I wanted to talk about something that might be a tough topic today…revenge. From Dictionary.com you will find the following definitions:
to exact punishment or expiation for a wrong on behalf of, esp. in a resentful or vindictive spirit
an opportunity to retaliate or gain satisfaction
harm done to another person in return for harm which he has done (to oneself or to someone else)
It is my belief that the desire for revenge contributed not only to so many US citizens supporting Bush’s pitch to invade Iraq in the wake of 9/11, but it also fuels much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system today (especially our continuing use of the death penalty).
A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book about a woman who struggled with revenge. Her name is Laura Blumenfeld and the book is titled Revenge: A Story of Hope. In 1986, Laura’s father was shot in Jerusalem by a member of a rebel faction of the PLO. Her father lived, but for years she felt the need for revenge. As the jacket description says:
Traveling through Europe, America, and the Middle East, Blumenfeld gathers stories and methods of avengers worldwide as she plots to infiltrate the shooter’s life. Through interviews with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin; with members of the Albanian Blood Feud Committee; the chief of the Iranian judiciary; the mayor of Palermo, Sicily; an Egyptian heroin smuggler; the Israeli prime minister and the military chief of staff; priests; sports fans; fifth-grade girls; and prostitutes, among others, she explores the mechanics and psychology of vengeance.
Reading this book gave me a pretty good sense of what revenge means to many different people living in different cultures. But the book doesn’t stop there. Having gathered this information, Laura manages to learn the identity of the man who shot her father (who was in prison at the time) and introduces herself to his family as a reporter. Over a period of months, she not only gets to know his family, but corresponds with him in prison.
In the end, she comes forward to testify on his behalf at a hearing that will determine if he is to be released from prison due to health reasons. At the time no one, including the shooter, knew of her connection to his victim. Here’s how she wrote about her preparation:
Standing there as a woman named “anonymous” felt like the defining moment of my life. If this worked then the world would be as I wished…
Transformation was the word I had written on the scrap of paper and tucked into the Western Wall the night I had dressed as a Hasidic boy. Transformation was my wish. If I could be a boy, then the shooter – my symbol of evil – could be good. I could make him sorry. But it would take a radical act, something impossibly optimistic, to transform him. That act would leave me vulnerable, and possibly the fool. It would be riskier than anything I had done so far, but my mother’s faith in the goodness of people gave me the courage to try.
Laura completes her radical act and finds the transformation she was looking for. But, as she said, she had to risk looking “the fool.” For all of our blathering about courage, we often miss its most powerful manifestations.
You might think Laura’s story is exceptional, but its not. In looking into this yesterday, I found an amazing website called The Forgiveness Project where you can read many such stories. The one that stands out to me is about the Amy Biehl Foundation. Here’s a summary from The Forgiveness Project:
On August 25 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar working in South Africa against apartheid, was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town. In 1998 the four youths convicted of her murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after serving five years of their sentence – a decision that was supported by Amy’s parents. Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the convicted men, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, a charity which dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence.
Amy’s parents, who run the foundation, embraced two young men who were responsible for killing their daughter, knowing that it was apartheid and its effects that had actually caused her death. They didn’t seek revenge, they sought healing as a way to actualize their hopes and pay homage to their daughter’s.
As long as we think this kind of reaction is exceptional, we continue to advance the idea that taking revenge is the norm or the most human response. I, for one, don’t believe that.