Take revenge and you enter a hall of mirrors, that endless corridor of reflected images that appears when mirrors face each other. Acts of hatred or violence are likely to be reflected back on the avenger in “mimetic” form—further injuries that mimic what was received. Reciprocal violence can oscillate back and forth for generations as each aggrieved party repeatedly answers in kind.
Samson’s mimetic violence comes to mind when I visit an ancient Philistine temple (Tel Qasile) in Israel. At the center are two pillar bases that held columns supporting the roof. Samson, legendary strongman, once stood between two such pillars in a Philistine temple surrounded by tormentors. In a singular act of revenge, he heaved the pillars apart. The roof collapsed, killing thousands and Samson himself (Judges 13-16).
Samson had been called by God to deliver Israelites from Philistine oppression. Instead, he chased women and settled personal grievances. Determined to marry a Philistine woman, Samson came to the wedding with money wagered on a riddle. When he lost the wager because his bride teased the solution out of him, Samson murdered and robbed thirty Philistines to pay the bill.
Samson’s bride fled to her family. When he showed up for a conjugal visit, carrying a peace offering, her father stood in the way. Samson got revenge by tying torches to foxes and setting them loose on Philistine grain fields. Furious Philistines killed Samson’s ex and her father. Samson avenged their deaths by killing more Philistines.
Alarmed that Samson was creating such havoc, Israelites came to confront him. “As they have done to me, so I have done to them,” Samson declared in classic mimetic terms. Israelites tied up Samson and handed him over to the Philistines. When his strength returned, he killed more Philistines.
Samson next took up with a Philistine prostitute at Gaza, and she learned the secret of his strength: it was a gift from God sealed by his vow never to cut his hair. The woman lopped off his locks, his strength departed, and Samson was overpowered by Philistines. They blinded him and put him to grinding at a mill in prison.
What bitterness must have scored Samson’s soul! Ridiculed before lords of the Philistines at their temple, Samson plotted revenge. “God strengthen me only this once,” he prayed, “so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson brought down the house, dying as he killed his enemies.
The Samson cycle of mimetic violence still happens. My country and its allies avenged terrorist attacks by taking out President Hussein, President Gaddafi and, eventually, General Soleimani. These men had done evil, and my country did evil in return. Thousands died. Neither my country nor the world is safer, and the hall of mirrors reveals endless carnage.
Hebrew scriptures provide templates for reconciliation: Joseph forgiving his brothers who sold him into slavery, David refusing to slaughter his enemy Saul when he had opportunity. Such noble acts do not guarantee peace. But they create possibilities that do not exist when we hate, kill, or seek revenge.
© 2020 J. Nelson Kraybill ************************************
I would love to have you join me on a pilgrimage to Bible lands: “Journey of Hope” tour to Jordan, Palestine and Israel on June 10-21, 2020. See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2020-jordan-palestine-israel/ You can arrange with TourMagination to pair this tour with “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in Bethlehem (I plan to attend; see https://christatthecheckpoint.bethbc.edu/ ) or a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oberammergau ).
You also are welcome to join one of two tours in 2021: “Bread for the Journey” (Egypt and Jordan, April 9-21, 2021). See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2021-egypt/ or “Your Kingdom Come” (Jordan, Israel and Palestine, September 12-23, 2021). See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2021-jordan-israel-palestine/