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Newtown: An Indictment of the Ethic of Revenge

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The pictures mean it must be true: the shooting, again, of innocents in a public place.

How can this happen? Some will blame the evil that hid within the shooter, and they are, of course, right. Others will blame guns, and they are right, too. It appears, contrary to the arguments of Second Amendment enthusiasts, that arming ourselves to the teeth with guns does not prevent this kind of tragedy. Still, even with that, there is something broader and deeper at work in this and other recent shootings; a crucial spiritual flaw woven into our social fabric.

Our society is in thrall to the idea of revenge. It is the central plot device in so much of what we consider to be entertainment. How many movies feature a hero striking back at those who wronged him? Over and over, our children and teenagers sit beside us and thrill to the story of a man with a gun who finds a way to exact retribution. It is Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star, it is James Bond watching his tormentor die, it is the unnamed assailant finally killing Tony Soprano. The obtaining of revenge has value to us, and gives us meaning. The glorification of killing in the service of personal retribution is a deeply held public value.

The reach of this ethic goes far beyond movies and television, though. Our president ran for re-election largely on the grandest revenge fantasy of all: the killing of Osama bin Laden. And, to close the circle, the most-awaited movie of the season is a re-creation of that event.

What is the cost of celebrating this value over and over and over? What might be the effect of declaring that retribution is a high virtue--of teaching exactly that to the weak and the strong, the young and the old, the mentally able and those who are infirm in thought and emotion? What do we think might happen when a mentally ill person is taught that a man's highest and best use can be shooting down those who have wronged us?

We are seeing the fruit of this celebration with each bullet that kills an innocent in a school or in a mall or at an office. Sometimes those bullets are aimed at a specific person from whom revenge is being exacted: a former employer, an ex-lover, or parents who failed to be good enough. Other times, the revenge is on society, on the crowds at a mall or a school.

The ethic of revenge is contrary to the teachings of every major religion, and the fact that it has become a central tenet of our public morality represents a failure of our faith leaders. In our rush to indict the gays or the immigrants or the conservatives or the literalists, we have utterly failed to lead a nation of faith to the values of that faith. By defining ourselves by what we are not, we have abrogated the responsibility to define what we are, and where our principles lead. We have left a vacuum filled by movie-makers, television, and a toxic get-tough political culture.

Our faiths must step up and teach ways to find meaning other than revenge. Such other ways certainly exist; our holy books are full of good examples. The truth in those narratives informed our people for centuries, even to men like Lincoln whose own faith may have been murky. America's faithful majority must turn now to the dissemination of those truths. To not do so is to let a secular society continue to project a shimmering but deceptive hologram in the shape of a principle: that there is value in revenge.