Revenge, Justice, Grief and Reconciliation

Reflection 8-12-13


There was a show on the television called ‘The Escape Artist’. It told the story of a lawyer whose wife, it was alleged, had been killed by a particular person. There was lots of evidence against him, but he got off on a technicality.


So the lawyer is grief stricken at the loss of his wife, and incensed at the injustice of the escape of the alleged perpetrator. So this is what he does. He goes to his seaside place and has a meal of mussels with his friends, and then to the pub where he sees the alleged perpetrator. He follows him home where he confronts him with murdering his wife. The alleged perpetrator now ‘confesses’ haughtily because he cannot be tried again for this crime. He attacks the lawyer, who defends himself with a box cutter. He cuts the killer of his wife. Soon after, the killer goes into anaphylactic shock. The lawyer pulls out the emergency pack of adrenaline, that such susceptible people carry to counter the shock, administers it, calls an ambulance and carries him to the waiting vehicle. The killer later dies in hospital. But the lawyer is charged with his murder. He defends himself and is acquitted.


Later, the lawyer is having a conversation with the defence lawyer in the first trial. She knows the case and proposes the following scenario: The lawyer finds out about the murderer’s medical history and discovers his allergy to shellfish. Hence the dinner and the shellfish protein on the box cutter. He goes to the man’s home, cuts him and adds more shellfish protein in the form of the emergency ‘adrenaline’. The body of the murderer is cremated so that there is no trace of this protein in his remains. The last scene of the film shows the lawyer, having returned to his son and mother, playing happily in the garden.


Who is the ‘escape artist?’ If the proposition of the defence lawyer is true, then the second lawyer, who has murdered the murderer of his wife is the real ‘escape artist’.


This story opens up for me all kinds of questions about revenge and justice and what is best for us as human beings. The first question that comes to me is about the place of the law. We are told ‘do not take the law into your own hands.’ This is a way of saying ‘What happens to people who ‘offend’ us by doing something that we, collectively, have said should not be done, is that we, collectively, punish them by sending them to prison. ‘We’ are acted for by the police and the public prosecutor and the courts. This is clearly an imperfect system but I think that it is better that ’we’ act via the system than alone. Just last week a person was sent to prison in the UK for murder, because he had killed an alleged paedophile who was supposed to have been living in his area. He killed the wrong person! So the first mistake that our lawyer made was to think that he could stop serving the ‘legal; system’ as he swore to do, and to start serving his own need for revenge.


But what about revenge? The thing is, that revenge actually does not achieve the goals that the people who have suffered injustice want. At a collective level, we can see the difference between the treatment of Germany after the first world war and the treatment of Germany after the Second world war. The First World war resulted in crippling reparations that needed to be paid. The Second world war resulted in the ‘Marshall Plan’. Germany’s place in the world is different now, partly because of that treatment. Punishment of offenders as a collective expression of our ‘offence’ is proper because it helps to regulate our collective behaviour, and makes it easier for us all to live together. But revenge achieves nothing, or sometimes the opposite of what we want.


But, on the other hand, it is Greece, now subject to being lectured about fiscal responsibility by Germany, who is claiming some compensation for how Germany treated the Greeks in the Second World War.


This is where truth telling comes in. In South Africa, most of the people who agreed not to prosecute those who did wrong, had a chance to confront these people in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Being wronged dis-empowers the victim. Something must happen in order to return to the victim a sense of their own power. Any move on the part of the accused person in the direction of the accuser softens the situation, and re-empowers the victim. This is why the Catholic and Anglican Churches have had to struggle with their own members who have abused others. Collectively the churches have been seen to protecting their own interests and ‘stonewalling’ against the victims of abuse, rather than understanding them. It is true that some victim groups will never ‘let go’ and mistakenly, I think,  are out for revenge. But the Church understands about God’s judgement and forgiveness, and about the need for confession before reconciliation can take place. So an opportunity to tell the truth, without prejudice, is an important part of the process of achieving justice that was missing in this story.


Then comes grief. I read in a book that all of us grow up into adulthood damaged in some way. We can ‘blame’ our parents and society, but in the end, that blame does not recover what we have lost. As with all losses, the only thing we can do is grieve what has been lost. It is this grief and sadness that allows us to integrate the loss. It allows us to cope with our loss, it allows us to feel how it feels to lose something. In this story, it was not just the lawyers wife that he lost, but he also lost justice. He has a double grief. But the show did not show him grieving. ‘moving on’ depends upon being able to grieve.


But sometimes, the issue of justice will not go away. I have heard parents of children who have been killed say ‘There is not one day goes by that I don’t think of her. There is still a pain in my heart. But it gets a bit less, and I have learned to live with it.’ This strikes me as true. It does not say ‘Move on, live your life as though there is no injustice done to you’. It does not say ‘Take revenge, keep hanging on till you get justice’. It says ‘I acknowledge your ongoing pain. I acknowledge the impossibility of returning your life to what it was. But I acknowledge that you have integrated this pain through grief. I acknowledge that the amount of your life that is occupied by this pain is smaller than it was.’


Then there is the ‘Big Picture’. There will be a judgement day. God will eventually sort out ‘who was right and who was wrong’. We are all both perpetrators and victims in different proportions. We will all face god’s judgement and need God’s mercy. How that will be worked out is not in our hands, but when it is, we shall all be satisfied. I live in the hope of receiving justice, and in the hope of being reconciled with those from whom I am estranged. That is god’s work, in the Reign of God for which we long, especially at Advent. The Story ‘The Escape Artist’ was interesting, but not good enough as a ‘way of dealing with injustice’ in comparison with the Christian Story.



About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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