Vengeance Is Mine? Or An Eye for An Eye?
The Bible — any bible — is like a ouija board or the I Ching or a roll of the dice. You can justify anything with a quote from the bible.
I’m a fan of the Black writer John Edgar Wideman, now 80. I first met him in the late 70s, when I edited a daily newspaper for a summer at Camp Takajo in southern Maine, a huge place run at the time by Wideman’s father-in-law, who built a state-of-the-art basketball court there for his son-in-law, a talented and aggressive athlete who didn’t take losing even a game of horse lightly. (Takajo’s hundreds of campers had access to the court as well.)
It was a bad time for Wideman, though I didn’t know it. Wideman, who grew up hardscrabble in Homewood, a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh (see his Homewood trilogy), became an Ivy League athlete, a Rhodes scholar, and a MacArthur Fellow; he was the first writer to win the prestigious International PEN/Faulkner Award twice. His brother, Robert, however, ended up on the streets and was convicted for a 1975 murder, with no possibility of parole, because he was involved in an armed robbery where a man was shot dead. (He was freed by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons in 2019 after 44 years in jail.)
Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, a nonfiction meditation on the divergent paths taken by the two, was published in 1984. Two years later, Wideman’s son Jacob, 16, was in Arizona with other Camp Takajo kids on a tour of national parks — yes, it was that kind of camp — when, for no apparent reason, he stabbed his roommate, Eric Kane, viciously in the chest with a hunting knife he’d been sharpening for weeks, left him to bleed out in the hotel room in Flagstaff, stole a van and, with $3,000 of traveler’s checks, headed for the East Coast.
A week later, his father and a lawyer brought him back to Arizona to surrender to police. He pled guilty, his explanation for what he did muddled. In court records (thanks to Tom Fitzpatrick, Phoenix New Times, August 11, 1994), Jacob said, “I’ve had a really tough year, and he was the target of a lot of my emotions. I’m very sorry for what I did. I should be given a chance to live and make something of my life. I don’t want the death sentence applied.” Some armchair psychoanalysts pointed to the attention his uncle in prison received from Dad and to his older brother Danny, a star basketball player in high school clearly favored by Dad.
I think we all agree that Eric Kane’s year turned out way tougher than Jacob’s, who got his wish, didn’t receive the death sentence, survived years of disciplinary problems in prison (which must have been hell for a teenager and young adult) to become a model prisoner, and in 2016 was released on something called ‘home arrest,’ which, according to Michael Kiefer in azcentral. (January 2, 2019), is “a status less than parole, essentially confining him to his residence except for attending work and trips to other locations approved by his parole officer.” By then he had married a divorced psychologist he met in prison.
Here’s where his story and the Bible converge. Eric Kane’s parents were outraged. They obtained GPS data from his ankle monitor. Addam Gross, the ex-husband of Wideman’s wife, hired a PI to track him. Wideman, eventually, was rearrested because he wasn’t able to schedule a required appointment with a particular psychologist, and, so far as I can determine, his ass is still in stir, where the Kanes and Gross feel he belongs for the rest of his life, because once a sociopath, always a sociopath.
Though the involvement of the ex-husband of Wideman’s wife is open to debate — he claims his kids would be in mortal danger if Wideman, their stepfather, was allowed close contact — I can’t really blame a mother of a child stabbed in the chest and allowed to bleed out for not forgiving the boy’s murderer. How could she?
There are, however, those among us capable of turning the other cheek. I remember a kid in Charleston walking into a bible study group with a gun and mowing down as many congregants as he could. At least one of the survivors found it in her heart to forgive him. I can understand her Christian sanctity and humble willingness to practice the Golden Rule, but I can’t say I would be capable of doing the same.
Death is final. When we’re alive, there can be hope. If somebody took the life of my daughter or son, or of my wife or one of my grandchildren or siblings, or of a friend, understanding might emerge but forgiveness would be a long time coming. Vengeance — whatever we might mean by that word — is a temptation.
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35), but the good book also says an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth ((Lev. 24:19–21).
Unfortunately, we can justify anything with a quote of our choice from the holy book of our choice, whether it be the Book of Kells, the Pentateuch, the Quran, the Gita, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Joyce, Bob Dylan, or any two bit dime-a-dozen tinplate Bible thumper walking alone like John Wayne down that sawdust trail with Jesus in pocket. Turn the other cheek. Wipe them all out. Mop the floor with them. Put every one of their asses in stir. The heathens must be destroyed. Obey the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt not portray the face of Mohammed.
Some of it, good advice. Some of it, odious bigotry that continues to haunt and stir up slim minds until they break. The battle between science and religion and culture is still very much on our minds as we stare into the heavens with powerful telescopes and into ourselves with quotations and theorems at hand. Every two bit writer these days seems to have something to say about quantum theory and black holes.
How do we live with ourselves, our kin, and our companions without resorting to hardcore ideological templates or laissez-faire? A few have noted that the elder Wideman has barely affirmed the short life and horrid death of Eric Kane, but instead refers to slavery not to justify but to explain, in context, how tilted Black lives can be, as if the stain and strain of slavery require contemporary mercy for his brother and son.
I would say that social injustice and economic deprivation might have more to do with his brother’s fate than with the crime of his privileged son, except for the obvious truth that John Edgar Wideman grew up in the same family and neighborhood as his brother Robert, and that Wideman’s other son and daughter are now a business executive and a lawyer, respectively. In some ways, we’re all victims of genes and circumstances. In other significant ways, we make our own destiny like a patchwork quilt. Some choices, though, are irrevocable and impulsive, others complex because contagion is abroad in the world.
Race doesn’t explain it. Family history doesn’t always reap what it sows. The Bible — any bible — is like a ouija board or the I Ching or a roll of the dice. An eye for an eye makes both of us blind. And vengeance? It’s best served cold, when you’ve had time to decide if it’s worth the trouble it takes or the suffering it creates.
The best guidance at present, and I give it to you free and clear, is Keat’s negative capability, from a private letter he wrote in 1817: negative capability is “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Find your way helter skelter to that state of being and I promise you that everything, and I mean everything, will make perfect sense, but finding your way there might take a while. It’s like your kids in the car on a long journey. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there?”