But I hold out hope that we can all keep moving in a direction where fear doesn’t rule us. When I am afraid, I turn to empathy – not to *excuse* what another person is doing or has done, but to realize that “any of us” can become that which we most fear. LOVE your final paragraph. Blessings to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Darla. I’m so glad the essay was helpful. I appreciate your comment; it takes courage to face our inner selves, as you say; and we can respect fear without letting it rule us. Did you ever read “A Wrinkle In Time?” I try to love the Charles Wallace, rather than the It. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it – the book, I mean.) Many blessings to you, neighbor!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You speak to my confused heart. I find myself going through my days working at beating down all the fear that is haunting our world right now and trying real hard not to curse the creators of that fear. I have taken Mr. Roger’s suggestion often and turned off the TV. Otherwise I would sink into a practice of black magic and ‘curse it with all the witchcraft I can muster’. Sometimes I think that would be the only way to stop all the insanity. It has become very confusing trying to figure out how to handle it all and walk that fine line between vengeance and turning the other cheek.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your comment. I find that if I can see hate as coming from a place of fear, it helps me find empathy, both for others and for myself. Like you, I have gotten good at turning off the TV, or I get quickly overwhelmed. I think we need new strategies in today’s world to approach this climate of fearmongering and divisiveness. Many blessings to you.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I don’t think a little more of fear of anything would be helpful – as you say – extreme fear paralyzes or eventually ends up as PTSD that invades every cell of our bodies… Whenever I feel victimized I feel a raw anger that I know I must do something about before it eats me up. My way of dealing with victimization and we are all dealing with it on one level or another – is not to turn the other cheek but to take concrete actions to address the problem by for example, reporting veterinary animal abuse to state/federal agencies as I did this last week. Once, I have done what I can to hold people accountable, I can finally let go of my anger.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your comment, Sara. I absolutely agree that empowerment is a very effective way to redirect or focus fear toward action. Thank you for all that you do.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Spirit in the Dark.
    Please join all mourning the passing of Aretha Franklin. She filled my life with such spirit and courage at a time before there was an active women’s movement. Gratitude for the love and life she infused into our culture.
    Ellen Greenlaw

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Poignant and powerful, as always. Thank you for continuing to write here. It puts me in mind of the three basic human psychological needs: to believe I am good, competent, and worthy of respect/love. I think most fear comes from doubting one of those things.
    My biggest challenge is raising daughters in a world that wants to dehumanize, rape, and torture girls and women. I am filled with fear for their safety and a longing to protect them, as well as hateful rage at the males who inevitably will harm them, whoever they are… I can clinically understand these males as broken, in need of healing, frightened… but I don’t care. I struggle to have a Christian view of these males. I wish I could hide my daughters away somewhere safe.
    I see violence everywhere. Even using the male word “God” to symbolize the divine is painfully violent for me. Life feels like a constant, continuous attempt not to be afraid, not because the world is less violent than I think, but because it is more violent, but there’s not much I can do about it, and awareness of the violence is just too horrible… better to focus my awareness very selectively.
    I turned right onto a street today, and the truck that was coming toward me had been speeding way too fast, so it seemed as though I had cut him off (if he’d been going the speed limit, he wouldn’t have caught up to me at all)… he tailgated me the entire way to the ice cream shop. I was scared, but staying calm and not saying anything to my children. He pulled in behind me, parked next to me. I ignored him and slowly, cheerfully got myself and the girls out and up to the counter, behind him in line. Young white male. He didn’t look at me. I was aware that I was acting as gentle and affectionate with my children as possible because I was afraid of him. I was hoping he wasn’t one of those men who needed to prove that he deserves respect by punishing me and/or my kids.
    Maybe Mr. Rogers would have had me talk to him, make a connection. Maybe male privilege would have given me the courage to do that. As it was, I was only relieved that he didn’t do anything else. He is my neighbor, most likely, in my town. We need structures and systems to build the kinds of connections that will heal this brokenness and isolation. Churches are too busy trying to pay their bills and hold on to vestiges of respectability. I wish I had answers, or even the right questions. I guess I’m left with needing space to grieve and lament, and release fear. When I do that, I cope better with facing this terrifying world. At least for a while.
    Very thought provoking piece. Thank you for sharing it. ❤️❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh Trelawney, so sorry you had to go through that. So sorry for all women and girls. Guys, can you please start speaking out more to create new models for other men!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Carol. I appreciate your sympathy.
        I agree, men need to fix this… we cannot fix it for them. We can support the fix, but it is their work to do.


    • Trelawney, thank you for sharing all of this. There is so much here – clearly vengeance on the part of this person’s road rage, although I suppose some people might be even unaware what they are doing. And lots of fear, of course, and the need to balance our ideals with practical realities. I’m so sorry this happened to you – was done to you. I hope we can continue to build safe spaces for lament and healing, to help us all. <3

      Liked by 1 person

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