The dead-end of revenge

The “fall to violence” could be the original sin.

By Molly T. Marshall

The world is reeling once again at the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Events in the Middle East seem to draw more attention than the ongoing violence in our own land, supported in a structural way by gun policies.

The American Jewish Committee offered a perceptive statement (July 6) on the brutal murder of the Palestinian teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and the arrest of the Israeli suspects. The AJC expressed “shock and dismay about those who perpetrated such a heinous crime against a Palestinian youth.” Reportedly, he was burned alive.

“That several Israelis are believed to be involved in this murder is despicable and shameful,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris. “By taking the life of a young Palestinian as an apparent act of revenge, they have desecrated God’s name, and at the same time, done nothing to ease the immense suffering of all those who mourn the tragic murder of the three Israeli teenagers.” Now, there are reports of another beating; this time it is an American-Palestinian.

Avenging the deaths of Naitail Fraenkal, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yitrach has kindled volatile protest in East Jerusalem and has led some to predict a “third intifada.” Witnesses to the first two uprisings will not forecast positive outcomes.

At stake in these conflicts is the very stuff of humanity — as sense of place, enduring ethnic identity and the right to self-determination. It is hard for those of us who observe only at a distance to perceive how deep the fissures are that hinder peace.

And the neighborhood where Israelis and Palestinians dwell is fraught with varied levels of threat. We tend to forget how close Syria, Lebanon and Iran really are to the slender strip of land Israel claims as homeland. Each has either the direct intent to destroy Israel (Iran and Syria) or a negligent posture by harboring an entity, Hezbollah, which intends the same (Lebanon).

Threats escalate to violence, and revenge provokes further retaliation. This cycle is as ancient as the pages of Scripture, and true peace eludes humanity hell-bent on evening the score. Proportionality gets cast aside in the heat of anger and fear.

Think of the rape of Dinah, recorded in Genesis 34. The prince of the region, Shechem, takes Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, by force and then decides he wants to marry her. Her brothers conspire against the Canaanites, promising that if he and the other men of the village agreed to be circumcised, a union between the families was possible.

Seeking revenge, Simeon and Levi slaughter all the males of the city while they are not yet recovered from this procedure, under the guise of retrieving their sister. Then they confiscate wives, livestock and property — all using the pretext of Dinah’s honor. No wonder this text does not make it into the lectionary!

Theologian Marjorie Suchocki has argued that the “fall to violence” is the original sin. Rather than interpreting sin as primarily rebellion against God, she contends that violence is both the root and the effect of sin. It is transmitted “through inherited inclination and socially inculcated habits, and its pervasiveness draws from the deep inter-relationality of the human race” (The Fall to Violence).

Many features in contemporary culture spur the bent toward violence that is inscribed in the species. Video games, action films and even the “battle” of sports normalize violence and show it to be the appropriate pathway for dealing with the problems of life. Evidence suggests that virtual violence prompts actual violence.

Humans can learn to channel aggression into nonviolent modes, and our intrinsic energy and passion can foster mutually beneficial outcomes rather than “winners” and “losers.” Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. bear testimony to the far-ranging transformation their nonviolent approach evoked.

It is critical that we acknowledge revenge as the dead-end that it is. John Milton’s Paradise Lost reveals how inexorably it bankrupts its perpetrator. Satan’s first attempt to steal God’s power lands him in the “gloomy deep” (I. 152). He formulates a plan for revenge, believing that he can still conquer God. By attacking God’s creation, especially humanity whom God loves, he seeks to claim his revenge.

Satan trusts in his own overweening ambition, and thinks, “our power is sufficient to disturb his Heaven … though inaccessible, his fatal throne; which, if not victory, is yet revenge” (2. 102-105). Revenge ends up ruining his own life in this literary classic. Evil becomes Satan’s God, and he is enslaved to its corrupting power.

Regrettably, Americans chose revenge after the terrorist attack on our homeland; we thought bombing other nations and killing Osama Bin Laden would deter further terrorism. We were wrong, just as those seeking revenge in the current Middle Eastern conflict are pursuing a dead-end. It is not the way to peace.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.