Revenge is a Poison You Take Yourself

One of the definitions of our Meeting House we have been discussing on the Board this month is, “a place where grownups gather to have grownup conversations.” This sermon is an extension of a conversation I started last month in a sermon called “Calibration of Justice.” As sometimes happened, the news that week provided me with my specific focus, for that was the week that Dr. Larry Nassar, the pedophile physician to the US Olympic gymnastics tem, was sentenced to 175 years for 7 counts of sexual assault in one county, after he had already been sentenced to 60 years on federal pornography charges and was awaiting sentencing on three other sexual assault charges from another county in Michigan.

In that sermon, I tried to lift up the difficulty of calibrating or quantifying the harm in an outrageous act with lasting repercussion for the victims and their families, but did say then that I thought the sentences were a bit excessive. I added that many might disagree with that conclusion, as is your right.

Since that sermon, some of you have told me you disagreed. We got into a lively discussion which I was never able to finish. But I think it bears importantly on our values. By raising questions about the severity of the sentence, I have left the impression with some that I am not in support of the #Metoo movement. I think the subject is ripe for further exploration of the intersection of our cries for justice, the actual justice system we have, mass incarceration and that impulse buried in all out hearts, the urge to revenge.

Let me start from a lawyer’s perspective. Why do we punish people who break the law? A legal philosopher named H.L.A. Hart identified four possible purposes of criminal punishment: first there is incapacitation, which is also called prophylaxis, or protection. We lock the offender away so he or she can’t commit any more crimes. The second reason is rehabilitation: we’d like the offender to reform and become a productive citizen. The third is deterrence: we’d like the example of punishing this person to make other people think twice before they commit a similar crime. And the fourth reason for criminal punishment is retribution, to harm the offender simply in retaliation for the harm the offender has caused. The United States currently has 2.3 million people behind bars, far more, per capita, than any other nation. A disproportionate number of these are people of color, and poor people. Our national incarceration scandal has been called the New Jim Crow. A large part of this explosive growth in prisons has been the decline of the rehabilitation function and the ascendance of retribution as the justification.

Before the election of 2016, there was a developing consensus of left and right that we were locking up far too many of our citizens; now prison reform seems to have been put on hold. So we continue to harm the offender because the offender has harmed others. We say this is retaliation.

The heart of that word retaliation is talion, which is related to the claw on an animal or bird. And the idea of retaliation is known by the Latin name lex talionis, the law of the talion. This is of ancient lineage. It was found in the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylon and was expressed in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Leviticus, [24: 19-20]: “19 Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”

Note that this lex talionis is a restriction on punishment. If the offender takes one eye from the victim, the offender will not be sentenced to give up two eyes. This is an ancient idea of calibration of punishment; let the punishment fit the crime and, so far as any maiming, that is, so far as any injury less than death is concerned, the injury of the punishment is restricted to the injury of the crime. Elsewhere Leviticus provides that when a human life is taken, the offender’s life is also taken as punishment.

So it is a restriction, but it also an authorization; it definitely provides a sanction for the idea that the way to deal with crime is to hurt the offender. This is a type of revenge. The impulse to revenge probably resides in each of us somewhere. As one evolutionary psychologist said, in a pack of social animals, the individuals who were willing and able to avenge a harm committed against them may have had an advantage in survival and passed down this trait to their offspring. But how do we get from the individual desire for revenge to the theory of retribution in punishment imposed by society?

The link is Hobbes. The seventeenth century political theorist Thomas Hobbes thought that the human being was naturally violent and that life in human society before the development of stable governments was “nasty, brutish and short.” We are only saved from such a life because we create governments and systems of law and give to the state a monopoly on violence.

But before there were systems of law, or in places where systems of law or state power have broken down, we are left with individual revenge. Feudal Europe in the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire was such a place, the Wild West in American stories and in reality any situation in which someone decides to “take the law into their own hands.” Thus an individual can seek revenge on his own behalf or on behalf of a clan or family with which he is associated. Shakespeare has two great dramas of revenge, Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice. In Hamlet, set in medieval times in Denmark, the ghost of Hamlet senior, the former king, walks at midnight on the castle wall and tells his son that his brother has murdered him, and its up to the younger Hamlet to avenge this murder. These being medieval times, he doesn’t tell him to swear out a warrant at the nearest police station. He is supposed to take matters into his own hands.

You may remember that it doesn’t end well. Hamlet hesitates, and thought he finally kills Claudius, it is only after everyone he holds dear has been killed, and he himself is killed, and the country is taken over by the prince of Norway. Hamlet’s pursuit of revenge has tragically destroyed all that he was fighting for.

Hamlet is a tragedy while the Merchant of Venice is in theory a kind of comedy. The Jewish moneylender Shylock, has lent a goodly sum of money to Antonio, and Antonio has guaranteed repayment by pledging a pound of his flesh if fails to repay. He defaults. Now this play is widely seen as anti-Semitic for very good reasons. The Nazis actually staged productions of it to advance their propaganda. Shylock is not a sympathetic character, and Shakespeare puts speeches in his mouth that emphasize his otherness, most famously this one justifying why he is going ahead with his demand to get the pound of flesh he contracted for {Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene 1]:

Salerio. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?

Shylock. To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

Now put aside the fact that Shylock is not a sympathetic character and is the fountainhead for many vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes down to the modern era. Hear in this speech the demands of a member of a marginalized group for recognition as a full human; the justice system typically sides with the dominant group, the Christians; for once, let it side with a Jew. Thus a cry for equality is couched in terms of revenge. Those who are downtrodden day in and day out because of their race, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation can related to Shylock’s claim.

The demand for revenge is attractive that way. I was in Divinity School when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his wife Nicole. Feelings were so high around that case that blacks and whites weren’t speaking to each other; I couldn’t get the head of the Black Student alliance to sponsor a public discussion. He said it was complicated, and I’m sure it was. As a criminal defense attorney, my own sympathies were partially for the defense and I was in awe of the skill of O.J.’s lawyer in securing an acquittal against such a strong case. Maybe for some of my black fellow students it was a kind of rough justice that a well-lawyered, famous and beloved black sports star could beat the system. It certainly did not signal an end to racism in the criminal justice system.

But our Universalist heritage offers another view of revenge. Shylock’s speech in favor of revenge is answered by the end of the play by Portia’s speech in favor of mercy, which she holds up as a more Christian ideal. From a modern perspective, Portia’s speech is hypocritical and condescending, for the nominally Christian powers of the West have not been any more forthcoming with mercy than Jewish or Muslim powers. Yet there is a line of thought within Christian teachings that counsels not pursuing revenge.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul advises the Christian church in Rome {Romans 12:17-19]: 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

St. Paul is saying here that vengeance may be part of the divine scheme, but humans should not return evil for evil. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus echoes St. Paul, and rejects the law of the talion [Matthew 5: 38-42]

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Turning the other cheek, forgiveness is not at all easy, but it is clearly what these passages call us to do.

But there’s a huge tension between this type of call for mercy and forgiveness and the calls for justice of historically oppressed segments of society. We are just now getting a handle on the scope of massive injustice perpetrated against women by men in power. Is this a time to call for mercy and forgiveness?

I recognize that I am in a poor position to make that call. I am a straight white male and any identification I might make with victims of sexual abuse is vicarious. But as an observer, I can point out that there are alternatives.

In the last thirty years, many justice systems have experimented with a different approach, called restorative justice. Restorative justice doesn’t advocate one-size-fits-all approaches. Rather, it tries to convene a discussion among all the stakeholders: offender, victim, bystander, cop, probation officer and through that discussion arrive at a consensus for restoring the balance which was broken by the offense.

In the case of male dominance sex abuse, the offense is usually enabled by some kind of power the man holds over the woman. If at a minimum we want to stop the offender from offending, we can take away that power: yank his medical license, kick him out of his movie production company, get him off the air. If we want to go further and try to get him to face up to the harm he has committed, we can require him to listen to the stories of his victims and others. There are creative alternatives to letting the offender waste the rest of his life in prison. But these alternatives beg the question, what about the 2.3 million who are already behind bars? Why should we in effect privilege these new sex abusers when we have wasted so many lives before them? On the other hand, does the fact we have acted unjustly with respect to one population require us to act unjustly with respect to another?

I acknowledge that my perspective is partial and conditioned by my relative privilege in society. Justice emerges from dialogue in which all voices are heard. I am also privileged to have been called by this congregation to preach what I see as religious values stemming from our Unitarian and Universalist heritages. The Universalist side of that heritage, I believe, takes Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously. While revenge may be a universal human emotion, we are not called to act on it, and to give in to the thirst for revenge is often to harm ourselves much more than the person or people against who we have a grievance. Revenge is a poison we take ourselves.


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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

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Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075 

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