‘Revenge is a dish best served cold,’ say some. Better not served at all, say others. The death of Martin McGuinness has inevitably led to the recalling of painful memories, especially among those old enough to remember the Troubles. There were some harsh verdicts yesterday as well as generous acknowledgement of his part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Some, whose suffering is still raw, spoke with deep feeling and made it clear that they could not really forgive, that there was still something they felt needed to be done to put things right. That need to ‘put things right’ is deeply-rooted in us as human beings, but it takes many forms and often leads to confusion about the difference between justice and revenge.
Revenge isn’t justice. On the contrary, inflicting hurt or harm to ‘pay someone back’ for a wrong or injury they have committed is to commit a further wrong, but we tend to ignore that in the rush of emotion that comes upon us. When I was young any childish squabble was quickly sorted out and frequently accompanied by the pious reminder ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.’ That did, at least, leave open the prospect of little Johnny or Mary sizzling in hell for the crime of the moment. As one grows older, the idea of anyone burning in hell for wrongs done to oneself becomes less attractive because one is only too well aware of all the things weighing in the other side of the balance. But clearly, not everyone feels like that. The thirst for revenge at the individual level can have terrible consequences; when the desire for revenge informs a section of society or a whole people, the consequences can be more terrible still.
The Christian ideal of forgiveness and mercy is often dismissed as ‘unrealistic’ or wishy-washy, especially by those who have not tried to live it. The truth is, it is much harder than revenge or vengeance because at its core is justice, a concern for what is right. To be concerned about what is right takes a great deal of love and sacrifice, but is there really any other option if we are not to destroy ourselves? Martin McGuinness had the courage to change. That does not wipe out the hideous record of the past but it should give us hope for the future. If he could change, surely so can we. Arms can be beaten into plough-shares. Enemies can begin to speak with one another. In short, grace can appear in some surprising places — even the shadowy areas of our own hearts and minds.