On my way to work Thursday morning, the song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” came up on my playlist. Legendary Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn wrote the song in 1983 after a visit to a refugee camp in Mexico, just across the border from Guatemala. While there, he saw the terrible conditions in which the people lived, heard tales of the abduction and brutal murder of residents of the camp, and witnessed the patrols of Guatemalan helicopters that sometimes ignored the boundary between the countries and the various protections for refugees under international law, and strafed the camp indiscriminately.
Here comes the helicopter—second time today.
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away.
How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say.
If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.*
Each verse of the song catalogs the atrocities Cockburn has seen or heard about—the helicopter attacks, starvation, torture, and other things “too sickening to relate”—and concludes with a declaration that if he had the means (in this case, a rocket launcher), he would use it to avenge these injustices.
In a week when we have seen the unapologetic racism of a major presidential candidate on full display, the mealy-mouthed efforts of members of his party to distance themselves from his comments without repudiating his candidacy, the sentencing of a convicted rapist to a mere six months in the county jail, and the burning to death of nineteen Yezidi women in Iraq because they refused to serve as sex slaves to their ISIS abductors, I can understand how Cockburn felt. Sometimes the injustices seem so great that one’s first instinct is to reach for a weapon. Sometimes the gap between the privileged and the marginalized looks so wide, and the ascendancy of the exploiter over the exploited is so obvious, that one wants to fight fire with fire. An eye for an eye may leave the whole world blind, as Mahatma Gandhi once observed, but on an emotional level it often sounds like a really good idea.
It is my conviction, however, that as a disciple of Jesus Christ I don’t have that option. What Paul told the church in Rome I believe still applies today: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19, emphasis added). And I disagree emphatically with the “military motivational poster” (that can’t really be a thing, can it?) that shows a picture of a fighter jet and has the caption, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. But he sub-contracts.” As a follower of Jesus, I do not have the right to take up the sword, or rocket launcher, or A-10 Warthog to attack those I consider my enemies. On the contrary, I have the obligation, when I encounter enemies, to love them.
Despite its angry tone and forceful wording, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” does not, at its heart, condone or promote violence. Bruce Cockburn has described it as his gut-level response to the evils he had witnessed, and a realization of how easy it is to slide down the slippery slope of retaliation and escalation. In introducing the song in concert once, he explained that he wrote it out of deep sympathy for the people he had met in that refugee camp, but “the ease at which that sympathy slid over into a willingness to kill those who were inflicting that agony on them was a little bit shocking.” He described his impression that the helicopter pilots seemed inhuman, and reflected, “I guess that’s what makes it so easy to want to shoot them down because … they make you feel like they forfeited their humanity somehow.” But, he emphasized, “This is not a call to arms. This is, this is a cry….”
Cockburn has also described the song as an effort to come to grips with his own violent instincts in order to overcome them. “If we’re ever going to find a solution for this ongoing passion for wasting each other,” he said in a 1984 interview, “we have to start with the rage that knows no impediments, an uncivilized rage that says it’s okay to go out and shoot someone.”
The Bible speaks of this unfettered rage as well, and warns of the dire consequences of giving into it through endless reprisals. In Genesis 4:23–24, Lamech boasts to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” He warns anyone who would come after him that his clan will avenge him with an utterly incommensurate response—they will kill seventy-seven of their enemies for every death on their side. The Hatfields and McCoys are rank amateurs compared to Lamech’s gang.
But Jesus tells us where this path of escalation inevitably leads when he says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52). The answer to racist words and actions, to bias in the criminal justice system, to violence against the defenseless, to brutality and terrorism, is not more violence, brutality, or terror. That answer has never worked in the history of the world, and will continue not to work until the sun burns out and dies a billion-odd years hence.
The true answer—the answer we must find as a matter of survival—has to lie in another quarter. As I see it, to find this answer will require of us a fierce commitment to justice and an equally fierce determination not to resort to violence. To find the answer we will have to remain tenacious in prayer, steadfast in faith, and defiant in hope. We will have to commit unreservedly to love, and renew that commitment daily.
It may not be as viscerally satisfying as firing a rocket launcher at a helicopter, but it is ultimately our only real hope. The means of violence and vengeance will never accomplish the ends of peace and justice, because, as Lamech reminds us, there are always more helicopters.
*Quotations from Bruce Cockburn come from the “Songs” page for “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” at http://cockburnproject.net.