Tonight at dinner I was reflecting with my father how vengeance seemed to be such a driving force in the world. I’ve just finished reading “Charlie Wilson’s War” about how US Rep. Charlie Wilson had almost single handedly procured billions of dollars of appropriations money to fund the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets who were occupying their land. To Charlie it didn’t matter that tens of thousands of young Russian men were being sent home to their mothers in body bags, often after brutalizing deaths at the hands of the Afghans. To him it was revenge for Vietnam and the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese. For Gust Avrakotos, Charlie’s Greek colleague in the CIA, his actions were also motivated strongly by revenge, part of his Greek heritage. The Afghans were brutal to the Soviets they caught – raping them, skinning them alive, etc., all for revenge.
I once read a book called, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.” Very funny book, a light-hearted and creative approach to keeping oneself from petty victimization. Moral – if you attempt to cheat me, I will cause you public humiliation until you back off. Not so bad of a message; it’s how we as a culture keep people in line, keep individuals from making life difficult for all of us.
But some people are really driven by vengeance, people who go through life spending their time looking for ways to mess up other people’s lives for wrongs both real and imagined.
I don’t experience this kind of vengeance. And although I would probably like to believe that this is because I’m a good person, it’s probably more a result of never being deeply hurt. It used to be when I was hurt by someone, for example a “man who done me wrong”, I would be very sad for a long time. As I’ve grown older I’ve discovered the healing properties of anger. I get angry, I create a wall shutting the cause of pain out. Eventually the anger dissolves. I let go, get on with my life, and ignore the parts that ever caused pain. But vengeance is something else, beyond anger to protect, it’s anger directed to hurt or destroy. It’s planned; it’s methodical; it can last a lifetime.
My conversations with my father are often about how Christ’s message of 2000 years ago is just as needed and relevant today. I find it odd that entire Christian cultures accept vengeance as part of the way in which they survive in the world, even though it is completely anti-ethical to Christ’s teachings. My father remarked that vengeance is part of our nature and why Christ called us to be “born again”. In the parable about not putting new wine into an old wine-skin, this is why. You can’t put new wine into an old wine skin. You can’t take on the path of light in your old ways. One must “kill” one’s vengeful, old, base self and be reborn new, in order to live the life Christ calls us to live. In a way, this is similar to the message of Buddha, to let go of the attachments of self. It’s our attachments that cause suffering (not the objects of our attachments themselves, but our unwillingness to let them go).
Being vengeful is easy. It’s almost as if our bodies were hard-wired for it. Being born again, releasing the old self to embrace forgiveness is very very hard.
A few weeks ago I saw a program on TV about the serial killer in Oregon that was recently caught on DNA evidence. He raped and murdered over 40 women. As part of the life-without-parole sentencing the judge in the case allowed relatives of the murdered women to speak their minds to the killer. Most of them were overcome with anger and rage against this man. The killer sat there stone-faced. One man though, spoke to the killer saying something to the effect that, “although you have stretched my value system beyond a point I thought capable, I forgive you. I forgive you.” At this point the killer, who had never displayed any emotion through years of investigation, broke down in tears. He later expressed to the court extreme regret for what he had done.
One cannot just declare that one has let go of vengeance, or that one forgives. It is a change of heart. It is a transformation of being. And the deeper the hurt, the more the difficult it is, because some part of us, perhaps the part that wants life to be fair, to be what we expect it to be, to be right, must die.