(Originially written in April 2004) The announcement of last weekend's movie box-office receipts certainly caught our attention. Predictably, at the top was Kill Bill, Vol. 2, director Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent saga starring Uma Thurman as a former assassin who, after being shot at her wedding, embarks upon a rampage of revenge, killing all her former colleagues and finally getting to her main target, Bill, the boss and the father of her child. In second place was The Punisher, about an ex-FBI agent who gets even with the crime boss who wiped out his family.
"A very big weekend for revenge," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, according to an Associated Press story. "Revenge in movies is very cinematic. Everyone lives vicariously through characters in movies, and they can safely get their revenge fix without actually doing it themselves."
So now revenge has become a "fix," something considered to be quite normal in daily life. To cash in on moviegoers' fascination with violent retribution, Denzel Washington's new film, Man on Fire, about an ex-CIA operative/assassin scheduled to release Friday nationally, was moved up to Wednesday in New York and L.A.
All this in the same week that Israel killed Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantisi for his part in planning suicide bombings in Israel, and Hamas then vowed to commit 100 acts of revenge in response to the assassination. Meanwhile, some politicians continue to encourage the public perception that the War in Iraq is one way to strike back at the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11. And so the eye-for-an-eye cycle continues.
The world's spiritual traditions offer us attitudes and actions to help us deal with both violence and the impulse to revenge. The readings below explore the nature of the problem and what we can each do about it. But first, before some fan of the Kill Bill movies writes to tell us to "lighten up" and recognize that it is "just harmless entertainment," we want to acknowledge that the violence in the movie is presented as exaggerated, comic book-like mayhem, with a dash of horror on the side. But far more impressive than all the kung fu kicks and the ingenious methods used to humiliate and murder would be what is missing in this story — any sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. Along that line, we offer this story, which we found in Anthony de Mello's The Heart of the Enlightened.
"Buddha was once threatened with death by a bandit called Angulimal.
" 'Then be good enough to fulfill my dying wish,' said Buddha. 'Cut off the branch of that tree.'
"One slash of the sword, and it was done! 'What now?' asked the bandit.
" 'Put it back again,' said Buddha.
"The bandit laughed. 'You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.'
" 'On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. That is the task of children. The mighty know how to create and heal."
- John Dear on the Addiction to Violence
John Dear, a Jesuit priest, peace activist, and teacher of nonviolence, argues that in societies and cultures of violence, everyone is so addicted to violence, it seems normal. Soon we are caught up in an uncontrollable, unreflected spirit which divides the human family. The challenge before us is to "topple the idols of violence."
- Sam Keen on Listening to the Cry Beneath Violence
In Faces of the Enemy, his classic book on the hostile imagination, Sam Keen shows how violence results when we do not examine our unacceptable shadow feelings and instead project them on an enemy. We seek scapegoats in our private and public lives so that we do not have to feel our pain. "Every day we are not grieving," he writes, "is a day we will be taking vengeance."
- Mohandas Gandhi on Training in Nonviolence
The master teacher of nonviolence sees this alternative to vengeance as a difficult art requiring training. Calling it "the greatest spiritual force that humanity has known," he links it to love. Even while noncooperating with our opponents, we should try to make them feel that in us they have a friend.
- The Dalai Lama on an Appropriate Counteraction
In "The Future of Peace," Scott A. Hunt interviews some of the world's foremost practitioners of peace. Talking with the Dalai Lama, he learns why holding on to the spirit of revenge will not make you a happy person. What's more, there is an appropriate counteraction which is being modeled today by the Tibetans' response to the Chinese occupation.
- Robert Thurman on Nonretaliation
American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman presents Tibetan practices for a wide variety of situations in "Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well." This one (which we also suggested in the email on "Spiritual Responses to Security Issues") asks you to imagine a situation that many people would respond to by vowing revenge. But what does that lead to? Thurman writes: "How many times throughout human history has someone killed another person's children, and then the victim has immediately turned around and killed the murderer or his children?" This practice will help you fly the "joyful banner of forgiveness."
- Thich Nhat Hanh on Becoming the Pirate
In his classic poem "Please Call Me by My True Names," Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh identified with a girl being raped by a sea pirate and with the pirate. In this excerpt from his book No Death, No Fear, he takes us step-by-step through a process of empathizing with the pirate. Compassion, not revenge, is the best response to violence. "All the suffering of living beings is our own suffering," he writes. "We have to see that we are they and they are us."
- Harold S. Kushner on Letting Go of the Desire for Revenge
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in "Living a Life That Matters" that the thirst for revenge is really a need to reclaim power and to shed the role of victim. He gives an example of how a widow of a Russian poet who died in one of Stalin's prisons was able to let go of the desire for revenge upon the woman who betrayed him.
Occasionally, we will provide you with links to websites where you will find a relevant reading or practice.
- Take a Vow of Nonviolence
Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement, invites you to take a vow of nonviolence, to be renewed annually. Part of the vow is to "refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence."
- Respond to Violence with Kindness at TraditionofKindness.org (Jewish) or PartnersInKindness.org (Non-sectarian)
After his wife, Shoshana, was murdered by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, Shmuel Greenbaum began a project to teach people how to be kinder. You can learn about this on one of his two websites.