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On the Unworkability of Vengeance

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I find three major reasons to purge all thoughts and feelings of vengeance from my life:

1. It is abhorrent to the value systems I honor.

2. Lusting after vengeance raises my blood pressure, makes me physically and emotionally unhealthy, and causes my life to be dominated by suffering rather than joy.

3. It doesn't work. Whether personal or international, vengeance begets more vengeance in an unending cycle.

The Buddha says, "Hate is never conquered by hate, hate is only conquered by love."

Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:38-39,43-44)

Ever heard of the Hatfield-McCoy feud? In the post-Civil War period, these families indulged in reciprocal murder in the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky. In several ways, the feud was typical of feuds throughout history. It began in a small way and escalated. Belief systems were involved (the families had been on opposite sides of the Civil War). Honor, land, and tangible property were at stake. Some say it began as an argument over a pig. One way in which it was not typical is that it was over in thirty years. Some of the world's great feuds have been fought continuously for over a thousand years.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud is a useful example because few if any people alive today have a vested interest in it. It is relatively easy to see that killing each other over a pig, small amounts of money, accusations of lying, a clandestine affair, and the like, is sheer foolishness. But what about the feuds in which we are personally involved — both interpersonal and international?

My first instinct whenever I have been injured is to seek revenge. I believe it's a human reaction that is as old as humanity itself. A business partner didn't repay a large loan to me. I wanted revenge. I was sued over something that wasn't my fault. I wanted revenge. Clearly the act of wanting revenge is counterproductive. Anger and hate are unpleasant emotions. In my quest to live a joyful life, anger and hate have no place.

But suppose I could succeed in my vengeance? Wouldn't I feel really good? Maybe briefly, but the elation would be short-lived. Achieving victory at the expense of someone else's suffering isn't my cup of tea. Moreover, the vengeance would escalate, because no one wants to feel a perceived dishonor. Since I have made the choice to stop my anger, hate, and vengeance, my life has been far happier and healthier.

Vengeance on an international scale is just a larger version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Anger, hatred, murder, revenge killing. Generation after generation murdering in an attempt to extract vengeance for the deeds of their ancestors. Where does it stop? Sometimes one side prevails militarily for a time. Then what? Perhaps the defeated party gains renewed strength and resumes the battle. If the weaker side remains subjugated, they develop the attitude and skills of a cornered ferret. They will fight to the death – house to house – as in Palestine today.

Do feuds ever end? Only when both sides shake hands, and agree that there is no winner, no loser, only people who have wearied of fighting and desire to live in peace. For many years, Northern Ireland was locked in a murderous and seemingly unending feud. The key to ending the feud was a shared commitment that peace was more important than vengeance. That is always the choice to be made. The organizers of an April 10, 2009 joint Protestant-Catholic commemoration of the Northern Ireland dead, comprised of members of the once-outlawed Sinn Fein as well as their once-avowed enemies, referred to "the terrible, random nature of death in war and civil conflict." Some lessons have been learned, many more remain.

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About Jonathan Lockwood Huie

  • Good points. Vengeance might feel good for a while, but it will eat you alive.