I try to be as vague as possible, but slight spoiler warning if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War.
In the climactic moments of Captain America: Civil War, former Avengers teammates Iron Man and Captain America cast aside their friendship and fight in an abandoned military base. But while that may be the titular civil war, a more important conflict was being waged outside of the base—the battle between vengeance and justice.
Outside, Black Panther, a newly introduced superhero, found the man responsible for killing his loved one. For a fleeting moment, T’Challa the African warrior king thought about enacting revenge, but he recognized he and the killer shared a bond. They both were acting out in grief, hoping vengeance would ease the pain.
Inside, revelations about the death of his parents drove Iron Man into a blind rage. Captain America Steve Rogers tried to calm him down and reason with him, but Tony Stark said he doesn’t care. He has been hurt and he wants to hurt someone in return, regardless of who is actually responsible.
Knowing the rift between the friends turned combatants, Black Panther refuses to succumb to the temptation of revenge. “Vengeance has consumed you,” he tells Zemo, the movie’s villain. “It’s consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough.”
As a native South Carolinian, hearing those sentiments immediately brought to mind Charleston and the victims of the tragic church shooting there. When they had the opportunity to address the man who had murdered their family member because of hate, they chose to express love and forgiveness.
Triumph of justice in Charleston
One of those individuals was Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of the slain Daniel Simmons. Speaking to the murderer, she said: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
The faith of the Charleston victims was evident. In offering forgiveness to one who didn’t deserve it, they reflected Jesus who, while being executed without cause, asked God to forgive those responsible for his death. Luke 23:34 records Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Part of Christianity is recognizing our own failings and the reality of Christ including us in his offer of forgiveness. That, in part, enables those in Charleston to offer the seemingly impossible. In “Essay on Forgiveness,” C.S. Lewis says it this way: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Those victims in Charleston weren’t saying the man who killed their loved ones should go unpunished. They were acknowledging that the hard path of justice was the right course of action, not vengeance or hatred.
In Captain America: Civil War, virtually every character is faced with death and tragedy. How they choose to respond is as much at the heart of the battle between the two sides as any other disagreement.
When confronted with the truth about his parents’ death, perpetually self-destructive Tony Stark chooses revenge. Though he wants government oversight for the actions of the Avengers, Stark refuses to allow anyone, himself included, oversight for his emotions and his lust for vengeance.
By contrast, Black Panther saves the life of the man who killed his loved one, refusing to allow Zemo to kill himself. As he blocks the intended suicidal gunshot, Black Panther says, “The living are not done with you yet.” Justice still must have its day.
Which way will we choose?
The two paths chosen by Iron Man and Black Panther reveal the wide gulf that exists between two concepts that often seem so intertwined. Revenge and justice may seem like two sides of the same coin, but in reality, they are two diverging paths headed in opposite directions.
Revenge believes only the individual hurt can solve the problem. It is purely personal. Justice trusts others to be a part of the solution. It has societal concerns.
Revenge claims to know all that is needed to act. Justice recognizes our fallibility. Frequently, the one seeking vengeance punishes the wrong person because revenge clouds our vision.
Revenge seeks only to inflict harm. Justice works to make things right. We can see this on a global stage where revenge perpetuates a cycle of violence. Justice, however, seeks to bring peace and will sacrifice to do so.
Eventually, revenge weakens those who wield it, while justice brings empowerment and deepens relationships.
As Captain America: Civil War closes, Steve Rogers has formed a new friendship with Black Panther. They both are working to bring peace to Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ childhood friend who had been brainwashed into the assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
Meanwhile, a wounded and exhausted Tony Stark sits down to read a letter from Rogers. While the letter makes it seem as if Stark has won (Rogers is on the run from the law and leaves the Avengers under Stark’s leadership), any victory is a pyrrhic one.
The half of the Avengers who followed Captain America were last seen in prison, ostensibly freed by Rogers after the conclusion of the film. The half who sided with Iron Man had either changed their allegiance or were too broken (both physically and emotionally) to be of much use any time soon.
Being consumed by vengeance had done Tony Stark no favors. Revenge leaves only more victims in both the fictional Marvel Cinematic Universe and the all too real universe we inhabit. But as those left behind in Charleston proved all too well, there is a different path to take. No matter the battle, justice is on the winning side.