“Let us save man from vengeance, preparing the way for the new humanity that is approaching.”
This sentence has been forever engraved in my memory since I first read it, more than fifty years ago. I still remember it word for word, and it is still one of those themes for reflection that never leave me.
The impression it made on me is still working on me today, because I could not precisely comprehend what it was saying, and even today I don’t understand it.
Let me see if I can explain…
Considering our history, saving the human being from vengeance is a monumental task. It is striking that our whole judicial system is based on vengeance, and this is not easy to digest or to justify, because we know no other form of justice. What we call justice is simply vengeance, and every time a crime is committed we resolve it vengefully.
All of this sounds like an accusation, but I say it without the slightest intention of accusing anyone, and even less of judging anyone. I see this situation as a done deal. It is what we do, and our societies function thanks to judicial mechanisms in which the crimes committed are punished. Nobody really knows why, except that this is how we “do justice,” and there’s almost always a tacit internal agreement about it. Yes, it’s true, we call for justice, we find the guilty party, and give them the punishment they deserve. It is not possible to justify a “crime,” and it’s not for nothing that nobody wants to or is able to say that “impunity” is a possibility. I cannot imagine a society that doesn’t think about punishing its “criminals.” Not to do so would set off a commotion as complicated as a civil war.
I cannot imagine someone murdering another human being without somebody doing something to “punish” them for it. The desire for vengeance is much stronger than we believe or want to admit. We call it “justice,” and that’s fine – but even though we use this more acceptable term, the problem hasn’t gone away.
I don’t know exactly how this mess came about, but I understand that the Hammurabi Code, which has been with us for at least 4000 years, has a lot to do with this problem. To say it as succinctly as possible, the Hammurabi Code is one of the first efforts to codify laws of protection and retribution. The idea is to protect those harmed by the acts of others, and to punish those who do such harm, by applying a similar action as retribution or retaliatory justice. If someone breaks someone else’s leg, that person is punished by having his own leg broken. In other words, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and as someone said a long time ago, “we’re all left blind and toothless.” It’s an interesting form of equality, but not very convincing.
Two thousand years after the code attributed to the Babylonian King Hammurabi, and two thousand years before the current time, teachings that unequivocally opposed this code appear in the document known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” In a kind of public talk, this document explains what is, from my point of view, the purest essence of original Christianity. If there were a way of synthesizing the Christian doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount does it, establishing the foundations for a form of behavior completely different from what had been known up to that time. It begins with the Beatitudes, continues with the offering of the “other cheek” when confronted with violence and vengeance – a novelty for that historic moment – and explains that you must not judge others, and that you should not do to others what you would not like them to do to you (the negative version of the Golden Rule). It gives many guidelines for behavior, and ends with an explanation on loving both one’s neighbors and one’s enemies.
This sermon, plus some other unusual interventions like when one is arrested by soldiers and one of the disciples cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, and the Latin phrase, “Qui gladio occidit, gladio occisus erit” – “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword” is explained, is a teaching that has been written and rewritten over and over in all the known languages – yet we do not practice it, and it is truly extraordinary that something so essential, so purely and clearly expressed, is not practiced.
Almost 1900 years after these “recommendations” appear, a Russian writes a book that is censored in his own country until 1894, when Tolstoy’s book titled “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” based on what was said in the famous sermon mentioned earlier, is printed for the first time in Germany. Tolstoy again shows the relevance of the idea of “nonviolent resistance to violence,” and his book is without any doubt one of the most important precursors of today’s pacifism. Nevertheless, despite all efforts to offer another path, human societies have not managed to practice the most important teachings given over the course of millennia.
Probably inspired by Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi shakes British Imperial India by means of pacifism and nonviolent protest, until, on January 30, 1948, he is assassinated. Martin Luther King, inspired by similar ideas twenty years later, does the same in the struggle for the rights of African Americans in the United States, launching the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, on April 4, 1968, he too was assassinated.
One year and one month after the violent tragedy of King’s assassination, on a mountainside in the southern part of the American continent, a place unknown to the rest of the world, a young man of 31 launches a talk called “The Healing of Suffering.” And once again in our short human history so full of tragedy, violence, revenge, wars, oppression, intolerance and all the rest, someone proposes a way out of this vicious circle, offering a proposal of faith, hope, love, etc., but above all of overcoming the violence inside us and in the environment we live in.
It seems that the only possible way for us humans to save ourselves from violence is by overcoming the internal suffering caused by a disjunction between what we think, feel, and do. This is much more than simply being “good.” It effectively means achieving inner peace and bringing it to others. This inner peace appears when contradiction disappears and when human lives achieve a transcendental meaning. But this does not happen without internal work on oneself, or just because it is correctly proposed. Since the root of the problem of revenge, of making another suffer the way I have suffered, is so deep in our western mental form, transformation does not seem possible without effecting a profound transference of values in society, beginning with oneself.
And here I will stop, because I recognize, as I said in the beginning, that I do not precisely understand the problem. I need to study it in myself, I need to see how this desire for revenge is produced within me, and that is what I am working on.
Up to now I have encountered only two situations in my life in which I clearly saw and was able to resist the desire for vengeance when it began to take me over internally. In both situations I had an energetic register of comprehension, a register I have not yet been able to put into words or to integrate well. But without a doubt these experiences have been for me a source of reflection and intuition that there is another path for overcoming vengeance… and consequently that a future humanity will truly be able to find the reconciliation we need to save ourselves from vengeance.
Portland, February 15, 2021