Revenge!

Threads from Henry’s Web (pre-blog):
February 22, 2003

Near the end of the 1988 movie “A Fish Called Wanda” there is a wonderful scene in which a man who has been put upon and trodden under through the entire movie (played by Michael Palin) finds himself driving a steam-roller towards his now helpless tormenter (a former CIA agent, played by Kevin Kline) who has his feet stuck in setting cement. “Revenge!” cries Palin’s character as he drives over his tormenter. When he’s done, he finds that his stutter is cured, his self-confidence restored, and in the best tradition of comedy, he lives happily ever after. So does the steam-rollered victim, for that matter, so all’s well. Revenge accomplished, life is sweet.

I was reminded of that scene as I was driving through downtown Pensacola the other day, and saw a group of people protesting against possible war in Iraq. The most prominent sign was one that read “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” It’s a rather good question, but the answer is a bit more problematic than it might seem at first glance. Like the question on which it was modeled, “What Would Jesus Do?” we very often answer it in such a way as to support whatever it was that we were inclined to do in the first place.

The number of things it has been suggested that Jesus would do, is certainly much more creative and varied than any list of things he actually did.

Let’s apply this to the matter of revenge. In Matthew 18, we see Jesus presenting two very different answers within just a few verses. Verses 15-20 present a negotiation scenario followed by consequences, though you may find the consequences a bit ironic if you really think about them (verse 17). But in verses 21 and 22 we have a different scenario in which Peter is told to forgive the offender seventy-seven times. A little further on, in Matthew 21:12-17 we see Jesus use quite a different response to something that offended him, as he drives the money-changers from the temple. It sounds like this question of what Jesus would do, however expressed, might be quite interesting!

Now I’m not going to study out each of these passages for this short essay. What I’d like to suggest is that Jesus was very rarely in the business of actually answering questions. He was much more in the business of provoking thought about those questions. I imagine that some of his questioners got home before they realized that his answer had raised more questions than it answered.

What is the value of revenge? Revenge rarely achieves an improvement in a given situation. While giving a momentary relief to our frustration and rage, it solves little or nothing.

And so we come to the reverse, as it is popularly conceived: forgiveness. Forgiveness is often seen as an either-or thing. We either forgive or we punish. There is forgiveness or there are consequences. The only alternative to revenge is to forgive and forget.

But I want to suggest that it is more complex than that. Forgiveness, in its various elements, is an essential prerequisite to problem solving, whether I’m dealing with a problem with my neighbors, or the potential for war with Iraq. And I don’t mean that one must simply “forgive and roll over” as it may be commonly understood.

Let me suggest some elements of forgiveness:

    1. Laying aside your resentment and anger. This will allow you to think clearly about solving the problem. It will allow you to seek a solution that really solves the problem, rather than merely making you feel better. It has nothing to do with whether or not the guilty party is sorry, and it doesn’t even have to do with whether you are, in fact the offended party. I can “forgive” the perpetrators of September 11 in this sense, and only in this sense, even though I was not injured in a personal way.
    2. Reconciliation with the offender. This is a two-way street. You can lay aside all resentment, anger and desire for revenge by yourself, but it does not become reconciliation until the offender is sorry, you forgive, and a mutual understanding is reached.
    3. A reduction or removal of consequences. I would suggest that forgiveness can occur as in both of the previous points without necessarily removing the consequences. This was brought strongly to my consciousness when a former victim of torture in Cambodia, who had lost his entire family to the Khmer Rouge, told about his reconciliation to someone who had engaged in those acts of torture. Despite the reconciliation, neither party considered it wrong that the perpetrator should stand trial for those acts and suffer the consequences.

As a nation, we have been living in the role of Michael Palin’s character. We see the bad guys in our sights and we shout “Revenge!” in the hope that when revenge has taken place we will be safer, life will return to pre-9/11 normalcy, and we can forget all about this extra security. Most of us know this won’t be the case, but that doesn’t stop the wishful thinking.

This was illustrated during the bombing of Afghanistan, and later during the ground war. Repeatedly the reporters would ask various military spokesmen whether they had caught or killed Osama bin Laden yet. The answer? Nobody knew. But why was that the question? Did we really think that a bombing campaign could be so targeted as to kill a single individual? Sure, he might die, but bombs are not weapons of assassination in the normal course of events. Did we think that if Osama were caught or killed that the terrorism would end? Surely we aren’t that naive!

But there is that little program in our brains that wants to yell “Revenge!” and expects that life will be a little sweeter when it is accomplished.

In some ways we face a similar situation with Iraq. I know there is a powerful motivation for revenge. I am a veteran of the 1991-1992 gulf war. It annoys me every time I see Saddam Hussein expressing himself on television. I confess I wouldn’t mind having the driver’s seat of a steam roller with Saddam’s feet stuck in setting cement. I’d yell “Revenge!” and “Take that!” and roll over him, and on the other side I’d feel good!

But then would my family be any safer? Would my country be more secure? Would anything be more normal when all was said and done? Very likely not.

I need to let that resentment go. I need to tone down the shout “Revenge!” I need to consider what will actually make things more secure.

Sometimes that will mean war. Saddam has certainly provided justification through his own actions for someone to deal violently with him. I have no sympathy with a suggestion that somehow the Iraqi government doesn’t deserve to be removed. But I believe there is a second part to the justification of violence. How can things be better when it’s done? In this case that includes the question of who will rule Iraq following an invasion. Will there be a power vacuum left in its place?

You see, no matter how bad a government is, there is a possibility for something worse. The possibility has been raised of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Does that make us feel more secure? Would we prefer that Iran became a power dominating the region? That is only one scenario, but it is something that must be considered.

I think it may be too late to change our national course on this war. But it is not too late for us to lower our expectations of the results of revenge. It is not too late for us to realize that once the revenge is over, we’re still going to have to work on the solution. A solution will require a heart change, and heart changes require more effort and time than revenge.