on revenge and forgiveness: Romans 9

We hate everything about bullies — the bullying, the being bullied, and the standing by silently while someone else is being bullied.  The bully feels helpless in the face of his own senseless rage.  The victim feels oddly and wrongly ashamed, as if something in their very being invited mistreatment.  The silent bystander feels in some ways worst of all, both victim and victimizer, complicit in guilt and yet deemed worthless enough by the bully to be subjected to watching their crime.

I once heard a Vietnam vet describe the concept of what he called “third party forgiveness.”  He said we need to forgive not just the things others have done to us; or the things we have done to others; but also the things we have seen others do to other people.

That’s a lot of forgiving.

The problem is there is something inside all of us that prizes revenge.  “I hope that man that incarcerated those three women for ten years DOESN’T get the death penalty,” someone said to me yesterday about Ariel Castro.  “I hope he is put in a prison where others mistreat HIM, so he experiences the same thing he did to those women.”

Holocaust victim Elie Weisel said something similar about Bernie Madoff.  Weisel should know better.  He wrote in his memoir Night that when the Nazis treated him like an animal, he found himself behaving like one.  And yet when Weisel lost most of his money to Madoff’s ponzi scheme, Weisel wrote that he hoped Madoff would spend the rest of his life in a prison cell with a video running 24-7 of his victims.  Weisel said this before Madoff’s son committed suicide.  I’m not sure if Weisel still feels Madoff needs a 24-7 video after that kind of a consequence.

Why do we want bullies, criminals and other people who have maimed us to experience the hurt they inflicted?  Why do we want to exact an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?  What is it in us that has an automatic revenge button that gets triggered the moment someone hurts us?

Is it possible that we each have a sense of divine justice?  Are we humans so made in God’s image that we automatically know that a wrong must be punished? Do we have God’s laws written on our hearts, as the Bible says of our consciences?  I can’t think of any other explanation.

And yet when we talk of exacting revenge like this, we forget the most important thing.  If our sense of justice comes from God, why do we find it so hard to trust that same God to exact justice in the best possible way?  That is part of what Paul is trying to get at here in Romans 9.  He’s saying who are we to argue with God?  God is the potter.  We are the clay.  Part of peace comes from recognizing that the potter has the right to do whatever He wants with the clay.  Romans 9:20-22.

No one could read about the hell house those three victims of Ariel Castro lived in without weeping.  The policemen who released the women were crying.  The women saw the sunshine twice in ten years. We feel the pain of those three women, even as we know we can’t even imagine their pain — and that, too, is part of our pain.  We are the bystanders who want to suffer for others but can’t.

Luckily for us, we have a God who did suffer for us.  The potter could have broken every one of us clay jars.  Instead, God became clay Himself.  He was broken for us.  He suffered the pain of hell so we wouldn’t have to.

Because His justice was satisfied on the cross, God forgives us, but His only condition is that we forgive each other.  He wants us to forgive the things we see others do to others.  He begs us to let go of hurts others have inflicted on us.  He longs for us to receive His forgiveness.  He says it’s the only way to heal.

If someone really needs to see a video 24-7 of all the wrongs they’ve inflicted on other people, God can do that, too, by playing it on the screens of their minds.  Maybe that’s already happened to Madoff.  Who knows. But maybe not, because we humans don’t really know what kind of spiritual torture other people deserve.  We don’t know what kind of suffering their consciences have imposed on them.  We don’t know what kind of suffering their hard hearts have given them.

There is nothing more painful than having a hard heart.  Hard hearts condemn us to live in a world of hate, rage, suspicion and loneliness.  All crimes come from hard hearts.  No matter whether we are cruel to others, indifferent, thoughtless or actively malicious, everything evil we’ve ever done comes from the same source: a hard heart.

A hard heart can only be broken with softness.  God has a soft heart toward us that offers us only kindness, sweetness, love and mercy.  We don’t really understand mercy.  It’s not our natural response.  But while we may not understand it, if we go there we discover it’s the best place to live.  It’s a tender place.  It’s a vulnerable place.  It’s a scary place.  And it requires knowing we need mercy.  It requires letting go of justice and the law and “well I did THAT so maybe I didn’t do THAT but you did THIS and I deserve THAT.” It lets us instead focus on God’s forgiveness for us, not on focusing on what others have done wrong.  Only when we accept the need for mercy can we love others – all others — even the bullies.  Even when we have met the bully and he is us.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day