Monday, May 2, 2011

Compassion and Violence

Among the relieved and somber celebrations of Osama Bin Laden's death at the hands of the military today, there exists a small chorus among the more meek among us to remember that all life is sacred, and that no death should be relished.

A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
He stands on the shoulders of giants.  Jonathan Zazloff quotes the Talmud:
Certain brigands were in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood used to trouble him greatly, and he prayed that they would die.  Beruriah his wife said to him, “What is your opinion?” [i.e. on what text do you base your prayer]?”  [He replied,] “because it is written [Psalms 104:35], “May sinners vanish from the earth.”  [She responded,] “Does it say ‘sinners’?”  [No!]  It says ‘sins.’” [End evil, not evil doers.]  “Furthermore [she continued], go down to the end of the verse: ‘The wicked will be no more.’  Since their sinning will stop, will there ‘no longer be sinners’?  Rather, you should pray that they repent, then ‘the wicked will be no more.”
Rabbi Meir prayed for mercy upon them, and they repented.

This atheist finds complete sympathy with the Talmud here. It is rooted, I think, in an ancient human – likely mammalian (at least) cognition of empathy. We make a model of the world in our heads, and thus are able to see ourselves in others, and visa versa. I don’t see why any among us could not have just as easily been led towards the evil that Bin Laden was, given the proper environment. And to the extent that we could not have been, to what special power do we owe that privilege? I find the assumption that we would are somehow “above” depravity frankly narcissistic.

This insight to me is the key humility that man must learn, especially if we want to move towards the heaven on earth we are capable of. It is here where retribution dies, and forgiveness is born. Utility being what it is, we will often have to treat people in ways which we would rather not – but we can always be something more if we work at it. The Talmud here – like all great religious teachings – calls us to do just this.

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