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WORLDVIEW: The sweetest revenge is mercy

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–In the 1970s, Zhou Enlai, communist China’s elder statesman and foreign minister, was asked to assess the historical impact of the French Revolution of 1789.

Zhou paused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

“Too soon to tell,” he replied.

When you’re part of a 4,000-year-old culture, you take the long view. That’s an alien concept to Americans; we have a hard time remembering who won the last Super Bowl — or waiting for the next one. Regardless of the issue or task at hand, we like to deal with it and “move on.”

Problem is, the world won’t “move on” with us.

Only recently did China and South Korea tentatively settle a dispute over the borders of the kingdom of Koguryo, which ruled parts of both lands –- from 37 B.C. to A.D. 668. In the heart of modern Europe, the Balkan wars of the 1990s resulted in part from religious and ethnic hatreds spawned a millennium ago.

After surviving ideologies born in the 19th and 20th centuries (communism, fascism), the West now finds itself under sustained attack by medieval warriors with modern weapons. One of their aims: to re-establish a grand Islamic empire that went into decline centuries before Karl Marx was born.

These warriors also want revenge -– not just for current U.S support of Israel or foreign military presence in the land of Mecca, but for the expulsion of Muslims from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. They aren’t likely to win, but they could heavily damage the delicate machinery of international order before they’re defeated.

Revenge has a long shelf life.

The desire for revenge grips people –- from the driver who gets cut off in traffic to the victims of great injustice. It becomes part of the historical memory of whole nations. Unchecked, it becomes obsession. Over time, its exact origins become distorted, expanded into mythologies of grievance, perhaps even forgotten –- but seldom abandoned. The branches of the tree of bitterness keep blooming.

Revenge is in no hurry. If you can’t get it in this generation, there’s always the next. “We ain’t forgettin,’” some Confederate diehards still say, nearly 140 years after the Civil War. Avenging agents abound in literature and pop culture: Iago, Shylock, Dirty Harry, Rambo, “Kill Bill.”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” the saying goes.

One of Bill Cosby’s best childhood stories recounts his detailed plan for getting even with a kid who hit him in the head with a big snowball. Before winter ended, Cosby painstakingly sculpted a monster snowball and hid it in the back of the family freezer. His fiendish intention: to deliver it at high speed to his rival’s head on the hottest day of the following summer. Cosby’s mom ruined the plot by thawing his snowball in the sink before he got a chance to use it.

But he enjoyed thinking about sweet revenge for months.

According to new findings by scientists at the University of Zurich, the impulse for revenge actually stimulates the dorsal striatum — a part of the brain that plays a key role in the emotions of enjoyment and satisfaction.

Forgiveness really is divine; it sure isn’t human.

No wonder loving enemies is so hard. But it’s the way of the Lord, who has a very long memory. He, being righteous, chooses to forgive those who seek His mercy. And He commands His people to proclaim the offer of mercy to all –- even enemies. He sent Jonah to preach to the wicked Ninevites, who repented in sackcloth in ashes. Jonah wanted God to destroy them; God wanted to redeem them. He sent Jesus Christ to save those who had already betrayed Him many times.

In a time of war and terror, American Christians must remember mercy. We’re citizens of a great democracy — second. First, we’re subjects of an absolute monarchy: the Kingdom of God.

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him a drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).

His justice will come in His time. Until then, mercy triumphs over our justice.

“Living well is the best revenge,” wrote George Herbert, the 17th-century Anglican poet and priest. For the follower of Christ, living well is living in forgiveness –- and showing mercy as it has been shown to us.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges