Thursday, September 27, 2018

Violent Responses

          I was browsing FB the other day and saw a post by a friend of mine who was describing a terrible and scary incident in which he awoke to find an intruder in his home.  The man grabbed a couple things and left. No one was hurt, my friend was able to replace the missing items with fairly little trauma.  It wasn't a pleasant experience but neither was it scarring.  What I found more interesting (here translated "disturbing") was the responses of some of his friends.  Several posted in response that he should have shot and killed the guy.  And that was usually followed by "that would have taught him".
        I have to admit, I find this response shocking and upsetting for so many reasons.  The first is simply the obvious one: once you're dead, there are no more lessons to be learned, folk.  Killing somebody doesn't actually teach them anything.
        But beyond that, why do we feel that we should react to unpleasant things by escalating the violence?  This is a mind-set that seems to have taken over the U.S. at this point in time.  We seem to greet every slight and every affront with an incredibly disproportionate response of revenge and increased harm. This must be a long time human flaw.  In the Hebrew scriptures, we are told "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This was a law put in place to limit the amount of damage that could be returned in response to an injury of any kind.  It was necessary to make those statements at that time because people DID tend to escalate the problems.  "An eye for an eye" meant that you could only return in equal amount what was done to you.  So in this case, you could take something from the other person in response to their taking something of yours (NOT their life, by the way.  That's NOT what you could take in response to their stealing an item.  That is not an equal response.).  The Christian scriptures take it much further.  (Mt. 5:38-42): "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and a tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."  This takes the actions of love and kindness exponentially further.  Not only are we supposed to refrain from killing the people who upset us, not only are we to refrain from retaliating by inflicting the same injury to a person who has injured us, but we are to take loving a giant step further and try to respond to evil with goodness, try to respond to hate with love, try to answer anger with peace, and try to meet injury with caring.  
           Is this hard?  Of course.  Does it bring justice?  Not in the way we have come to understand it, that's for certain.  Is this normal behavior, even for people of faith? Not by any stretch of the imagination.  These tend to be passages that people of faith ignore, "forget," or simply fail to apply to real life.  It is hard to walk with love towards those offering hate.  It is difficult to not want revenge when someone has hurt us.  It is absolutely counter-cultural to not hit back when we are hit.
          But as I say in my sermons almost every week, the things we are asked to do by our faith traditions, while they may appear hard, are always things that invite us into wholeness as well: they aren't just for the "other".  They are meant for our own good, for our own betterment, for our own growth.
          So looking at it from that perspective, what are the consequences for different responses in this case?  Let's say my friend had shot the guy who broke into his home.  Instead of dealing with the, not minor, but not overwhelming either, trauma of an invasive house break in and theft, he would carry the scars for the rest of his life of having taken someone else's life.  Maybe there are people out there who can just dismiss another life as somehow not worthy of continuance.  Maybe there are people who would feel proud of putting out the life of someone who is making a bad choice. But my friend is a thinking person: he knows that just because someone does bad things does not mean they are an evil or worthless human being.  We never know the stories behind other people's actions.  We never know if someone is truly beyond redemption. We never know what has led up to that moment, nor where someone will go next in their life. To quote Gandalf, "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."  For those of us who believe in the sanctity of life, taking life away from another human is something you just simply cannot heal from.  Ever.  Even if he could heal from it, he would end up going through the court system as a result of his actions: and that, too, is frankly extremely hard to get over, even if he were exonerated.  He also pointed out to me that since he didn't see the person very well, at first he wasn't even sure it was an intruder.  It could easily have been his wife returning from work.  Would you really want to go out shooting and risk hitting your spouse?
         In contrast, there are many stories of a response of love changing the hearts of anger and evil in the other. How does it affect us to behave with love?  It helps us build resilience, loving builds more love, even in our own hearts; forgiveness helps us to completely let go of the anger and pain we carry. In this case, their ability to forgive has meant that a terrible incident is truly over for them, not something they need to carry forward into any other situations.  In reality, there wasn't time for any response on the part of my friend to the intruder.  But if there had been, we never know how a choice for kindness will affect others, and even our own hearts, down the road.  We never know.  And it isn't our job to determine.  Our job is to be kind, to be compassionate, to "love our enemies" as Jesus would tell us, and to be open to allowing the love we have to grow and change us. The results of that are just not up to us.  
          I find this quick response of "you should have shot the guy" extremely disturbing because it shows an inability to seek empathy for those who are different, for anyone who has done wrong, for someone who has hurt us. It shows a way of thinking that is violent, aggressive, and non-sympathetic.  It reflects a lack of ability to see the humanity in people who harm us. It is an action that also demonstrates a forgetfulness of our own mistakes.  While we may say, "Well, I've never done anything that bad," I don't know that rating our mistakes is very healthy or even fair. Again, we don't know what has led up to that moment for the person choosing that behavior.  This reaction also fails to see beyond this moment into the future consequences of our choice to react with violence and revenge.  
           I would hope for us that we could start the pendulum swinging back towards greater compassion, towards a deeper understanding that the difference between me and you is only time and space: that when we hurt the other, we are injuring ourselves: and when we choose love, we are also choosing love for ourselves.  I think that road may be long, but it's an important journey to walk.