One of the things I love about our century is the fact that we still haven’t managed to catalog and track down and label every thought that everyone who ever lived has ever had, in spite of our technological advancements. Like all those apocryphal proverbs that are still floating around out there, attributed and misattributed to everyone and no one before ultimately being abandoned as “Nobody really said it but it’s still a good saying.”
One of my personal favorites is the alleged Mark Twain quip: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” That little aphorism has helped me more than anything else in not turning my life into a hopeless morass of lies from which I’d never escape. We’re mostly pretty sure at this point that Mark Twain didn’t actually author this particular pearl of wisdom, though. (Which is fine, his head was big enough already.)
Another of my favorite epigrams has an even more mysterious origin. As far as I can tell, it spent some time drifting through lesser pop culture channels and old newsgroups before fading into obscurity without anybody figuring out where it came from. Punsters and scriptwriters and amateur Internet sleuths have given it as emerging from ancient India, Japan, or China depending on who you ask; but at this point I’ve lost interest in worrying about its provenance and just want to ramble a little about its text. So here it is:
If you sit at the bank of the river and wait, the body of your enemy will soon float by.
As a Christian, the whole “love your enemies” thing has been one of my biggest stumbling blocks ever since I was a kid. I might’ve developed a better attitude towards this philosophy if I hadn’t been subjected to repeated abuse during my formative years; I dunno. When you’re a kid and constantly being told “be fair, always share, treat others the way you want to be treated” while at the same time being beaten with a belt and picked up by your hair in a rage by someone who was always, always, always angry, it messes with your head. And then, as the cherry on top, you get a little older and say, “Hey, that’s not fair,” only to be told by those same people who pushed the fairness doctrine on you: “Who told you life was going to be fair?”
So yeah, loving enemies: Not intuitive.
Schadenfreude, on the other hand, is something I’ve always been on board with since long before I knew there was a word for it. Hurt me, humiliate me, damage me, or betray me, and then find yourself hurt, humiliated, damaged, or betrayed yourself? I’m here for it, to the point where I’ll sit my own bitter ass down by the river and wait as long as it takes for your bloated corpse to float by. I want to see your wounds and I want to smell your gangrene and I want to hear your death rattle as you sail past.
This, of course, goes against everything I stand for in Christianity, the basis of which is forgiveness. But as a puny human still made of flesh, I struggle with it daily.
Making an Effort
When I’m able to wrestle my brain into cooperating and remembering God’s goodness over human badness, I can sometimes pray for my enemies. It’s NOT NATURAL, and I’m not sure there will ever come a time when it’s easy for me. I can’t comprehend the Good Little Christians who chastise and harangue me about forgiveness as if it’s as trivial as taking a shower (which, have we met? is also a herculean chore for me so SHUT IT).
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee. (KJV)
Proverbs 25:21-22 is quoted by Paul in the New Testament, in a passage where he’s urging us to be better than our carnal nature when it comes to how we treat our villains:
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (KJV)
To me, Romans 12:19-21 and that passage in Proverbs are both essentially saying that living well is the best revenge.
I despise that phrase.
It’s yet another one of those oft-quoted quotes that has a certain amount of disagreement as to its origin. While it seems well-documented that George Herbert (a professional crafter of pithiness) wrote it down in the seventeenth century, I’ve found commentary indicating it might’ve come from the Talmud. Whoever came up with it, I’d like to travel back in time and punch them because here’s the thing: It’s not revenge if your enemy doesn’t care.
I had a conversation, years ago, with one of my Christian friends about a certain family member who had wronged me. I had acquired a temp job in town with a company that, unbeknownst to me when I applied, regularly engaged with the company my relative worked for. A paranoid panic enveloped me, thinking I was going to have to interact with said kinsperson as a result; my friend tried to allay my fears by saying, “They’ll probably be happy for you!” To which I yelled, “I DON’T WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY! I WANT THEM TO FEEL BAD!” I was actually keeping a detailed, florid journal in Microsoft Word during that time and I still have the files; re-reading them is rather cringey nowadays, but that was what was going through my head. “WHY DON’T PEOPLE FEEL BAD FOR THE BAD THINGS THEY DO?!?!?!?!” And so on.
Anyway, they eventually died.
As I’ve written previously, this member of my family passed away. They died never having learned that I became a born-again Christian; they would almost certainly have rolled their eyes contemptuously if they had known. To their last breath, they believed they had done nothing wrong to me. I waited on the riverbank some thirteen years, and sure enough they floated by.
I never took any opportunity to “heap coals of fire” on that person’s head, not least because any kindness I would have shown them would have done no such damn thing. Honestly, I have trouble believing that being nice to people who mistreat you is in any way “the best revenge” or gives them any actual sense of shame, as suggested by those Bible verses. It seems like the kind of Pollyannaism we instill in our children even knowing that it doesn’t reflect real life (like “just ignore” the bullies instead of teaching kids to defend themselves).
Turning the Other Cheek
Yes, I know what Jesus said about this sort of thing. In fact, he said everything in the Bible, including the stuff I struggle with. And I know that he meant exactly what he said.
I honestly do try, when I’m not dodging my brain’s trebuchet fire and anti-aircraft guns, to pray for my adversaries. It’s one of the most effective methods I’m aware of to ACTUALLY ACHIEVE forgiveness in my heart, as opposed to just saying the words to keep the finger-waggers off my back. For me, it’s more productive than being nice to the antagonists, because prayer is just between me and God. I don’t have to worry about being laughed at or damaged even further when I talk to him. I can speak the truth, which usually includes something along the lines of “You know I don’t really want to release them, you know my heart, but please release them anyway, please change my desire.”
God does not want me bringing popcorn and Milk Duds to the riverbank so I can watch the decomposing cadavers of the “bad guys” of my life drift by. I know all too well that he wants me to be better than that.
But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. (KJV)
I could copy and paste enough Scripture on this to wallpaper the Washington Monument, but Luke 6:27-28 (still my favorite Gospel) covers it pretty well. Even when “doing good” seems beyond me, “bless them and pray for them” should never be out of our reach.