Have you ever felt the urge to strike back at someone who’s done you wrong? The desire for revenge is a universal one, and has been the theme of countless stories. But it matters, of course, what story we tell.
My wife and I recently watched (re-watched, actually) the 2002 screen version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of vengeance, The Count of Monte Cristo. (Dozens of adaptations have been made of the novel, including the recent television series Revenge.) The story is a timeless one: a person who has been horribly wronged seeks personal justice by coldly plotting the downfall of each of his enemies.
Jim Caviezel (Person of Interest, The Passion of the Christ — yes, he was Jesus) plays Edmond Dantes, an uneducated but good-hearted merchant sailor whose primary desire is to marry his love, Mercedes. On one fateful voyage, he meets the exiled Napoleon and naively falls into a Bonapartist plot involving the father of prosecutor Gerard de Villefort. Edmond’s best friend, Fernand Mondego, wanting Mercedes for himself, conspires with Villefort and Danglars, Edmond’s jealous sea-captain, to get him imprisoned in the despairingly bleak Chateau d’If for the crime of high treason.
In isolation, Edmond gradually loses his mind — until he meets an elderly priest who has tunneled in the wrong direction and emerges in his cell. In exchange for Edmond’s help in digging a new tunnel, the priest teaches Edmond everything he knows: philosophy; swordplay; how to read and write. Most importantly, he tells Edmond the location of a vast lost treasure and implores him with his final breath to leave vengeance to God alone. Edmond escapes, finds the treasure, and reemerges in French society as the mysterious and outrageously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo.
Unable to abandon his hatred, he ignores the priest’s advice. He leaves Danglars hanging at the end of a rope, and tricks Villefort into confessing his crimes before the gendarmes. His final victim is Mondego, who has married Mercedes but doesn’t love her. In the climactic scene, Edmond and Mondego duel, but Edmond cannot bring himself to kill his rival in cold blood. When Mercedes intervenes (watch for a young Henry Cavill as her illegitimate son Albert), Edmond finally lets go of his revenge. But the proud and treacherous Mondego will have none of it, and is killed in the ensuing fight.
Edmond, it seems, has learned his lesson. In the final scene, he returns to the Chateau d’If with Mercedes, Albert, and his loyal servant Jacopo, praying his apologies to the departed priest and vowing henceforth to use his riches only for good. As he walks off into the distance, arm in arm with his first love and the handsome and valiant son he never knew he had, the camera cuts to the inscription carved into the wall of his former cell: God will grant me justice.
This is not the story Dumas wrote.
In the movie, “God will grant me justice” ends up meaning “I can have my revenge and even get the girl, as long as I’m sorry later and promise to do better.” But in the novel, Edmond’s self-righteous plot for revenge goes wrong and innocent people die. Horrified, he repents; Danglars, who was to be his last victim, is offered mercy instead. Moreover, Edmond and Mercedes do not reunite; the past is lost to them, and they part in sorrow and regret.
In the end, Edmond writes a letter in which he tells what he’s learned at last:
Tell the angel who will watch over your life to pray now and then for a man who, like Satan, believed himself for an instant to be equal to God, but who realized in all humility that supreme power and wisdom are in the hands of God alone. …Never forget that, until the day God deigns to reveal the future to man, the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in these two words: Wait and hope.
To be fair, the screenplay provides characters that encourage Edmond not to give up hope in God: the old priest, Mercedes herself. But this Edmond doesn’t seem to reach the same repentant humility portrayed by Dumas; he regrets his actions, surely, but without much in the way of insight into his own sin.
Wait and hope. God is just, and justice is promised. But hopeful patience means accepting that God’s timetable may not be the same as ours. In hope, we work for justice, but without furthering injustice in its name, because biblically, righteousness and justice are inseparable. From the standpoint of a holy God, an act cannot be truly just if it is not righteous.
We will have moments, perhaps even seasons, in which we want to strike back, to give tit for tat and then some. But whatever we decide to do in the face of injustice, let our actions tell the right story: there is a holy God who sees every injustice; that God is leading all of human history toward a just and righteous climax; and we, as perpetrators of injustice ourselves, are not that God, and are therefore willing to humbly submit to God’s direction.
That is the embodiment of hope.