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The Counterproductive Nature of Revenge  

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious,” said Oscar Wilde. Judging comes so easy; time and again we compare and contrast, separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the charming from the tedious.

Many judgmental words we employ are far more disparaging than those used by Mr. Wilde. Name-calling when overheard by my mother, back in the day, led to a mouth-cleaning with a bar of soap.

In a story told by Mark (Mark 3:20-35),  Jesus has just arrived home after travels that included stops in Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, places beyond the Jordan and places in the region around Trye and Sidon. The crowd coming to hear him at some stops was so great, Mark tells us, he needed a boat handy for travel to the next stop.

Finally, he is home. “Home” described by Mary in The Death of a Hired Man, by Robert Frost, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” To his surprise, Jesus heard said of him upon arriving home, “He has gone out of his mind.” His family heard those same remarks, accusations so distressing his family couldn’t even eat. The gossip-mongering was coming from neighbors down the street and from folks in authority, people who had to know the repercussions of what they were saying.

Because by now, Jesus had caught the attention of many. Many who admired and respected him; many who derided him, many who were contemptuous of him. Jesus was posing a threat to the brokered peace the Pharisees secured between the Judeans and the Roman authorities. For their efforts, the Pharisees were making a decent living and Jesus was threatening that truce.

He hears what is being said of him and replies, asking, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”

Whoops! That kind of reply only gets Jesus in deeper; he is questioning a time-honored tradition telling those in earshot that revenge doesn’t work, evil should not be used to repay evil. But so many then and today would agree with Alfred Hitchcock, “Revenge is sweet (and not fattening).”

The Code of Hammurabi, implemented about 1760 BCE, had influenced the Levitical laws codifying the belief in “an eye for an eye.”  Jesus challenged that sacred law, saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you….be merciful… do not judge and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven (Luke 6). Inspired by Jesus, Paul wrote these words to the Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12:17).

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 was a revenge-killing by French Catholics who were losing land and power to the Protestants. French Protestants, the Huguenots had gathered in Paris for an interfaith wedding. King Charles IX ordered the assassination of Huguenot Protestant leaders, setting off massive killing. An estimated 3,000 French Protestants were killed in Paris, as many as 70,000 in all of France.

Aaron Burr lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 and laid blame on Alexander Hamilton who said of Burr, he was “without scruple…unprincipled…voluptuary” and would plunder the country (John Ferling). A bitter man, Burr sought revenge, challenging Hamilton to a dual, mortally wounding him. That was the beginning of the end for Aaron Burr.

A Serbian patriot assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in revenge for Austria’s occupation of Serbia. Austria took revenge, invading France; World War I began. After World War I, the Allied powers took revenge on the losing countries, imposing fines and taking land. Hitler rose to power, taking revenge, forcing France to surrender on the same terrain Germany surrendered in WWI.

“Your mother and brothers are calling for you,” someone said to Jesus as he was speaking to them about the counter-productive nature of revenge, telling them how revenge keeps wounds open longer. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks in reply. “I will tell you, whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Doing the will of God, it can be said, makes us both “charming and tedious.”