The Noblest Revenge
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
When a nation engages in the politics of revenge, it loses direction and sows the seeds of anarchy. A government must, of course, crack down on nihilists bent on tearing the nation’s fabric through murder and mayhem but the French Revolution taught us that obsessive yearning for revenge in the name of justice can also lead to anarchy.
Anyone who has been wronged – a spouse, a worker, a relative – has to let go at some point to move on with his or her life. Otherwise the grievance becomes an albatross around our neck and makes progress impossible. When an injury in inflicted on us, we never recover until we forgive.
It is the same with nations. A time comes when a leader must say: “Enough! Enough blood has been spilled. Enough hours have been lost. Enough resources have been wasted in the single-minded pursuit of revenge. Now is the time to forgive.”
As Desmond Tutu has said, ‘Without forgiveness, there is no future.’”
Examples of forgiveness and its transformational results abound.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 long and brutal years by the apartheid regime of South Africa. Yet, upon his release in 1990, he forgave his captors and forged reconciliation between blacks and whites in that deeply-divided country.
Gandhi’s non-violent resistance that liberated India from British rule was based on forgiveness. It was Gandhi who said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Martin Luther King, Gandhi’s disciple, also used the spirit of forgiveness to break down racial barriers in the United States.
In each case, the victims had the courage and the imagination to take the moral high ground against their oppressors and achieved victories that would have been impossible through revenge and bloodshed.
All the great religions of the world extol the power of forgiveness. Magnanimity brings people and nations closer to one another and to the Creator. While forgiveness is perfectly consistent with justice, it is also the antidote to cruelty and blood-thirstiness.
In 1996, Serbian forces executed 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. Marking the 10th anniversary of the massacre in 2005, Mustafa Ceric, a Bosnian Imam, delivered an address in Srebrenica, calling for reconciliation. He told mourners and survivors that “revenge is not of our religion” and “revenge is not of the Bosnian way of life.”
Consider this example from Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) life. When the residents of Taif stoned him, so much so that his feet were soaked with blood, he cried out for Divine help. On hearing his plea, God sent angel Gabriel who offered to crush the people of Taif between two mountains. What did the prophet say? “No, I hope that Allah (SWT) will bring out from their offspring people who worship Him alone and associate no partners with Him.” In essence, with his visionary response, the prophet was forgiving the people of Taif, instead of taking revenge against them.
The Quran is suffused with the idea of forgiveness. Just one example will suffice. “The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah, for Allah loves not those who do wrong.” (42:40)
Forgiveness does not come naturally to us. If someone commits a wrong against me, I relish nurturing the grievance and plotting a payback. It appeals to our frail nature to embrace the philosophy of an “eye for an eye.” But as Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Besides, revenge is expensive. You have to deal with the expense of anger, the cost of hate and the waste of the soul. Is it worth it?
Forgiveness must triumph over revenge for the human race to survive. Revenge is short-term while forgiveness is long-term. Revenge may lead to some temporary, tactical gains but for permanent, strategic gains, there is nothing like forgiveness. That is why forgiveness is called the noblest revenge.
Dutch botanist Paul Boese said, “Forgiveness does not change the past but it does enlarge the future.” The reverse is also true. Revenge constricts the future. When a nation puts its resources and its passion at the service of a revenge-driven agenda, its priorities get scrambled and its future darkens.
The Civil War (1851–1865) was the deadliest war in American history. About 620,000 soldiers lost their lives and an undetermined number of civilians suffered casualties. The Union and the Confederate States were the bitterest of enemies and any reconciliation seemed impossible when the war ended.
President Abraham Lincoln could have exacted revenge against the Confederates under the guise of justice. But his goal was loftier: Preservation of the Union and the well-being of all Americans.
In his second inaugural speech on March 4, 1865, in Washington, D.C., Lincoln uttered these immortal words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
The spirit of forgiveness was at the root of these words. It inspired a wounded and divided country to bury the past and move forward as one people, one nation.