We originally produced “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness” in the bitter midst of the 2008 election season. And when we first decided on the current program schedule just weeks ago, we had no idea that this show would land in another dramatic moment of recriminatory public emotion, over health care and other issues, in an already charged political climate.
Now, as during that first time, I am grateful for Michael McCullough’s decidedly real-world vigor and clear-sightedness. I’d been intrigued by what I knew of his research, and I was hooked by this line at the beginning of his book, Beyond Revenge:
“I wrote this book for people who want to bypass all of the pious-sounding statements about the power of forgiveness, and all of the fruitless sermonizing about the destructiveness of revenge. It’s for people who want to see human nature for what it really is.”
As I’ve said many times before, part of my passion for the spiritual and religious aspect of life is my delight in the fact that here we dwell solemnly not only on God but on what is ordinary and human; we attempt to see human nature for what it really is, and find meaning and possibility right there.
I first began to gain a solemnity about the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of Speaking of Faith, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge is the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to regulate cycles of violence.
The ancient “eye for an eye” teaching of the Hebrew Bible — which is often cited as a justification for extreme revenge — arose in this context. It was not designed to champion extreme punishment, but to limit revenge in terms of equity and fairness — as in, “you may not slaughter the entire family of the person who harmed you or your loved one; you may only take an eye for an eye.”
And now, as Michael McCullough lays out expertly and passionately, science is able to document how normal, and in a sense, how sensible, our instinct for revenge is. It has served a purpose in human life and in the primate world. We are hard-wired for what looks in the brain like a “craving” for revenge, a felt need that begs for satiation. And though we do range in this conversation into the realms of global geopolitics and murderous revenge on a societal scale, Michael McCullough is more interested perhaps in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our interactions with obnoxious neighbors and irritating co-workers or, for example, the political candidates we oppose.
He notes that Americans have a tendency to see revenge as a mark of cultures more primitive than their own. But he points out, provocatively, that, between 1974 and 2000, 61 percent of all school shootings in the U.S. had revenge — often for bullying — as a trigger.
Here is the good news: science is also revealing how forgiveness, like revenge, is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — and even those we don’t love but need to work with — a hundred times a day without ever glorifying these moments with the lofty word “forgiveness.” School shootings, ethnic slaughter, and road rage garner headlines, skewing our sense of our collective character. But, Michael McCullough says, forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion.
Actually, he says, we forgive, in good part, because it is in the interests of our genetic pool to do so. The evolutionary pay off for the forgiveness of mistakes by people we are close to or whose work we depend upon, for example, is survival. Michael McCullough says to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about human nature and evolutionary biology. And he has the science to give us a more complex imagination about both.
This is science, in other words, that liberates us from reductive analyses of human nature; — that is to say, of ourselves and those around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, we have more control over both. Among the practical tools McCullough offers for moving forward in this way, here is one of the most simple and challenging: we embolden the forgiveness instinct when we come to see others as having value. In this light, religious traditions have more than straight teachings on forgiveness to offer up to our culture. Perhaps more practically, they have rich, ancient, cross-generational resources for seeing, knowing, and honoring the dignity of “the other,” whether enemy or friend, neighbor or stranger.
On the cautionary side of McCullough’s insight, there is a realization that, under the right conditions, we are all vulnerable to falling back on revenge as a form of justice. This helps explain the fact that sectarian cycles of revenge often erupt after the fall of dictatorships, like that of Saddam Hussein; such regimes take all the revenge function on themselves and keep normal human dynamics artificially in check. McCullough’s science makes a sobering case for the necessity of the basic rule of law — in Iraq or in an American inner city — if human beings are to live up to their moral potential.
The need to understand the instincts for revenge and forgiveness, and to govern them, may be attaining a new urgency in a globalized world, and one that is in the midst of protracted economic turmoil. I know that Michael McCullough’s analysis has been ringing in my ears — anchoring both my concerns and my hopes — as I’ve watched that ongoing financial crisis unfold, and as I consider the unabated polarization of American political culture.