Science, Revenge, and George Zimmerman


A few weeks ago, I read a book by David Kinnaman called You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith. If you’re a person, and you know people aged 18 through 30, you should read this book. Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Group, an organization whose vision reads like this: “…to provide people with credible knowledge and clear thinking, enabling them to navigate a complex and changing culture” (I lifted that from their web site).

One of the things Kinnaman tells us is that the church needs to do a better job talking about science, sex, culture, and lifestyle. As a person who often brushes science and math under the rug, saying things like, “I do words, I don’t do science or math,” I’ve been challenged to rethink that pithy remark. So when I was browsing the titles at a local lending library, and came across a copy of Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit, I added the book to my bag and took it home with me. The book is a collection of interviews between NPR’s Krista Tippett and several deep scientific and spiritual thinkers. Here’s what Tippett says in her introduction:

“Images from the world of science enliven my understanding of God, and of religion. The wildly imaginative discipline of physics alone, as evident in these pages, is rife with starters. Contemporary physics revolves around objects, premises — quarks, for example, and strings — that no one has ever seen or expects to “see”; but worlds of passion and discovery and progress thrive on them, because the idea of them gives intelligibility to the whole of what can be measured, experienced, and observed.”

Okay. Put a bookmark right there, please? I’ll come back to science in just a minute.

I grew up in a family which encouraged conversation about current events. When I met H, and started sharing meals around his family’s dinner table, it was the same thing. They watched television while they ate, and what’s on at dinner time? Right. The news. In both my family and H’s, I’ve been witness to and participant in quite a few lively discussions.

My point here is that I’m not one to shy away from a conversation about current events, politics, and all of the hot-button issues they inspire. We still talk about current events and politics and all of the hot-button issues while we eat dinner or drive to the grocery store. We watch television news with our own running commentary.

Lately, quite a few people have asked me to share my thoughts about some of the most recent news stories. Things like Paula Deen’s use of the N word (and other things), the Supreme Court’s decisions about the Voting Rights Act, and George Zimmerman’s trial (in which six women will decide whether Zimmerman should go to jail for killing seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin). I don’t have all of my thoughts about all of those issues resolved to a place where I can say, “Here. This right here is how I feel about that.” I feel all sorts of things. Some of the things I feel are not pretty. Not pretty at all. Well. Most of the things. Most of the things are not pretty.

So, I found a strange sense of comfort when I read the chapter about revenge in Einstein’s God. Believe it or not, there’s science behind revenge. And, while I don’t shy away from conversations about current events, politics, and other hot-button issues, I don’t usually write about them here. This post is no exception. Because I still don’t know exactly how I feel about these issues. And because I believe these things are best worked out around a dinner table, and not in the public square (which is how I view the internet).

Now. Back to science. According to the chapter in Einstein’s God, revenge is a natural response. I won’t be able to explain this as well as the scientists in the book, but there’s something to be said for how we approach some of the current events of the day, and the way revenge plays into our reactions.

Revenge shows up when we identify behavior we consider to be unbecoming of humanity, and usually directed at us or someone we love, or with whom we can identify. We think, I can’t let that behavior continue. If that kind of behavior continues, it could negatively impact the way we — as humanity — behave. It could make us weaker. On an individual level, we think, I can’t let them treat me like that, because I want to keep on living. I want to be seen. I want to leave my imprint on this world. I want someone to know I was here, and that I mattered. When someone mistreats us, at its most basic level, it threatens our survival. Revenge is how we’re wired. Almost (but not quite) like a survival instinct.

So, when Paula Deen says the N word, and the Supreme Court makes controversial rulings, and George Zimmerman pleads self-defense, we (or maybe it’s just me) feel threatened (and frustrated, and weary of the fight, and disappointed, and angry), and we want to see justice done. Sometimes we take to the airwaves, sometimes we hash it out at the dinner table. And sometimes, when we don’t feel threatened (or frustrated, or weary, or disappointed, or angry) we think, What’s the problem? I don’t see a problem here.

In Einstein’s God, the scientist being interviewed says there is a scientific way to short-circuit revenge (and again, I’m not saying this as well as that scientist). According to science, the way to lessen the desire for revenge, is for the person who committed the offense to offer a sincere apology. And sincere is the key here.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about parenting is something I learned from H. One day he told me, “You know, it’s okay to apologize to the children. We may be their parents, but we’re not always right.” Offering an apology is something I had to learn. And doing it makes me squirm. It is a humbling, vulnerable, transparent act. And it levels the field. Every time.

We are all doing the best we know how to do, with the skills we have, the stories we write, the lives we live. Every now and then, our best falls short and we do a thing or speak a word (or a sentence, or entire sermons or speeches) that make another person feel threatened (or frustrated, or weary of the fight, or disappointed, or angry). When I’ve been on the receiving end of that offense, what I’ve wanted — more than anything else — is for that person to come to me and offer a sincere apology.

It’s not just scientific. It’s also biblical. When I know I’ve hurt someone, the bible tells me to go to them and make it right. And when my actions, thoughts, and words fall short of what I know God considers the best option, the bible tells me to go to God, agreeing that I missed the mark — essentially offering God a sincere apology. Humbling. Vulnerable. Transparent. Can it be that a sincere apology (and this is difficult, and I am speaking generally) has the power to make an offended person take a few deep breaths, step back from the conflict, and extend a hand of reconciliation?


I’ve included George Zimmerman’s name in the title because, as I type, six jurors are deliberating his case. And because I’m praying for them; they have a difficult task ahead of them. And I’m praying for George Zimmerman, and for Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s parents. And because I wonder what would happen — how we’d all feel — if George Zimmerman said something more than, “I am sorry for the loss of your son.”