Vengeance is a Lazy Form of Grief

Today at Village Church, we were blessed to have a guest speaker share a story from his work in Restorative Practices.  Ted Wachtel is the President/Founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School.

Village Church, Cummington, MA

June 16, 2013

Karen G. Johnston, Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.  I first heard this phrase during a day-long retreat with the Western Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, based on her book, True Refuge.  Immediately, I sensed the power and urgency of its message.

The examples are numerous.

  • The misleading notion that families derive or achieve “closure” when a murderer or rapist is put to death by governmental establishments as punishment.
  • How our nation struggled with the notion of allowing a proper burial for Tamerlan Tsarneav, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, too raw with grief and anger;
  • Just two days ago, our nation marked the six-month anniversary of shootings in Newtown.  Most talk was about 26 victims.  How we talk about such tragedies and who we include in the victim list is one way we enact a mild form vengeance.  By naming 26 victims, not only do we leave out the perpetrator of that unholy act, but we leave out his mother, the first to fall to his gun violence.  This church has elected to light 28 candles and to ring the bell 28 times.

As these examples show, vengeance need not be about whipping out a gun to kill someone who has just killed someone you love.  Vengeance comes in large and small packages.  We like to think that these packages say something about the person who has done wrong.  But really, it says something about us, the survivors and those against whom wrong was done.  We like to think that when we call shooters and child molesters “monsters,” we are talking about them.  But we must be very careful, because such actions and words to dehumanize say more about us than they do about the person they are attempting to describe.

When my Buddhist teacher spoke on this wisdom – vengeance is a lazy form of grief – she held up an example of how we might engage is something more disciplined, something more noble, something harder, yet more of who we want to be – she used a fictional example.  It was a compelling example, until I understood that it was made up.

This is hard stuff.  I’m not actually talking about forgiveness.  As Ted, our guest today, wrote in a blog on Huffington Post,

Forgiveness is neither an expectation nor a goal of restorative justice. Forgiveness may be a by-product, but the notion that a crime victim should forgive an offender imposes.

I’m talking accountability.  The likes of which Ted talked about in his story today, in the work he helps people do day-in and day-out.  So I need real examples, not fictional ones.

Lucky for us, they exist.  Though they are rare, they are not as rare as we are led to believe.  In the media, it’s much more sexy to report on traditional forms of justice, in part because that supports the powers that be.  But for those of us who are trying to imagine another world, another way, we have to look beyond and behind and around traditional news outlets and the hyperbole of standard media to see other possibilities.  Other possibilities like

  • My friend’s friend.  His daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.  He was, naturally, devastated: grieving, angry, beyond consolation.  And as others progressed in their grief, his brought him only deeper into bitter resentment, a corrosive quagmire that threatened his closest relationships.  Somehow, and I do not know how, for this is my friend’s friend, not my own, he decided the only way out was to attempt contact not with Tim McVeigh, the terrorist behind the bombing, but with his father.  Though he held Tim McVeigh’s father somehow responsible for what his son had done, he also intuited that both of them had lost their children and their might be common ground, something desperately life saving in reaching out.  It proved to be the thing that saved him from the toxicity of his own grief and dire impulses for vengeance.
  • There is Mary Johnson, whose son Laramium Byrd was shot dead by Oshea Israel when they were teenagers.  Johnson originally wanted what she understood as “justice:” seeing her son’s killer locked up for what he had done.  She explains,

‘My son was gone. I was angry and hated this boy, hated his mother.  [The murder] was like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.’ (Mail Online, June 8, 2011)

And Oshea, 16 years old at the time of the murder, was locked up for 17 years.  Not long before his release from jail, Mary did not yet have the sought-after “closure” and began a correspondence, that turns into a relationship, with Oshea, still trying to understand the loss of her son.  The result has been that Oshea now lives next door to Mary and they have a kind of mother-son relationship.

I am certainly not saying this is for everyone or that I could show the kind of mercy Mary Johnson has.  But her example, as well as the examples invoked here today, tell us that there are many possibilities, real ones not fictional, and they are within our capacity, if we stretch.

So often, Exodus 21: 23-24 is invoked when justifying vengeance, interpersonal or governmental:

23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (NRSV)

To us moderns, this method of justice seems archaic, even barbaric.  Progressive and peace-loving folk like to quote Gandhi who supposedly said that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”   Yet, the law from this part of Exodus was part of the human impulse towards mercy, towards decency, towards moderation.  Moderation?  Yes, for before this law was set down, if someone killed your son in a skirmish, you went and not only killed their son, but maybe all their sons and burned their village to the ground for good measure.

Humanity’s sense of justice and accountability is evolving – it always has been.  It is easier to be lazy, but it does not serve us and it does not serve the world.  Let us be a part of that ongoing evolution.  May it be so.

3 thoughts on “Vengeance is a Lazy Form of Grief

  1. Just watched the movie, The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn.
    Her character is from Africa. She used that quote.
    Also she described a practice (I don’t know if it is true).
    If a murder occurs. The murder is put in a wooden box and put in the River to drown. The family of the victim has the choice of letting them drown or swimming out to save them. They believe if they let them drown the family will suffer with grief forever. However, if they save them their grief will be diminished. So they believe to diminish grief one needs to save a life. I think I have the gist of this correct. Would love to know if any of this is true in African culture.

    1. Sad to say, it is completely fictional. In addition to there not being a single “African culture,” what the character in that movie refers to is completely made up. There is no Matobo in Africa. There is no “Ku” language, though it was made up for the movie and is based on elements of other read African languages. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_(fictional_language)

  2. Thank you for clarifying that the example given by Tara Brach to illustrate Vengeance is a lazy form of grief was fictional (I heard an excerpt of her talk in an MBSR class where she gives these examples). I wanted to know more about the practice she described and arrived at your blog. Thank you also for providing actual examples of mercy shown to killers. And here we are 2 days after 3 members of the jury showed mercy to Nikolas Cruz. We have so much more to learn about grieving and mercy. Thank you for helping.

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