18. Mercy all the way down

Ted Grimsrud—Purpose vol. 45, no. 2 (February 2012), p. 28.

One of my favorite books, Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers, begins with life’s most challenging questions: “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”

I wonder often about the role of vengeance in our society and in our personal lives. I have posted a longer essay on this topic on my website (peacetheology.net/2011/06/23/beyond-vengeance/). So much violence (think of our criminal justice system and of so many embittered former spouses and friends) results of the spiral of revenge/retaliation following violation.

The simple answer, of course, is to replace revenge with forgiveness. Stop the spiral of violence in its tracks. Well, yes….But, if we are honest, we know things are not that simple.

When we are violated, we experience damage that creates needs. To jump straight to forgiveness short-circuits those needs. For this reason, often people who “forgive” too soon end up repressing their pain, over time leading to many more problems.

This is the appeal of cultivating retaliatory desires. We know we need something to help us deal our pain. But so often, actual revenge does not resolve the pain—and it adds to the sum of pain in world by hurting others.

What if we add a new idea to the mix? We do need something when we are violated; let’s think of it as “vindication” rather than “vengeance.” What we need is some sense that we still have value and power, we are still actors. The violation disempowers. We need a sense of restoration to regain our equilibrium.

I know a person who went through a wrenching divorce and was left hurting and bitter. This person had no resources to “forgive.” What he did instead was focus more on putting his life back together, finding strength in his friendships and looking deep inside to find a commitment to letting love determine his life’s direction, not bitterness. He found creative outlets that gave him a sense of accomplishment.

It took time, but healing did come. And, then, almost as afterthought, he realized that he had forgiven the person who had hurt him.

My friend realized that the moral universe does not, as he had been taught, rest on a bedrock of vengeance, where mercy is okay in its place, but ultimately we have to have retaliation to balance the scales of “justice.” Rather, the moral universe is mercy all the way down.

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