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Forgiveness – Ordinary Acts
Many religious and cultural belief systems firmly observe “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Exodus 21:23-27. The phrase expresses the principle of retributive justice, also known as lex talionis (Latin for “law of retaliation”). The premise of this form of law is the principle of proportionality in punishment, often expressed in the adage “make the punishment fit the crime”, and applies in particular to mirror-image punishment (which may or may not be proportional). The non-biblical form of this principle has its roots in the belief that one of the purposes of the law is to provide fair retribution to the offended party. It defines and limits the scope of reprisals. This early belief is reflected in the Code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament law (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:18-20, Deuteronomy 19:21).
The “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” rule in the Old Testament, especially in Judaism, is often interpreted as equivalent monetary compensation, even excluding mirror image punishment.
Mahatma Gandhi commented on lex talionis: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and soon the whole world will become blind and toothless.” Gandhi had a logical point.
Considered difficult to do in practice, many belief systems (Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism) teach people to forgive those who have wronged them rather than seek retribution. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus said:
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not fight against the wicked. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him. If anyone wants to accuse you , take your coat, and let him take it too. If someone forces you to walk a mile, go with him two miles, give what you ask, and don’t take what you borrow. (Matthew 5:38 -42, NIV)
“Turn the other cheek” is often interpreted as a person allowing himself/herself to be abused. No one wants to be abused, so this misconception fuels the belief that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is our “God-given right”. Many thought only pacifists would turn the other cheek. “Turn the other cheek” means avoiding kindness—that is, revenge.
Other belief systems adhere to similar concepts, such as Taoist Wuwei, which encourages wronged individuals to simply accept the violation and take minimal “resistance” actions to correct it, if any action is required. Buddhism emphasizes the weight of karma: a person can take retributive actions, but retributive actions are not without consequences, and living on a finite planet guarantees that the pain caused by retributive actions will be returned to the wronged individual (and the wrongdoer ). Some people believe in the golden rule of morality, not any law of revenge.
Ordinary acts of forgiveness can be observed on a daily basis, however, it is the least reported news. On October 3, 2006, ABC television anchor Charles Gibson interviewed several Amish families after a gunman killed five girls and seriously wounded six others. Responding in a way that might seem foreign to most of us: They’re just talking about Monday’s school shooting from the perspective of forgiveness. “We just wanted to support each other and try to make it fit,” said Dorothy King, 17. “
This commonplace act of forgiveness only aired for fifteen minutes. And the retaliatory blow to the World Trade Center (9/11) attack on the chest has received hundreds of hours of airtime—news reports, interviews, and movies. We see President George W. Bush standing at the World Trade Center, megaphone in hand, and college athletes parading through the streets, shouting retaliatory remarks. No wonder most people view revenge as the accepted and honorable way to react to a grave wrong—despite what their religion or integrity may represent.
Behind all the sensationalism, gore, and popular headlines about revenge beating hides another wonderful story about ordinary forgiveness.
Despite the environmental, physical, and psychological toll that reminded the Vietnamese of the war every day, they practiced forgiveness for America.
Many American soldiers have returned to Vietnam to express regret and seek forgiveness. Without exception, these soldiers were amazed at the undeniable forgiveness they received. For the Vietnamese, forgiveness is the only answer to move on. The Vietnamese and the Chinese fought for a thousand years, the French for a hundred years, and the Americans for 1962-1975. They celebrate the end of years of violence and war – their country is now at peace. They helped each other accept the tragedy without adding to the grief and pain.
On June 21, 2005, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai visited the White House. This was the first time a Vietnamese leader visited the White House after the end of the Vietnam War. He said that the relationship between the two countries had “entered a new stage of development.”
Mr. Kay and President Bush announce that Mr. Bush will visit Vietnam for the Asia Summit. Bush is the second president, after Bill Clinton, to visit the country since the end of the war in 1975. The prime minister’s meeting with the president marked 10 years since the normalization of relations between the long-running warring parties. The United States has become Vietnam’s largest trading partner, with a merchandise trade volume of US$6.4 billion in 2004.
While these examples of forgiveness are associated with horrific acts of violence, there are thousands of other stories of people forgiving offenders. These stories may appear on the back cover of a newspaper or never be reported. They don’t necessarily need to be reported, either. However, in our journey, each of us has a responsibility to learn the art and act of forgiveness, and to seek out the stories of those who have chosen to forgive, no matter the hurt or pain. They can be your role models.
If the Amish and Vietnamese can do it, so can you.
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