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Vengeance or Forgiveness?

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Democrats are going to sweep the November elections. We will elect Joe Biden President; we’ll hold the House; and, with the defeat of at least four Republicans, including Collins in Maine, Ernst in Iowa, Tillis in North Carolina, McSally in Arizona and, just possibly, the odious Auntie Lindsay in South Carolina, we’ll regain control of the Senate.

And then what? Do we extract every ounce of vengeance of which we’re desirous? Or do we ask, as Rodney King famously did a generation ago, Can we all just get along?”

Like all moral and religious questions, the answer isn’t entirely clear and requires thoughtful contemplation. We’ll have the power to be vengeful; under the Constitution, Democrats will be able to do pretty much anything we want: Congressional investigations and trials, impeachments (including of Supreme Court Justices), motions of censure, and criminal and civil prosecutions by the Department of Justice.

But just because you have the power to do something doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes, holding your fist back, when you really want to smash that guy in the face, is the right thing to do. As T.F. Hodge, a blogger and writer (and former Marine) wrote, “It takes incredible strength not to open a can of ‘whoop-ass’, justifiably, when one’s button is pushed.”

Why would we not want to open a can of whoop-ass on Republicans? After all, “vengeance” is the basis of human law: when criminals transgress society’s standards of decency, society has the right and the obligation to punish that person, in a manner that fits the crime. It’s been that way throughout history, and rightfully so. “If anyone injures his neighbor,” says Leviticus, “whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”

Of course, that was the Old Testament, whose God was a God of Vengeance. Then along came a smart young Jewish man, Jesus, who sort of switched things around in the Sermon on the Mount, “with turn the other cheek” and “if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” He seems to have implied that vengeance is a very bad thing and should be avoided. On the other hand, that same Jesus didn’t exactly turn the other cheek and forgive the money lenders in the temple when he scourged them with a whip of cords.

It’s common in Biblical exegesis to explain this apparent contradiction by saying that Jesus was not being “vengeful” but was merely expressing “righteous indignation.” But to tell you the truth, I’m hard put to tell the difference. When the victorious Allies hung all those Nazis at Nuremberg after World War II, were they being “vengeful” or expressing “righteous indignation”? From the point of view of lawyers, this is a legal nicety. But I doubt that it mattered to the men who were hung.

Following the election there’s going to be a lot of retrospection. It will become apparent that, when they were in charge, Republicans did some of the worst things in American political history. McConnell’s blockage of Merrick Garland was the most despicable act regarding a Supreme Court nominee in my lifetime. Homophobes like Pence, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Sonny Perdue and Rick Perry violate every human right we know. The white supremacy and xenophobia of Republican racists like Steve King, Rand Paul and Stephen Miller is repugnant to all decent people. I’m incapable of listing the endless, exhaustive list of Trump crimes, including his stupid, pointless lies; he has been the most divisive president in U.S. history, at a time when we need to be together more than ever.

People refer to the “politics of grievance.” Usually it’s Republicans, complaining about those darned Negroes who are always bitching and moaning, or those wacky queers who want to force Christian bakers to make their wedding cakes, or those Commie environmentalists who want to close a coal mine in order to protect a snail, or those crippled people who whine they can’t get around the streets. It’s not like the Republicans don’t have their own set of grievances; we all know what they are. And that’s fine: Grievance is human. Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, is filled with the grievances outlined by Jefferson: his famous list of 27 “Facts” is nothing but a series of grievances.

But there are petty grievances and then there are grievous grievances. Buses running late is a petty grievance. What the Nazis did was a grievous grievance, and so was American slavery. Republicans commit grievous grievances, and Democrats want to punish them for it. Does that make us “vengeful”? I’m extraordinarily angry at the looters during the recent George Floyd demonstrations but I can, with some effort, forgive them. To paraphrase something George McGovern once said, I can hold onto a grudge for about three months; after that, it requires too much effort to remember what I was mad at. Now, it requires no effort to remember my anger at Republicans. I cannot forgive them. Not in three months. Not in three years. Not for as long as I live. If I have to pick which Jesus to emulate, it’s the angry guy in the temple.

So can we all just get along? At one time, I might have believed we could. But after what this Republican cult has done to America, after the insults, the attacks, the desecration of our norms, the violations of the human spirit, I cannot find it in myself forgive them. Put me down on the side of vengeance.

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