‘if I had a rocket launcher’: vengeance & forgiveness (with a nod to bruce cockburn)

Themes: Matthew Ephesians

Keith Hitchman

Adaptation of talk given at Christ Church Toxteth Park, 13 September 2020

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18: 21-22

Today’s theme (a continuation from from last Sunday – conflict resolution) is ‘forgiveness’.

Make somebody pay

One of my favourite singer-songwriters is the Canadian Bruce Cockburn, a regular at the faith-based Greenbelt Festival back in the 80’s and 90’s. One of Cockburn’s most popular songs is “If I had a rocket launcher’, written following his travels in Latin America.

Here comes the helicopter, second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say, hey
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate
I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate

On the Rio Lacantun, one hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation, or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I would not hesitate

I want to raise every voice, at least I’ve got to try
Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes
Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die

I remember at the time of first hearing this song how it unsettled me. Some years later I was to visit some of the Latin American countries that Cockburn had himself visited and able to witness first hand the poverty there and its consequences.

‘Cycle of Vengeance’

What Bruce Cockburn is communicating here I believe is an instinctive human reaction when confronted with ‘things too sickening to relate‘, which is a desire to take revenge or for someone to take revenge on our part. I feel it myself when I hear, read about, or see some kind of atrocity or social evil. It explains (but cannot justify) why only this week ‘protestors’ gathered outside a Los Angeles hospital to call for the deaths of two rookie police officers ambushed and shot by a street gang earlier that day.

Our world is caught up in a vicious ‘Cycle of Vengeance’- venge, avenge, revenge. Much of the time we can’t see it, at least in ourselves, because “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” (Mohandas Ghandhi).

The Good News is that we can break the cycle. We can break it in society, but first it has to be broken in us. Broken in the human heart – the core of our being. For the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. We all need breaking. We all need open heart surgery, and Jesus is the Heart Surgeon.

‘Clean up your [inner] room’

Another Canadian, psychologist and author Jordan Peterson, puts it this way:

“My sense is that if you want to change the world, you start with yourself and work outward because you build your competence that way. I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized.”

If you want to change the world, then clean up your room. It’s as true for our inner room/s as it is for our actual living spaces.

Forgiveness Real-ised

Which is why Jesus invites us to pray (daily) “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Simply because we need to. Forgiveness doesn’t come ‘naturally’ to us. It is not humanity’s default response. History proves this over and over again.

Our model is Jesus, who’s voluntary sacrifice on the Cross enables our forgiveness: “…for this is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28).

In Christ we have been forgiven, are being forgiven, and shall be forgiven. In receiving Him, we receive His forgiveness. As we real-ise the forgiving power of Christ in our own lives, so we are em-powered to make real forgiveness in the lives of others, and in so doing break the Cycle of Vengeance.

How often should we forgive? Seven times? No, seventy times seven. In other words, as God is and does.


Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:31-32