I’ve been reading Michael McCullough’s book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of The Forgiveness Instinct.
It’s fascinating. Part of his analysis involves human instinct, sociological observation and psychological study. What conditions lead generally to forgiveness rather than revenge? Is the (sometimes) ubiquitous theme of revenge in our popular culture (literature, film, games) really an unbreakable cycle? In the long view, he maintains, violence worldwide is significantly down. Murder in Europe is 1/3-1/4 of what it was in the 16th century. It challenged me to think, and also helped create an understanding of the current (global) human condition. It’s a good book, and I recommend it.
Still, I can’t help reflecting on the American Christianist emphasis on defense, fighting, and the pursuit of our country’s honor by acts of revenge. It’s everywhere- Rambo has become us. But, it just doesn’t play out well if you pay attention carefully to the Gospels and early Christian tradition.
“Turn the other cheek”, and “He who is without sin, cast the first stone” seem to be conveniently forgotten and “an eye for an eye” (words never spoken by Jesus or his followers in the Gospels) adopted as a Christian rallying cry. In fact, these words were a Jewish attempt at early defense and protection of their new and still-fragile culture. Most experts agree that it was not meant to be taken (literally) out of the desert into global perpetuity, but it was an early attempt to codify a type of justice- which, in itself, was God’s province. They also note that it directly contradicts the words and spirit of Jesus. And yet, Christianists use them to justify revenge and pervert justice.
So. For those Christianists who use an “eye for an eye” as a mandate from God, one question:
What would have happened if the Apostles and disciples had stormed Pilate’s palace in anger, swords and shields clashing with guards and innocents alike to avenge their murdered leader?
You’re right. Nothing. The whole message of Jesus would have been perverted, contradicted and probably would have died out shortly thereafter. After all, credibility is everything. Jesus didn’t fight, and except for an awkward attempt by Peter to defend him, neither did the Apostles. Jesus turned the other cheek, tolerating great physical and verbal abuse, valiantly and triumphantly loving in the face of tremendous pain.
That’s why we still remember him- despite the perversions of his message by some followers, despite horrible and terrible things done in his name, we can still remember the love and dignity of this man- if we try.
That’s a role model I want. That’s what I celebrate this week.
Happy Easter, friends.