Week 2

Karen G. Johnston,


Vengeance is a lazy form of grief. 

I first heard this phrase back in 2013 at a day-long retreat sponsored by the UU Buddhist Fellowship.  The Western Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach spoke it; immediately, I sensed the power and urgency of its message.

The examples are plentiful.

The misleading notion that families derive or achieve “closure” when a murderer or rapist is put to death by governmental establishments as punishment.

How our nation struggled with the notion of allowing a proper burial for Tamerlan Tsarneav, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, too raw with grief and anger;

How we count the dead in the ever-growing incidents of mass shootings.  For instance, it is common to refer to the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. By naming 26 victims, not only do we leave out the perpetrator of that unholy act, but we leave out his mother, the first to fall to his gun violence.  How we talk about such tragedies and who we include in the list of the dead is one way we enact a mild form vengeance. 

Vengeance comes in large and small packages.  We like to think that these packages say something about the person who has done wrong.  We like to think that when we call shooters and child molesters “monsters,” we are talking about them.  We must be very careful, because such actions and words to dehumanize say more about us.

When Tara Brach spoke this wisdom – vengeance is a lazy form of grief – she held up an example of how we might engage is something more disciplined, something more noble, something harder, yet more of who we want to be – she used a fictional example that came from a movie, though that was not apparent at the time. It was a compelling example, until I understood that it was made up.

Restorative justice – informed not by stunted grief or vengeance -- is hard work. For this hard work, for this heart work, I need real examples, not fictional ones.

Lucky for us, they exist.  Though they are rare, they are not as rare as we are led to believe.  In the media, it’s much more sexy to report on habitual, vengeance-informed forms of justice.  They support the powers that be. 

Yet, for those of us who are trying to imagine another world, another way, we have to look beyond and behind and around traditional news outlets and the hyperbole of standard media to see other possibilities.  Other possibilities like

My friend’s friend.  His daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.  He was, naturally, devastated: grieving, angry, beyond consolation.  And as others progressed in their grief, his brought him only deeper into bitter resentment, a corrosive quagmire that threatened his closest relationships.  Somehow, and I do not know how, for this is my friend’s friend, not my own, he decided the only way out was to attempt contact not with Tim McVeigh, the terrorist behind the bombing, but with his father.  Though he held Tim McVeigh’s father somehow responsible for what his son had done, he also intuited that both of them had lost their children and their might be common ground, something desperately life saving in reaching out.  It proved to be the thing that saved him from the toxicity of his own grief and dire impulses for vengeance.

There is Mary Johnson, whose son Laramium Byrd was shot dead by Oshea Israel when they were teenagers.  Johnson originally wanted what she understood as “justice:” seeing her son’s killer locked up for what he had done.  She explains,

‘My son was gone. I was angry and hated this boy, hated his mother.  [The murder] was like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.’ (Mail Online, June 8, 2011)

And Oshea, 16 years old at the time of the murder, was locked up for 17 years.  Not long before his release from jail, Mary did not yet have the sought-after “closure” and began a correspondence, that turns into a relationship, with Oshea, still trying to understand the loss of her son.  The result has been that Oshea now lives next door to Mary and they have a kind of mother-son relationship.

I am certainly not saying that I know that I could show the kind of mercy Mary Johnson has.  Though I do know that I wish I could.  I am not saying this might not be for everyone.  Though I do wonder how different our world would be if that were the case.   Her example, as well as others in this same vein, tell us that there are many possibilities -- real ones, not fictional -- and they are within our capacity.

Too often, Exodus 21: 23-24 is invoked when justifying vengeance, interpersonal or governmental:

23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (NRSV)

Thankfully, to many of us moderns, this method of justice seems archaic, even barbaric.  Progressive and peace-loving folk like to quote Gandhi who supposedly said that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  

Yet, the law from this part of Exodus was part of the human impulse towards mercy, towards decency, towards moderation.  Moderation?  Yes, for before this law was set down, if someone killed your son in a skirmish, you went and not only killed their son, but maybe all the sons and burned their village to the ground for good measure.

Humanity’s sense of justice and accountability is evolving – it always has been.  It is easier to be lazy, but it does not serve us. It does not serve the world.  Let us participate in that ongoing evolution. Let us drive that ongoing evolution. Let us be that ongoing evolution. 

May it be so.