Evil or Shortsighted?
It was reported this week that, after several failed attempts, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses was successfully burned down. What is it that gets into someone and prompts them to make several attempts to burn down a Kingdom Hall? Why does a person do something so drastic? What good reason could they possibly have for causing such damage? Is it because this person is evil? Or could it be that the person who set fire to the building was responding to some deep hurt they’ve experienced which they attribute to the persons who attended that Kingdom Hall?
Taking a Lesson from My Children
When my two boys were quite small, they’d often start fighting in the back seat of the car. They would be taking turns hitting each other in a never-ending cycle of retaliation. When I would ask them to stop hitting each other, one boy would hit the other while exclaiming, “But he hit me!” The other boy would hit back saying, “You hit me first!” Then they would continue hurling pain-balls at one another, both arguing the same thing: “No! YOU hit ME FIRST!”
Because my two boys were only looking at each other through the lens of their own hurt, the both of them were locked in a futile struggle of trying to end the violence by doing one more act of violence. I’ll admit that my own cultural programming and religious upbringing had left me as shortsighted as they were. It wasn’t easy for me to develop an understanding that they were both in distress and doing the best they knew how at the time to try and meet their needs for fairness, and self-advocacy. It took time and effort to learn to see them not as evil children, but as shortsighted.
Learning from the Semai
Over in Southeast Asia there lives a remarkable tribe of gentle people known as the Semai.1 They have almost zero violence in their culture. From birth on, their children live in an environment where it is considered taboo to ever hit another person. To Semai parents, it is abhorrent to ever think of hitting their children for any reason. If you ask them why a person would never think to hit another, the answer is: “What if he hits me back?”
To my mind their logic is clear and simple. Comparing the level of insight and awareness of the Semai people to that of our Western Culture, it becomes apparent to me that we have learned to be extremely shortsighted. I believe that’s because in our culture we have been taught to believe the myth of redemptive violence,2 whereas the Semai people understand that violence only ever begets more violence, and so in their culture it’s intuitively understood that the best way to avoid violence is by simply refusing to act violently. Thus they never need to try and stop others from acting violently. Every individual stops only themselves. These people have no police and no formal government. They simply do not need them.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence
Redemptive violence is the idea that violence can and must be used to defeat evil. And where do we find evil? We don’t find it. We assign it. Who do we assign it to? To the persons we blame for our pain. Once we’ve identified evil, we believe we must do whatever it takes to stop it, even if that means adopting violent methods ourselves. Does it work? No, because once we’ve used violence against another person, they will blame us for their pain, and then identify us as the new evil that must be stamped out by whatever means it takes. So long as one person chooses to see another person as evil rather than shortsighted, the shortsightedness of both parties will keep the cycle of pain fueled, and both parties are going to suffer pain, and continue to inspire pain in each other.
Such a shortsighted cycle of pain will only end when one person is able to choose to look towards the future rather than looking only at their past hurt. That’s what the Semai people are doing when they respond: “What if he hits me back?” By changing how we look at the problem, we change the problem. We are thus able to start a cycle of goodwill towards the other. All we have to do is to choose to stop labeling persons as evil, and begin to see them as persons who are in pain, and as person’s who don’t know how to escape the cycle of pain. By curing our own shortsightedness within ourselves, we can then show them by example how to escape the cycle. When we demonstrate caring curiosity about their pain, we are able to help them stop seeing us as a source of potential pain. They can begin to see us as a source of healing and safety.
It’s important to note that holding a caring interest or curiosity about someone’s pain does not mean we must accept responsibility (the blame) for their pain. It only requires of us that we accept responsibility for choosing to not add to their pain.
Uhm, yeah, OK, but…
OK, but how about someone who hurts or offends us personally, deliberately? Do we see that person as evil because we believe they knew their actions would be hurtful to us but they chose to do them to us anyway? Or can we see them as someone who is shortsighted, and who isn’t very skilled at expressing their pain in ways that inspire us to care about them? The truth is, even if we know for sure that someone intended to do some action, we still don’t know what they intended or hoped to accomplish by doing it.
For example, I might deliberately choose to cut you with a very sharp knife. I might even admit to that in a court of law, and so now everyone knows it was a deliberate act on my part. But was I cutting you to kill you? Or to save you from a snakebite? Knowing that someone’s actions were deliberate and intentional does not reveal what their objective was.
So when someone deliberately burns down a Kingdom Hall, was it done for the exclusive enjoyment of hurting others? Or was it arguably a poorly conceived strategy for trying to educate and protect others? Was it an evil person hard at work in the service of evil, or a hurting person who in desperation resorted to doing something we recognize as having an evil impact? Does the fact that they made a deliberate choice to set fire to someone else’s property make them evil, or only give evidence that suggests they are shortsighted?
Since the question could be asked, “Who hurt who first?” I choose to see this person as one who is in great pain and who doesn’t know any other way to “talk” about their pain. Even if this person deliberately chose to set fire to this building out of a desperate desire for revenge, isn’t that precisely what revenge of any kind is all about: hurling a pain-ball back at someone because you believe they hurled one at you?
What makes Redemptive Violence so Attractive?
So how is it we come to see revenge and retaliation as viable options? Why does is seem crucial to us to educate others about our pain? Why do we believe that by hurting others we can redeem everyone from suffering? I believe it stems from the fact that when we’ve been hurt by someone, some of the things we desperately want to know are:
- Did that person intended to hurt us?
- Do they intend to hurt us again?
- Did they enjoy hurting us?
- Did they even know that they hurt us, or how they hurt us?
- Do they care that we were hurt?
- Will we be safe around them in the future?
But those questions seem to put all the power in the hands of the other person. We are at their mercy, so to speak. So in order to re-empower ourselves, and in an effort to “help encourage them” to make choices that are more merciful for us, it often seems reasonable to conclude that if the person who hurt us could just experience some of our pain for a moment, they’d know and understand what it feels like. If they could just see things a little more from our perspective then maybe they’d be more inclined to provide us with the safety we are needing and wanting. And so sometimes we try to choreograph circumstances to create opportunities for them to learn about our pain. I’m sure that’s what my boys were doing when they were exchanging blows. Are we to be considered evil for wanting to educate someone who is oblivious to the fact that they have hurt us? Are they evil for having been oblivious to the fact that their actions hurt us?
We sort of hope that if they gain firsthand knowledge of our pain then it will deter them from causing us that kind of pain in the future because they won’t want us to cause them that kind of pain in return. It sounds somewhat plausible, but what we’re really expecting them to do is the very thing we are not yet doing ourselves, namely: asking ourselves the question, “What if he hits me back?”
That’s where the Semai people handle things very differently. Rather than waiting and hoping the other person will ask, “What if he hits me back?” they ask that question of themselves. Sadly, when my two boys were hurling pain-balls back and forth at each other, they were only ever feeling the pain of the last pain-ball they had been hit with. They never seemed to make the connection that if they threw another pain-ball back, the other person might be inspired to throw another one, too.
As do I, the Semai people believe one simple truth: No one ever enjoys being hurt. Not me. Not you. And so whenever I’m asked why I work so hard to see people not as evil but as shortsighted, I answer, “If I choose to see the other person as evil, it’s unlikely the cycle of pain is never going to be broken; it’s only going to escalate. I don’t ever want my own shortsightedness to tempt me to hurl a pain-ball at anyone.”
And when I’m asked why I want to work so hard at never hurling a pain-ball at anyone, I remember the simple wisdom of the Semai people and answer, “What if they throw one back?”
2See “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” by Water Wink http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml