Compassion and Revenge
A truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively or hurt you. Whether one believes in a religion or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion.
-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
-- Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi (મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી)
The idea of justice in revenge is as old as it is biological. We naturally rise to our defense of course, and we are inclined to protect against future harm, too, by penalty against the offender, by revenge.
The Code of Hammurabi from the ancient city of Babylon is one of the oldest systems of justice for which we have historical record; it is roughly 3,760 years old. The code specifies penalties for many crimes and injuries. In it, the general concept of taking an eye for an eye is well established. For example, see rule 229 as translated into English:
If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
In many cases, the penalty for causing death in ancient Babylon was death. In modern China similarly, it was announced today that two men who caused the deaths of six babies will themselves be put to death by the government. The two men are also responsible for causing the illness of many thousands of babies, through the sale of contaminated milk. It was the death of six babies though, which justified under Chinese law that these two men should also die.
In most modern legal systems, intent is a critical element to justice. If a criminal or offender did not specifically intend to cause someone's death, then the offender would not deserve a penalty of death. In ancient times though, and still in some modern societies, losing an eye is justification enough for taking an eye, metaphorically and sometimes literally.
Much of the justification for taking an eye for an eye is rooted in religious texts. In the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible's Old Testament, there are several scriptural statements of supernatural support for revenge. From Deuteronomy 19:21:
Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
From the Third Book of Moses, Leviticus 24:20:
Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
Among Christians, taking an eye for an eye is not only an Old Testament ethic, it is also prevalent in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, for example. However, there is a contradictory Christian ethic of "turning the other cheek." In the literal sense, that is to say if you are offended by a slap to your cheek, then you should not attempt revenge by slapping the offender's cheek. Instead, you should offer your other cheek.
One later use of the phrase was in "the Sermon on the Mount," which to underline the contradiction, is also in the Gospel of Matthew, 5:38-42. Jesus is quoted:
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
This leaves Christians understandably vexed by what is right or wrong according to their religion. The Jewish Torah, and Talmudic law drawing from it, is not a list of certain penalties per each offense, like the Code of Hammurabi. The Torah is a debate. The Gospel of Matthew continues this Jewish tradition, for Christians. In the Christian Bible, one god -- Jesus -- is disagreeing with the ethical rules set forth by another god, his father -- generally referred to simply as "God."
Islam, its religious scripture, and its derivative Sharia law take a clearer position on the question of revenge, including that they specifically and literally address taking an eye for an eye. There are many modern examples of Muslims who suffered the loss of sight due to a crime and demanded that the criminal's sight be taken in return.
Muhammad directly criticized Jewish ambivalence on the matter and cited their ethic of taking an eye for an eye as correct justice. From the Qur'an, 5:45:
And We ordained therein for them: Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth and wounds equal for equal.
Can't we all just get along? Sure, says Islam, that is an option -- left for the victim of a crime or offense to decide. The Qur'an continues from the above:
But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiation.
An expiation is supernatural forgiveness for something you have done wrong, a sin. If you have done something wrong, and if you have suffered wrongdoing, then under Sharia law, you can morally account for what you did wrong by not requiring punishment for the wrongdoing you suffered.
The Dalai Lama today rejects even Islam's more precise and developed ethic of revenge. He rejects categorically that religious belief, or the lack of religious belief, can be justification for taking revenge. He states as a matter of universal ethics that your own compassion cannot be affected by someone else's wrongdoing.
The Dalai Lama is taking an ethical position for which we have another handy cliché: "Two wrongs don't make a right." He is saying that the law is separate from the person, that what is right or wrong on the question of revenge does not depend on one's own emotions nor does it depend on circumstance -- though at times it may feel otherwise, revenge is simply wrong.
CompassionRise seeks, then tests compassionate wisdom. Often the wisest words are simple, able at once to settle the dust swirling from thousands of years of heated debate between billions of people.
Mahatma Gandhi or as CompassionRise will more often refer to him, Gandhiji, offers a practical perspective on the Dalai Lama's ethical measurement. Modernly we often discuss sustainability, and Gandhiji is saying in a sense that revenge is not sustainable:
An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
In his writing “Non-Violence in Peace and War," Gandhiji wrote as pragmatically about violence not between individual people, but between peoples:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?