Vengeance and Being Born Again

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.

10 thoughts on “Vengeance and Being Born Again

  1. I wonder if your view of revenge or how to respond to hurt has been moderated by your training in Aikido. I think martial arts can make a person much less violent.

  2. I came across your blog looking for info on RSS feeds and I decided to read some. Your conclusions about the role that vengeance plays as a motivating factor for people is one that I have come to myself so I was very “at home” in reading your posting.

    I would like to reflect, and perhaps you’ll disagree, that many people I know whom are christian wield their faith as their own form of vengeance – as if god is going to smite the victimizer in this life or the afterlife because of some wrong inflicted. I would hope that forgiveness would be a stronger trait among a people whose chief spokesperson and savior, Jesus Christ, is the epitome of level-headed forgiveness but it doesn’t really seem that way. I guess as long as they don’t act out their vengeance, the net result is the same: less violence toward others.

    I am not a christian, but I believe the most beautiful thing about christianity is it’s belief in the power of forgiveness. And if, by god, there is a heaven, I am one of the few people who would hope to find Hitler walking arm-in-arm with Jesus among the clouds some day. So I guess I’m aspiring toward some kind of radical absoluteness-of-forgiveness-thing which I will probably fall short of many times before I am able to achieve it.

    I think you’re on to something with your concept of a spiritual journey toward forgiveness that we cannot jump to, but we have to evolve to… with every ounce of our being.


  3. Hi RP – good question. I think the three greatest influences on my view or experience with revenge and anger are 1) being raised by my parents—hardworking, thoughtful, honest Catholic midwesterners, 2) being raised Catholic and having the amazing opportunity to attend St. Francis High School in Sacramento where I met some truly peaceful, loving, generous beings in the Franciscans, and 3) my Aikido training, a martial art devoted to conflict resolution. My parents taught me the difference between right and wrong. My school gave me examples of people of extraordinary goodness. Aikido has given me two decades of a physical practice that trains us to look for and come from a place beyond conflict. I have not found this approach as evident in other martial arts, but I think it is there at the higher levels of all martial arts.

  4. Hi Franco, thank you so much for your comments. I find it sad that so many Christians give Christianity a bad name. I think Kierkegaard called it the need for the “absolute”, the reason that some people cling to religion. They have to believe in something. Yet I think that faith has more to do with allowing for the mystery and unknown than belief in a doctrine. Fundamentalism comes in all flavors, in every religion. It’s a singularity of thought that properly directed can do great things, and unfortunately it can also cause evil in the conviction of righteousness.

    I was taught that God is Love and only Love. I know that the path to love is through forgiveness. And those few times where I have allowed my little self to die and experienced forgiving and being forgiven, those few times are as close as I’ve ever come to a state of grace.

  5. Hi,
    Elise, as you said, you don’t know what vengeance is by your own, because you’ve never been deeply hurt.
    Believe, if someone deeply hurts, You Will.

  6. Actually Javier, I said that I don’t experience vengeance as a driving force. I will have vengeful thoughts, but I don’t act on them. I also don’t agree with you. Plenty of people have had the most atrocious hurtful things done to them and they have not responded with vengeance. I believe several factors are in play – first one’s natural proclivity. Some people naturally react to hurt with more vengeance than others. Second, culture. My family and my Catholic community here in Sacramento actively dissuade vengeance. If I started plotting outloud of all the things I was going to do to “get even” with someone, I would be called on it. A vengeful response is contrary to the values of my family, my church, and my community. It would be highly disapproved of, and I would hear of it. Third, one’s own active choice. Even though I may experience vengeful thoughts, I see them, label them as something that I although I may think, I will not act upon.

    I believe that this would be the case even if I were deeply hurt. The most powerful aspect would be my community who would support my grieving process, but would not support a vengeful act.

    The point of inquiry here is however, not what I or you “might” do, “if” something happened, but how each one of us reacts daily to the small hurts and indignities. How we can continue to come from a place of love even though those who we love do things that are hurtful to us.

  7. 20 years of Aikido? I think I place more reliance on your Aikido experience than your upbringing — but only because I too have trained Aikido but don’t have any direct experience with your upbringing!

  8. My family and upbringing instilled in me a set a values that have been reinforced by Aikido. But I never would have chosen to practice Aikido in the first place, nor sustained the practice through the first difficult years, without the value system I already had. Also, family and friends have supported me through the months and years (including now) when I was not able to train as often. I’m lucky if I get to the dojo once every couple months these days.

  9. I think it is essential to forgive, not only others but yourself. To err is human to forgive is divine…..The alternative is we walk around, bitter, hurt, angry sad….The person who hurt us very often has no awareness of the load we carry (unless we practice revenge) We drag these heavy burdens around. I agree with Elise, that the path to LOVE IS FORGIVENESS…unlike Elise…i have been badly hurt….I just refuse to carry other peoples negativity anymore. I have forgiven them and enjoy my life.

  10. Elise I recognize that this is an ancient post, but if you enjoy martial arts and blogher you should check out (if you haven’t already) the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation Special Training Camp!

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