eye for eye

In the movie The Interpreter, the character played by Nicole Kidman says, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.”

If we’re honest, most of us have moments where we caste a silent hex on our ex, wishing them a head full of lice or that all their teeth will fall out except the one with a toothache. In our best moments, we know that their pain won’t make us feel any better. In fact we’re only hurting ourselves. This sort of resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. You’re making yourself a victim.

If vengeance is a lazy form of grief, getting your life back on track and restoring your self confidence and life purpose is the best form of grief. Its hard work, getting to the point where you can wish your ex well and really mean it, but its the best thing…….for YOU!

Being lazy with grief applies to broken relationships. It also applies to the far more intense situation of capital punishment. I can fully understand families who have lost family members to horrific crimes advocating the death penalty. I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I suffered this tragedy. An eye for an eye is built deep into our psyches. But as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

I’m against the death penalty for so many reasons. It doesn’t seem to be effective, it doesn’t reduce crime, DNA evidence has exposed the imperfection of the justice system, race is far too connected to death penalty cases, and its MORE expensive than keeping someone in prison for life.

I’m against the death penalty because its a lazy form of grief and a sloppy form of justice. Maybe the greatest reason of all- I’m against the death penalty because it feeds our most primal hunger for vengeance and turns us into the very thing we despise.  I was deeply moved by this letter from a group of Connecticut families who had lost loved ones to murder. They oppose the death penalty. This is some of what they wrote,

The death penalty, rather than preventing violence, only perpetuates it and inflicts further pain on survivors. The reality of the death penalty is that is drags out the legal process for decades. In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system.

The legal system drags out the pain, just as a thirst for vengeance drags out the pain. The point of the justice system should surely be restoration and not vengeance. Vengeance is insatiable. Even when someone is dead, we want to trample on their grave. Vengeance eats us up. We kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. The far higher response is an attempt to restore as much life and hope out of an awful situation as possible.

There is a beautiful story told in  “The Interpreter.” In Africa, the mythical Ku tribe have a powerful practice. They believe that the only way to resolve the loss of life is to save a life. After a year of mourning, they hold a ritual called the drowning man trial. The killer is dropped in the middle of a river with weights attached. He is also bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the victim then has a choice. They can either let him drown or they can save him. The Ku believe that if the family let the killer drown they will have vengeance but they will spend their lives haunted by yet another loss of life. If they save him, and accept their own loss, this very acceptance and act of mercy can start to heal their sorrow.

Why do we send people to prison, and in some cases kill them? Is it to punish them? To protect the rest of us? To send a warning to others? Or to satisfy our desire for vengeance? Until we get clear about the purpose of the justice system, we will continue to ruin lives inside and outside of prison.

If, on the other hand, we get clear about what we hope to achieve, we can create a system that attempts to restore awful situations and everyone involved. We owe it to ourselves to try. With the ever increasing prison populations, the numbers found innocent while on death row, and the struggle to adjust to life after prison, the system as it is now clearly is not working well.

Soon the fate of Colorado theatre shooter James Holmes will be decided. His prosecutors are calling for the death penalty. I hope, for all of our sakes more than his, that this does not happen. We need to rise above violence, to honor the victims of his senseless crime.

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  1. [...] disciplined, something more noble, something harder, yet more of who we want to be – she used a fictional example.  It was a compelling example, until I understood that it was made [...]

  2. Well treated. I feel connected to this piece in a way that almost makes me the writer.
    The death penalty makes us destroyers rather than parternrs in creation. Killing to level grief is just too mechanical, cruel and totally non-rhythmic. A much higher fear lurks on the life of all who carry an act of vengeance because people love their own- not your opinion about them makes them hate them. Our maker hates vengeance because He knows we do not have the right ‘measuring cup’ to met it out. Thus He says : vengeance is mine’. We end up committing a new sin- again punishable by another vengeance. And the cycle revolves. We have a proverb, here in Africa, #Ewe# tribe, which states: ‘if u cry for the victim, cry for the assailant too’ because they both carry burdens. Until such time we overly reformed and become each other’s keepers, there is no abating on crime. No matter wether the one committing it is in his right mind or not. We make us sick anyway. Thank u Ian.