Revenge: A Story of Hope

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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Sermon Text

Especially now, when our nation is so bitterly riven about everything: who we are, what we are, what we stand for, who we stand with, what future we believe in, what past we celebrate, how we treat each other, what we deserve from each other – especially now, as sexual scandals break every day about both those we deplore and those we have esteemed, while our nation sits on the sidelines at climate change conferences, as gunfire rang just days ago in the heart of our city, while the way to racial reconciliation remains so challenging, as wealth and business again reign as the supreme values among our nation’s executive leaders, it seems utterly clear that forgiveness is, and will be, required if we are ever to get through this wrenching time. Some people are exhilarated, some are despairing, some are determined, some are desperate, some are hopeful, some are hurt, almost everyone is, it seems, angry.  Still – is it really time to be talking about forgiveness?  I mean, sure, forgiveness and abundance are our themes this month, but do they fit with this time, this context?

Actually yes, in fact, abundant forgiveness matters most in the hardest times.   As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, in his own riven nation, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”  As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said in another time of conflict and violence here at home:  “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude.”

So, in talking about forgiveness, abundant forgiveness, I’m not talking about giving up, nor am I talking about giving in.  And having talked a couple of months ago about the dynamics of interpersonal forgiveness, I want to talk today about what some of the larger aspects and implications of forgiveness can be, about what is going to be required for forging a new path into being better with each other.  Because what is particular to how each of us is with each other is also much bigger than that.  Poised between last week’s elections and our upcoming national holiday, what matters to us as individuals also speaks to our capacity to be a better United States of America.  Isn’t it already terribly – and I use that word advisedly – terribly obvious that we can’t be, will never be, the nation we claim to be by imposing our ways, our understandings, our identities, our priorities, our fears and insecurities, on each other?  And I don’t just mean theirs, I mean ours too.  Because it’s the imposing that’s really the issue.

Maybe it’s sad, maybe it’s good that there are a lot of options, many stories and sources to remind us of what is possible for a people, for individuals, even when things seem unbearable and, yes, unforgiveable.  Revenge: A Story of Hope, is a memoir written by a journalist named Laura Blumenfeld.  It came out in 2002.  In 1986 her father, an American rabbi was visiting Jerusalem and was shot in the head by a Palestinian, as part of a campaign to kill tourists and draw attention to the Palestinian cause.  Amazingly her father wasn’t killed, in fact he recovered fully from the glancing shot.  But Laura couldn’t let go of the shooting.  She became obsessed with it, and ultimately she decided, many years later, to dedicate the first year of her marriage to living in Israel and pursuing the story of what had happened to the shooter – in fact, not only to learn about him but also to study revenge, because what she wanted from this man who had tried to kill her father, was vengeance.

I can hardly even imagine doing what Laura did.  Often we may be utterly shocked when some terrible, violent, ugly thought enters our head.  We are repelled at it, at ourselves, We wish we had some kind of soap for our brains and souls at a moment like that.  But that wasn’t her reaction at all.  Rather than struggling to overcome the violence and anger of her reaction, she leaned into it.  She considered it.  She actually traveled the world to educate herself about it.  Palermo, Sicily to learn about revenge from the Mafia, there in the cradle, as she puts it, of the vendetta.  Albania, where they have a Code, a canon, an actual book, readily found in many homes, of the rules for revenge.  Iran, where she studied Sharia law about vengeance.  Her own Jewish heritage where the Hebrew word for revenge: nekamah is linked to etymologically linked to another word: kum which means rising, reminding through language that part of the appeal of revenge is that it is a most basic form of self-assertion.  She looks at it in the business world where one successful businessman declares getting even is a  ‘management tool,’ used as both reward and punishment.

Laura’s thought deepens along the way.  She comes to believe revenge is always a contrivance by which we give ourselves illusions of control, really of playing God.  She explores the nuances of language that soften or legitimize some forms of vengeance over others:  ‘reprisal’ vs. ‘retribution’ vs ‘revenge.’  She notices US newspapers headlines about  ‘reprisal’ by the US, targeting a factory in Sudan and terrorist camps in Afghanistan after US embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania; compared to those same papers’ headlines about ‘revenge attacks’ promised by Osama Bin Laden following the US ‘reprisals.’

Her studies take her to Athens, Greece to visit the temple of Nemesis, goddess of retribution for evil deeds – notice that Nemesis’ name translates in English not to Justice, but rather to Opponent, Avenger.  As Laura’s journey unfolds, she begins to explore beyond the rules or forms of revenge, to different categories of revenge.  Constructive Revenge, which changes power equations by building oneself up rather than putting others down.  And the strategies that go with revenge.  Among the Nuer people of South Sudan, feuding families can’t eat or drink from each others’ dishes.  Laura realizes this is necessary because it prevents them from eating together, from developing bonds engendered by hospitality and sharing and talking – those could lead to the dangerous development of discovering commonalities, a step down the road away from revenge towards relationship.  She writes: “A shared identity threatens the life of a blood feud.  Revenge depends on the externalization of hate.  It is something you do to others, not to your own kind.”

And then she studies suffering and choices around revenge closer to home, in Israel and Palestine, and talks with a man of mixed Jewish-Arab heritage whose brother had been killed by an Arab gang decades ago, whose wife decades later is shot by a Palestinian.  After both deaths, the man chooses relationship and connection over vengeance, his dual heritage and life-choices a testament to the insight of a Middle East proverb:  “If you want revenge, dig two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself.”  But the man who has lost his brother and later his wife is human, after all.  He has a sign taped above his desk.  “Love your enemies.  It really gets on their nerves!”  And when he sees Laura notice the sign, he smiles and says “It works.”

She learns from a psychologist at Hebrew University that he believes the only satisfying substitute for revenge is true acknowledgment, which, he notes is more than regret, it’s accepting responsibility.”  While the idea is rooted in an individual’s wish for retribution, the psychologist things it has implications on a national level, between Israelis and Palestinians who both need acknowledge they did something wrong and recognize each other’s legitimacy.

The whole time Laura is on this search for understanding regarding vengeance, she is also trying to pave her way towards her own path of revenge on the shooter, whose name is Omar Khatib.  He was found, arrested, charged, and sentenced for the shooting to decades in prison and he’s already been there for many years.  That’s not enough for her. But at the same time, she’s not sure what she else wants – to shame Omar?  To throttle him or at least shake him by the shirt collar?  She thinks about shooting him, or shooting his father as he shot hers.  She is so consumed that nothing is to terrible to think about.  She goes to his family’s house and meets them, portraying herself simply as some American journalist interested in understanding their story on their terms.  She goes back.  She begins to matter to them.  And they begin to matter to her.  The shooter becomes a person to her.  She begins, still as just the journalist his family now knows and vouches for, to correspond with Omar, and over time, she seeks more and more to understand how he thinks about what he did, how he justifies it, whether – and this is the most important thing to her father who after all was the one actually shot – whether Omar would do it again;  whether – and this is the most important thing to Laura – whether Omar is sorry.  Her fantasies of hurtful or violent revenge begin to fade, but what might take their place remains cloudy and intangible, for all her continual seeking and reflection.

Omar’s letters back to Laura are smuggled out of the prison on onionskin paper folded countless times and placed in tiny capsules that are swallowed or otherwise snuck out by his family when they go to visit him.  In the beginning his writing is filled with familiar declarations of belief and justification for his actions.   But over time, as Omar and Laura – who still hasn’t revealed her last name or her true interest in the case – as they exchange information about themselves, he reveals more about his understandings and concerns, his wish for diplomatic resolutions.  This unfolds during the time when Ehud Barack was the Israeli prime minister and palpable steps towards peace and a two-state solution were evolving.   Laura tells Omar she has found the man he shot (in actuality, her father), that the man is a good person, who has worked for peace and been sympathetic to the Palestinian people.  Eventually Omar shares with her something that maybe could not have come into being without her own outreach: his developing regret and his ultimate sense that he would not make the same choice now that he made as a young man.  This shifts something in Laura – and the nature of that shift becomes clear when Laura comes anonymously to a hearing where Israeli judges are deliberating whether to release Omar early because of health complications he is having from serious asthma.  Laura urges the judges to release him, and reveals before the judges, Omar’s family – who know her so well and yet still not at all – and before Omar himself, her identity as the daughter of the man he shot.  The big reveal.  Like in a scene out of a movie, everyone is shocked, except this is real.  The judges release Omar.  He goes home to his family, and starts his life again.  Soon afterward, her father receives a letter from Omar, who writes “God is good to me that he gets me know your Laura.  She was the mirror that made me see your face as a human person deserved to be admired and respected.”  As Laura writes, that in the end was her revenge – neither an eye for an eye, nor turn the other cheek.  She found a third way:  transformation.  She learned revenge doesn’t have to be about destroying your enemy;  it can mean transforming him – and yourself.  Because it wasn’t possible for one of them to change without the other.  The change required the relationship, and the impact of the relationship on them both, in order to happen at all.

This story has such implications for us now.  In the midst of one of the oldest and most poisonous conflicts in the world, understanding and relationship are created.  Laura goes with her father, years later, to visit the Khatib family and clearly what has happened is still important, still central to both families.  They have created ties that bind, that last, even amidst the betrayal and violence of the escalating situation between Israel and Palestine.

This is not some parable of hope for those people, or those nations, over there.  It not a story of hope at all, unless we see ourselves in the story.  If people in Israel and Palestine do not see themselves, it is not their story – and it is not their hope.  If we here do not see ourselves, our own grudges and reasons and the violence we do to each other, then it is not our story either, and not our hope.  Will we guard, like the Nuer people, against sharing or breaking bread with those against whom we must stand?  What about that insidious capacity for hospitality and connection to create bonds?  If people can forgive, regret, change, grow, connect, commit, care, across all that they have been through and done to each other, then it can be done, then any of us might do that.  And if it can be done, then we too must renew our commitment to see in those we dislike or disrespect “a human being to be admired and respected.”  That kind of experience can never be a one-way street.

None of us has the luxury of being faint-hearted.  We just can’t do it, not now, not with things as they are. But also, we are none of us helpless, and we are even less helpless together.  So feel what you are feeling about the challenges we face, feel all of it and do what you need to do about all that you feel. In the end, whenever you are ready, we have bridges to build, understanding to establish, messages to give to and to receive from those we do not understand, who do not understand us.  We cannot live – in any sense – despite each other.  We have to live with each other.  And so we must, and so we will, find our ways forward.  A lot of bad things – the Standing Rock confrontation, police killings of black people, domestic terrorism, happened even while a president I admire and value was in office.  Good things have happened even in the past year, including many powerful affirmations of the rights of women and immigrants whatever their legal status and most recently a gun control bill just enacted here in Rhode Island. There are many ways forward for us as a faith community, as citizens of this state and of this country.  Some of the ways will be forged with strength.  Some of them will be forged with resistance.  Some of them will be forged with courage.  Some of them will be forged with openness.  Some of them will be forged with gentleness.  Some of them will be forged with questions and with care.  Some of them will be forged with compromise.  Some of them will be fueled by compassion and some of them will be fueled even by anger.  Every way forward that creates collaboration, that offers understanding, that requires growing our selves and our numbers until we win what we want, all these will inevitably require, at some point, forgiveness.  Forgiveness, is not weakness.  Forgiveness allied with vision and commitment is strength.

I wish I had a crystal ball to show me the way to what we want and need to be, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  That has ever been the promise we hold up.  We cannot let it go. We will not let it go.  May we be wise and strong, wiser and stronger, in the years before us. May we remember the astounding truth that anyone can journey from vengeance to hope, from loathing to love.  May we remember this not about our ‘enemies’ but for ourselves. May we remember as surely as we are here together this morning, that we are blessed, blessed.  We have gifts and we have strength and we are here, look at each other, we are in this, in this time, on this journey, thank god, together.  Amen.

Opening Words

Welcome every one, every soulful one of you who is with us this morning.  Welcome to you who come weary and oppressed, or awake and hopeful.  Welcome to you have come feeling nothing, wishing to feel something.  Welcome to you who are feeling joy in the blessed sunshine and the turning of the season.  Welcome to you new comers, and to you longtime members who will invite someone new to sit or talk or have coffee this morning.  Welcome and take a breath.  If you have come here this day, you are where you need to be.  May our community offer communion for your soul.  May our sanctuary offer respite for your mind and heart.  May our words and our music offer inspiration and possibilities to your psyche.  May we all gain a little bit of what we all need, together.   This is the day we have been given.  May we make the very most of it, starting now, together.

Benediction:   – Thich Nhat Hanh

Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other. With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.