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Perspectives

from the Secretary General

What’s in a Word

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Every day we hear the news on radio or in conversation. We read the news. We watch and listen to the news on TV. The “hottest” news, of course, is usually the bad news — violence, corruption, dishonesty, infidelity, death, destruction.

Occasionally we get a happy respite from it all, like the World Cup matches last month. Alas, most of the time, the news brings the same tale of woe — e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine and Israel.

We don’t always use the best words to talk about the news — right words, that is. We’re short on true words, accurate words, pointed and analytic words. We’re not accustomed “to call a spade a spade.”

Here’s a relatively underutilized family of words very useful for describing many of today’s world events (descriptions courtesy of my Reader’s Digest Dictionary):

Revenge, vengeance, retaliation, reprisal, and retribution denote the infliction of punishment or injury for a wrong.
Revenge stresses personal bitterness that seeks relief in harming or humiliating an enemy.
Vengeance, originally the indignant vindication of justice, is now applied to any furious and thoroughgoing revenge.
Retaliation suggests the repayment of an act by a like act.
Reprisal denotes any calculated retaliation, as by one nation against another. Reprisals are usually undertaken to obtain redress of a wrong, or to force a change of policy.
Retribution is punishment for a wrong, but not necessarily by its victim; thus, a misfortune suffered by a wrongdoer may be regarded at the retribution of fate or providence.

They’re not all bad words. Many of them have a long and honorable history.

In most ancient societies, and many modern ones, these words name a debt of honor. One’s honor — and the honor of the family, clan, tribe or nation — demands redress and punishment for an injury or wrong, whether physical or verbal.

Not to seek redress is considered to be weak — “unmanly,” if you will — and negligent of a solemn duty and obligation.

Immemorial rules like “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” presume this obligation of honor and simply seek to moderate it, ensuring that “honorable” actions are not disproportionate.

Modern just-war theory is deeply rooted in these ancient and biblical teachings. That’s the basis for a moral critique of, for example, carpet bombing, indiscriminate use of land mines, nuclear war and massive retaliation.

The teachings of Jesus go far beyond the moderation of vengeance and retaliation. He urges his followers to renounce entirely their right to redress and challenges them with a higher honor and obligation — to be Godlike and forgive.

Forgiveness is no act of weakness — it’s actually an act of great strength. It’s also empowering and ultimately far more effective in bringing about change in another than coercion and external violence.

Anyway, let’s be a little pragmatic.

Forgiveness and love are the ideal; moderate and reasonable defense is certainly not inappropriate; but massive and indiscriminate retaliation is wrong.

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Tags: War Media