A truth that we remain hell-bent on denying — violence begets violence

Last week I came across an address I gave in March 2004, exactly 20 years ago. In that address I reflected on the killing that week of the then leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Yassin was killed by the first of three missiles launched from an Israeli helicopter as he returned home in his wheelchair from morning prayers at a local mosque. Ariel Sharon, who was then prime minister of Israel had ordered the attack. He subsequently declared that Israel would not relent in its war on terror and indicated that there would be more targeted attacks and raids. Palestinian voices, meanwhile, vowed that there would be revenge on the ‘‘sons of Zion’’. A statement was issued by Hamas warning that the assassination would ‘‘open the gates of hell’’, a declaration which pointed to another wave of suicide attacks against Israel.

Twenty years on, the script has not changed. There is no surprise in this. Thousands of years of human history have revealed a truth that we remain hell-bent on denying: violence begets violence, revenge merely breeds a new generation of fighters determined to avenge the killing of their parents. We have seen this script played out on the stage of world history time and time again. Wherever the logic of retribution holds sway the prospect of peace is washed away in rivers of blood.

Is there any way to escape this murderous cycle? There is; but to take this alternative way requires a courage and a faith that is easily mocked and dismissed. It is the way of forgiveness. There have been some in human history who have dared to take this way. We may recall in recent history the courage of Nelson Mandela who, inspired by his Christian faith, refused to retaliate against the violence and injustice done to him but followed the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

On becoming president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and gave it a mandate to grant amnesty to the perpetrators of violence who were prepared to tell the truth about the crimes they had committed. Archbishop Tutu subsequently wrote a book titled No Future Without Forgiveness.

Critics can point to flaws in the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and not all its desired outcomes were achieved, but it is generally agreed that it accomplished much more on the way to peace and reconciliation in South Africa than a retributive approach could ever have done.

Archbishop Tutu’s book points us to a truth that the course of human history has confirmed many times over. Retribution and revenge in the face of violence can bring no peace. The scales of retribution can never be balanced. If there is to be a future that is not merely a repetition of the violent past, if there is to be a true and lasting peace, someone must have the faith and the courage to forgive. Someone must have the faith and the courage to say, ‘the violence stops with me’. Someone must be prepared to lay down their arms and to bear the cost of leaving unavenged the violence done to them.

One of the things towards which the Christian season of Lent directs our attention is the different way taken by Jesus through the world’s violence and pain. He suffered violence himself and yet responded differently. He responded with love for those who tormented him and with forgiveness for those who crucified him.

Such a way is extravagant, outrageous, and open to derision. It overturns the idea that we ought to meet violence with violence and deal with people according to their just deserts. But it is a risky way. Perhaps in the face of love, in the face of forgiveness, enemies will simply mock and deride some more. Perhaps they will!

And yet, so Christians believe, we are called to take that way by the Lord who says, do not remember the former ways or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:18-19). To follow in the way of Christ, takes faith and courage. It is easier to follow the ways of old, to hit back, to seek revenge, to meet hatred with hatred. But on that road nothing will ever be healed; nothing will ever change.

I have suggested that it takes both faith and courage to pursue the way of forgiveness. It takes courage, clearly enough, to lay down one’s arms with no guarantee that the enemy will also lay down theirs. But it also takes faith. It takes faith because the outcome of such actions are beyond the control of the person who forgives. To forgive is to trust the outcome to a power beyond oneself. It is to trust the outcome to God.

The way of forgiveness can easily be mocked and dismissed. So be it. The alternative in the face of the world’s brutality and violence is simply more of the same.

 Murray Rae is Professor of Theology at the University of Otago.