A public Christian presence cannot be the pursuit of influence over the powers, but rather a question of what kind of community disciplines we need to produce people of peace capable of speaking truth to power…. Discipline is therefore perhaps best understood as discipleship.
–William T. Cavanaugh
We can show devotion to the Heart of Jesus that presented itself so richly in the Sermon on the Mount. We do this by letting go of our inclination to retaliate against aggression and by looking for loving alternatives. We all remember voices in our past, maybe in the present too, that say: “If someone hits you, hit him back. It someone hurts you, get back at him. If someone is sarcastic toward you, be sure to have a good come-back.” This is gangland mentality and behavior not spiritual practice. Perhaps we noticed, growing up, that at school, in church teachings, and in public policy, there was a belief in retribution. A superstition may have developed in us that providence is spiteful too: “They will get theirs. What goes around comes around.”
As we evolve spiritually, we vow to let go of retaliation as a personal style both in serious and in small ways. We begin by acknowledging our inclination or wish to retaliate. We do this without self-blame but simply as a way of being honest about ourselves. From this confession, comes our plan and prayer to become free of the need to retaliate. We eliminate the plan for vengeance from our repertory of responses to others no matter what they may have done to us.
There is hardly any motivation for the ego to find alternatives to revenge, especially since revenge feels so “sweet.” Retaliation seems to be our built-in, default setting as homo sapiens. It is as if nature constructed us without Christ’s input! Was revenge made to be sweet so we would be sure to engage in it? Certainly, retaliation was useful for survival since someone is less likely to hit us if he knows we are hard-wired to hit him back.
Grace from God is our main motivation to let go of the need to hit or hurt back. At the same time, St. Thomas Aquinas says: “Grace builds on [our] nature.” Thus, there is also a psychological motivation that can support us in our response to grace. It is our noticing that we like ourselves more when we act kindly, when we choose not to stoop to revenge. We like ourselves more when we come up with a creative response to injustice rather than simply copy what others have done to us. Healthy love of ourselves, gentle friendliness toward ourselves, is a central feature of devotion to the Sacred Heart.
Another motivation is our tendency to trust voices we respect: Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis, Gandhi, etc., all of whom spoke out against the retaliatory instinct. If they said non-retaliation was a spiritual value, it is worth it for us to practice it as a spiritually beneficial path.
Actually, we have a innate alternative, something built into our very nature. When someone apologizes or shows repentance for wronging us, we automatically soften. For instance, someone cuts us off in traffic and we can be catapulted into road rage, the reaction of the scared and then vengeful ego. But if we see the other driver make a motion of apology, we calm down instantly and are less likely to react harshly.
With retaliation as the ego’s sole default setting and its very favorite sport, the world will soon be annihilated. This shows the necessity of spiritual practices on our part for survival of the planet! We cannot survive using only what was installed in us from caveman times. We need the teachings of saints and sages to release the other energies within us. The innate softening response we see in The Tempest may take practice since it may have been easily overridden or dismissed by years of engaging in vengeance and being rewarded for doing so.
The spiritual virtue behind non-retaliation is not giving up on others. The challenge is to love people as they are and no matter what they do. This does not happen by psychological work; it takes a spiritual or religious conversion. The word religion comes from the Latin word religare which means to reconnect. Truly religious and spiritually oriented people look for ways to do that in their dealings with others. Revenge does the opposite; it divides in order to conquer. Love conquers by including and reconciling.
Moreover, spiritually mature people no longer see reward/punishment as God’s way of operating. Beliefs in eternal damnation make it seem that God is mean and gives up on people. This is not the message of the Sermon on the Mount, a description of the Sacred Heart and of devotion to it. Many mystics understood that God is really love always and in every way. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not only speaking to us but speaking about and from his own Heart and showing us he does not retaliate either. He shows us not only what we are to be like but what God is like.
The Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is the new Moses, is not only a new commandment but a new promise. The fourteenth century English mystic Juliana of Norwich described a vision that shows how our perspective can open to this as a result of devotion to the Sacred Heart: “Holy Church taught me that sinners are sometimes worthy of blame and wrath, but in my visions, I could not see this in God….God is the goodness that cannot be wrathful….I saw no vengeance in God not for short time nor for long. God shows us no more blame than he does to the angels in heaven.”
To this we can add a declaration by a modern saint: “O God, remember not only the men and women of good will but also those of ill will. But do not remember only the suffering they have inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we bought thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, and the courage, generosity, and greatness of heart that has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment let all the fruits we have borne become their forgiveness.” This stunning statement was found at the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck upon its closing in 1945. It was left behind by a Jewish prisoner and it represents a sublimely mature level of spiritual consciousness.