I wanted to talk about something that might be a tough topic today…revenge. From 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.


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  1. that I talked about in my essay on renewal.

    • kj on June 1, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    A Little book of Forgiveness by D. Patrick Miller

    • geomoo on June 1, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks so much.  I had forgotten about Amy Biehl.  Very inspiring.  Your summary of the stories is masterful.

    This essay sets me thinking on what real courage looks like.  Courage certainly doesn’t bluster.  It also asks us to consider our motivations.  Do we prefer the feeling of being right to doing what has the best chance of healing the world?  That feeling certainly frees us temporarily of the pesky need to look at our own behavior and beliefs. Does courage consist in part on walking on the water of uncertainty, buoyed only to the extent that we continually align ourselves selflessly with  basic goodness, instead of marching on the solid ground of rigid belief?

    I’m not sure I agree that revenge is not a natural human behavior.  I think it requires conscious effort to rise above the instinctual feelings.  I have noticed how frequently families of victims think they need revenge to move on.  I have seen footage in which a perpetrator was executed years after the crime.  The family of the victim, often reasonable and loving people, express heartfelt relief that finally they can move on.  This looks very different from the strutting of those who constantly look for excuses to express rage.  These family members seem truly to be emotionally affected by the revenge.  I don’t understand that attitude, but I’ve seen enough of it that I respectfully withhold judgment of what it’s like to be in those shoes.  Perhaps there is a difference between revenge and knowing that an evil person will never again be able to do wrong?  But what some of these families have expressed sounds a lot like satisfaction in revenge.

  2. IS forgiveness.

    Aside from the actual physical loss
    …It is the feeling of helplessness over the event that makes us ‘victims.’ Taking away the power of others to make us feel helpless is the way to never be a ‘victim.’  

    The initial response we all have to hurt the ones that have hurt us and take our power back that way, nearly always turns out to be hollow. We have not healed ourselves by hurting them.

    Forgiveness and compassion for those who ‘hurt us’ is the only real way to take power ‘over them’ (actually over ourselves) and thus take our power (the power over our lives and safety they have ‘stolen’ by hurting us) back from them. Healing the hurt that has been caused is, after all, the real goal, making ourselves complete again, rather than reducing them, in someway. They have take something from us. Are we more interested in taking something from them in return? Or gaining back what they have taken?

    As NPK would say, lashing out to hurt those who hurt us is a reaction, not a response.

    We will be hurt in this life. It is how we respond to those hurts that makes us who we are, we ca choose to respond in a way that keeps the cycle going….or we can choose to end the cycle through forgiveness.

    Since that sounds glib, I will add that it will be one of the hardest things you ever do in your life, even on the small every day level.

    Heh, I wish I was better at it!

  3. … the money quote for me is this:

    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

    Collective revenge begins with indviduals, imo.  Risking looking the fool … that’s our egos in full flower.  The power to be completely open and vulnerable is what tears down the walls that separate us.

    Courage, yep.

    This is a challenging essay, Pandora.  Goes right to the core of it all.

    • geomoo on June 1, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    This discussion is making me think that all the energy of revenge comes from wanting relief from a hurt rather than accepting it.

    • RiaD on June 1, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    i always enjoy your essays soooooooo much…

    you think big interesting thoughts

    i’m so glad you share them!

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