Justice vs. Revenge: A Sikh Responds to the Terrorist Attacks

Revenge, a kind of 'wild justice,' shoots wildly; justice aims exactly and exactingly.

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I leave the question of why such terrorism occurs to theologians. My belief would be that God loves us so that he grants us the free will to make choices between good and evil, including behavior that is entirely, reprehensibly sinful.

But in the aftermath of that day there are lessons for living that are surely in God's will and should guide us. In the Sikh scripture, Guru Nanak counsels us to look at adversity and suffering as a cure and a panacea, and at a life of luxury as an affliction. He saw that comfort often inures us to the pain of others and to the lessons of life, while suffering may bind us to the humanity that is our common reality. The idea is not much different from Shakespeare's thought when he declaimed that "Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like a toad, ugly and venomous, yet bears a precious jewel in its head." Out of untold suffering can emerge a bond with humanity, a capacity to look beyond the self.

The crime of the terrorists was horrendous and people are anxious for justice--or revenge. What does Sikhism recommend?

All religions teach peace and forgiveness, and Sikhism is no exception. I say this though I fully recognize that revenge is a form of wild justice. Also, it is easy to preach forgiveness from a position of safety; the only person who has the right to do so is the one in the trenches, one who has suffered injustice. Until one has walked in those shoes, one has little right to pass judgment. Still, what do Sikh history and religion say about the concept of revenge? Should one turn the other cheek? If so, when and for how long?


We first need to examine the subtle difference between justice and revenge, and wrestle over the need for justice to be tempered with compassion and mercy.

To avenge an injustice is not the same thing as to take revenge. Revenge says, "You killed my son so your son must die." Justice says, "You killed my son so you must pay for your crime." Revenge, even though it is wild justice, shoots wildly; justice aims exactly and exactingly. Justice and avenging wrongs have a place in Sikh philosophy; pure revenge does not. Often the distinction gets lost in the heat of anger, but it remains crucial. In seeking justice it is important that retribution and terrorism do not set up a vicious cycle where they feed upon each other. The tenth Sikh Master, Guru Gobind Singh, clearly delineated revenge from justice in Zafarnamah, an oft-quoted and much admired philosophic epistle that he wrote to the despotic emperor of India in the early eighteenth century. In it, he clearly discussed alternatives available to people seeking redress. His conclusion was that when all other means have failed, it is just and right to take to the sword. He was not a pacifist, and no Sikh can ever be, but his life and writings lay down strict conditions for war.

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