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Monday, November 1, 2010

forgiveness and revenge

Like many others, I have followed the story of the former air force colonel in Belleville, Ontario, who has been convicted on about 90 criminal charges, including two counts each of rape and murder. While reading on the CBC website, I noticed that alongside the article, the featured ads were for surveillance equipment, pepper spray, and home alarm systems.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry in North America that trades in equipment and services meant to help us feel safe.

When violence is perpetrated against us, or those we love, or happens close enough to feel personal, we are confronted with our essential helplessness. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being reminded of the fragility of life.

On a visceral level, part of me desires to exercise power over the forces, and the individuals that threaten me. Maybe it is about the need to reclaim control. Or maybe it is just a primitive desire for revenge.

Years ago I had a summer job as a prison chaplain. When certain offenders were entering the system, their story arrived before they did. Word passed from the staff to the inmates about anyone convicted of sex crimes against women and children. I made visits to a man held in the infirmary because he would not be safe in the general population.

The part of me that wants to punish those who would threaten me, or the safety of those I cherish, understands why other prisoners would attack a sex offender. It would let them see themselves as better than him. It would be an outlet for their feelings of frustration, that they could not protect their loved ones from “people like him”.

I preached on Sunday about the potential for every person to be the “true self” that God creates us to be. I asked if there is anything that we can do or say, that places us outside of the embrace of God’s love and forgiveness. After the service, it was pointed out to me that I did not actually answer the question.

The “standard” answer is that we “love the sinner, and hate the sin”. We hold the hope that God always loves us, in spite of our mistakes and confusion, and there is always the possibility of reconciliation between us and God.

I think it is important to identify our feelings, which may include a desire for revenge, and separate them out from our thinking about whether or not God can forgive.

I think it is also important to realize that even if we were in a position to act on our desire for revenge, that anything we did would not un-do what the perpetrator had done. Most likely, any satisfaction would be short-lived. We look to our legal system, as imperfect as it may be, to provide judgment and consequences for heinous acts.

The spiritual challenge is for us to set aside the habit of seeing ourselves as the judge of others, and seek to be compassionate towards all.