How Could They! Revenge and Compassion

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – St. Matthew, King James Version

In October 2006, a lone gunman entered a one-room Amish school in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and killed 10 girls (five others were hospitalized). It turns out the killer had allegedly molested two young girls some years earlier; what is also known factually is that he had a young daughter who had died a premature death – a death for which he never forgave God. He wanted revenge, and he exacted it in that schoolhouse.

What followed is both awe-inspiring to some and mind-numbing to others.

Mired in grief over their loss, the Amish community responded with forgiveness. Folks didn’t blame, seek revenge, run to the nearest law firm to “lawyer up,” rally for gun control or otherwise “act out.” Rather, in their humble and quiet manner, they extended their hand with compassion and grace to the killer’s family to offer comfort for their own pain and suffering. They donated money to the killer’s wife and children. The killer’s family was invited to one of the Amish girl’s funeral; and Amish mourners counted more than the non-Amish at the killer’s funeral.

In December 1998, in Lockerbie, Scotland, a Pan Am Boeing 747 crashed killing 270 of the passengers aboard. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, a Lybian, was convicted of the bombing. This week (August 20th, 2009) he is being released from prison because he has terminal prostate cancer and has just weeks to live. Scotland’s Justice Minister released him on “compassionate grounds.”

A recent non-scientific poll asked readers, “Do you agree with the decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi?” 92% as of this writing responded, “No.”

My sense is that a majority of rational, decent and well-minded human beings would view the Amish response, Scotland’s Justice Minister’s response and the 8% who agreed to release the bomber response as what? Stupid? Outrageous? Soft? Liberal? Foolish? Spiritually inept? Ridiculous? Unbelievable? Unjust? Political posturing , or…?

Bert Ammerman, whose brother Tom was killed on the flight, said the release of Megrahi would be “insane, immoral, (and) reprehensible.” One parent of a daughter who was killed described the release as “appalling, disgusting and so sickening.”

On the other hand, Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing told BBC radio, “I don’t believe the verdict is right. It would be an abominable cruelty to force this man to die in prison.” A local citizen in Lockerbie says of the release, “I think partly out of compassion…he should be allowed out. Life goes on and once a tragedy like this is over people pick up the threads of their lives. And they don’t forget but they don’t dwell on it. Because there’s no earthly point in dwelling on any of this.” Finally, “This is just one little thing that says this is not going to hurt any of us for him to be released and go die with his family,” said Caroline Stevens of Little Rock, Ark., whose son Sandy Phillips, died in the bombing. “We’ve got to look at one another in a more compassionate way and not rely on war and revenge and all that.”

Tragedy, upset and compassion

So, how do you deal with the upsets, tragedies and life’s vicissitudes – large and small – that rock, and have rocked, your life? How do you deal with those at work, at home, and in everyday life who you feel “wrong(ed)” you, treated you unfairly, or damaged your spirit? Do you seek revenge? Do you lash out? Are you an “eye for an eye” type, looking to gain your “pound of flesh?” Or are you forgiving, compassionate and understanding?

We know the Amish, and the parents, relatives and loved ones of the Lockerbie disaster are not “over it.” We know that pain and suffering can remain in their hearts. But, do we need to balance hurt with hate, with revenge, with “getting even?

And for the Amish, the 8%, and those relatives of the Lockerbie victims who agree with the release, we ask, “How could such folks forgive a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against the innocent?”

The role of compassion

We know the Amish culture teaches forgiveness and placing the needs of others before themselves and that there is good in any situation. Vengeance and revenge is not a daily theme or way to deal with life.

They know that hatred is nothing more or less than a poison or a cancer that eats one alive. Forgiveness is what allows one to cope and move forward. Letting go of grudges is what allows them to focus on the work of their own healing.

The Buddhists speak often of compassion. Not a compassion that is airy-fairy, soft, syrupy, but a compassion that allows one to bear the pain of another – to let go of the “me vs. you” struggle we so often allow to justify our need for getting even or to exact our pound of flesh, and to legitimize revenge.

The Dalai Lama wrote, “According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration. It’s a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive, but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (wisdom), and one must experience a deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (loving kindness).”

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with (their own) pain.” – James Baldwin

The Buddhist Monk, Pema Chodrin, says, “In order for us to have compassion for another, we have to have compassion for ourselves.” The way we have compassion for ourselves is not to avoid suffering and seek pleasure, but to directly connect to our own pain and suffering, not avoid it, not deny it, not cover it up, not medicate it, not to blame others for it; and then embrace the suffering of others. When we get in touch with our own pain and suffering and work with it, embrace it, learn from it and heal from it, we can then love ourselves, truly love ourselves, and in the process love others. In working with our pain and suffering we gain a larger and wider perspective on life, we become self-less, and open the door to understanding ourselves and others from a more spiritual, interconnected perspective. We have a larger view of reality, a view that is not emotional, reactive, muddied, or defensive, but a view that sees the oneness of all human beings regardless of their faults and foibles, regardless of the harshness of the words or actions.”

Getting to this place of compassion and forgiveness is one of the reasons we’re on the planet – to transmute our hate into love. Simple, not always easy.

So, some questions for self-reflection are:

· Do you allow the actions of individuals and groups to make you angry, resentful, or hateful. Why?
· What are your greatest fears and why?
· Do you blame others for your state in life?
· Do you have a need not only to get mad when you feel wronged, but get even? Why?
· Do you hold any grudges?
· Do you have a list of folks who have wronged you in life?
· Do you live by an ” eye for an eye” mantra?
· Do you dwell on ways to get revenge on others?
· How did you experience revenge, punishing others and “getting even” when you were growing up? How about compassion and forgiveness?
· Can you envision a world where compassion and forgiveness, rather than revenge, rule the day?

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.” – Barry Lopez