A Dish Best Not Served

‘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.


12 thoughts on “A Dish Best Not Served”

  1. Very very helpful especially in the circumstances which I, my family and my friends are now trying to resolve. We are trying to reach Truth, Justice and Reconciliation. Please pray for us. Thank you.

  2. Well, the best example I have seen, with regard to Macguiness, was the moment the Queen shook his hand. Prince Philip skipped around the line up. Both had a very good reason to loathe Macguiness. I am not sure M had changed, he was pardoned by our government in order to make peace.

  3. A beautiful post — as always. However, it is time to bring up a few points. Foremost is the fact that we have been made aware of IRA/Republican violence, but what is being largely ignored is the equally violent activities of the British security services and their collusion with loyalist gangs. We will probably never learn just how extensive this was – that it happened at all is an indelible blot on the honor and integrity of all British people.

    Another point about Martin – he was one of the few people with the experience and the credibility with both Loyalists and Republicans to bring about a truce which has largely held up. His experience as a street fighter was an essential element of his success in dealing with the people who were actually doing the bombing and the killing (on both sides). The most tragic aspect of this situation is the fact it could and should have been avoided. The British government chose to pursue a disasterous course. It is not the first time the English marched into Ireland and suffered the consequences. I hope and pray that this is, indeed, the last time.

    • I am not prepared to argue the rights or wrongs of British policy in Northern Ireland which is entirely outside the scope of this post, although, as a historian, I find some of what you say contentious. I think your response is an example of something I’ve touched on before: the desire to move the subject of discussion from what is proposed to something of more interest to the commentator but which carries with it the danger of perpetuating the very kind of entrenched hostility I’m arguing against.

  4. Well said (again). Forgiveness does not mean that the offence/abuse was right. It means choosing not to allow the offender to continue to affect our lives, by leaving judgement/justice to God. Is is easy? No. However, NOT forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.
    End of sermon! Blessing sisters

  5. Thoughtful and helpful, as always, D. Catherine. As you say, forgiveness is anything but wishy-washy. It is extraordinarily hard, especially in a case where great wrong has been done by someone who shows no remorse, or indeed any acknowledgement of wrong done at all. (I am speaking from my own experience and am not specifically referring to Martin McGuinness.) Forgiveness in such circumstances can be reached only through prayer, I think. It is impossible, at least for me, without God’s grace. And in making this difficult journey I am also forced to confront some of the wrongs I have done to others. Again, prayer and grace seem the only hope.

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