catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 15 :: 2007.07.27 — 2007.09.07


Quiet revenge

I had just turned 18 and, as often happens in teen-age relationships, an offense was committed against me that required my forgiveness.  I intuitively knew that for the sake of restoring right relationship, I had to say those three little words: I forgive you.  And I did.  And nearly nine years later, in a symbolic ceremony celebrating a friend’s birthday, I was finally able to throw that offense into the fire and experience the lightness of complete forgiveness.

Nine years is a long time—a third of my life so far—but it was necessary time for something to sink in: forgiving seventy times seven times can involve forgiving multiple offenses, but it can also mean forgiving the same offense over and over and over again until forgiveness is truly complete.  It can mean saying ‘I forgive you’ every time the hurtful memory emerges from the shadows and threatens to grow more powerful, more consuming.

Hurt generated by an offense usually turns into anger.  Anger has the power to invade our beings like a carcinogen, causing mutated cells to multiply and distort every part of our personhood.  To even begin to heal, we need to surrender the primary agitator, but anger can function as an addiction and it’s incredibly difficult to give up the gesture of sucking the memory into the core of our beings, the sensation of satisfied ownership that courses through our veins with a dark pleasure.  It becomes so integral to our identities that we’re reluctant to give it up even thought it’s killing us.

There’s a lot of research and talk on forgiveness, which is one way we transform our anger.  But all this talk about forgiveness is making me hungry for revenge.  There’s not much research and discussion on revenge as a response, compared to forgiveness. The fact that the articles in this issue, called “Getting Even”, lean toward forgiveness rather than revenge is interesting.  Revenge only gets the spotlight when it’s extreme—think Hamlet and V for Vendetta and Kill Bill.  One might begin to think that revenge is only real and useful as a dramatic device, a symbol of impending tragedy.  I can’t think of a single interpersonal revenge story acted out by people I actually know, other than the childish gesture of ‘hitting back’ that often occurs among siblings and young peers.  However, I can think of many instances of indirect revenge.  There is also something destructively vengeful about hatred, grudges, the silent treatment, passive aggression—even our resistance to wish and enact good will upon those who have hurt us.  Vengeance is not just an identifiable external act, but an internal attitude.  In a way, I almost wish for more visible acts of revenge that would bring both the injury and the attempt at restoration into clearer focus for public scrutiny, rather than burying the response beneath layers of self-righteous stoicism.  As it is, our limited understanding of vengeance leads to dysfunction that parallels our silence on sexuality within community.

In a rough outline of a project on the relationship between the moral economy and vengeance and forgiveness, Joseph C. Liechty, a professor at Goshen College, notes that both vengeance and forgiveness meet the same need: “to move forward in the aftermath of insult, injury, injustice.”  In terms of a moral economy, a debt can be settled either by restoring evenness (which comes with its own set of complex problems) or by erasure.  Leichty’s proposal is that “forgiveness is best understood not as an unrelated alternative to the moral economy inhabited by vengeance, but as a vast expansion of that moral economy.”  It’s this expanded understanding that’s demonstrated to us in God, who settles our debts preemptively and completely.  As conscious recipients of this grace, our best response is to confer the same gift on others.

We can also make a decision to diminish the felt need for overt and covert vengeance and a good place to start is to reduce the offenses for which we perceive forgiveness to be necessary.  In Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes writes, “We need to sort out our hurts and learn the difference between those that call for the miracle of forgiveness and those that can be borne with a sense of humor.  If we lump all our hurts together and prescribe forgiveness for all of them, we turn the art of forgiving into something cheap and commonplace.  Like good wine, forgiving must be preserved for the right occasion.”  But when an injury does  “call for the miracle of forgiveness”, let us live into the expanded moral economy where love has no bounds.  We are always tempted to take and injure in response to what we’ve lost, but in the reality of abundance, there is love and more love than we ever thought ourselves capable of because love always emerges from an Infinite Source.

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