The Common Good

Mandy Patinkin, 'The Princess Bride,' and Justice, Revenge, and Jewish Spirituality

If you were on Facebook or Twitter last week, you probably saw the CBS interview with Mandy Patinkin. He’s probably best known for this line from the classic movie The Princess Bride:

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“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The Princess Bride was released when I was 16. My friends and I would throw that line back and forth whenever we competed against one another. Monopoly. Basketball. Chess. Nintendo. Rock, paper, scissors. It didn’t matter. Like anyone with a pulse during the late 1980s, we repeated that phrase endlessly. It was our favorite line in the movie.

That and “Mawwiage …”

But that’s not Mandy’s favorite line. Twenty years after The Princess Bride became a pop culture icon, Mandy began to hear one of his lines from the movie that he’d overlooked when he spoke them two decades ago:

“I have been in the revenge business so long that, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”

Those two lines are very powerful statements about revenge. Inigo’s sole mission in life was to avenge his father’s death. The problem is that he succeeded! Once he killed his father’s killer his life had no meaning. The truth about revenge is that it leaves us empty. Sure, there’s a thrill in the hunt, but revenge will either leave us killed or, as in Inigo’s case, empty and without a future.

Mandy adds this important point in the interview with CBS: “The purpose of revenge is, in my personal opinion, completely worthless and pointless. And the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, not be revengeful. And turn our darkness into light.”

Indeed, revenge is worthless. In fact, it’s worse than worthless. Yet revenge is seductive because it always disguises itself as justice. Now, I admire people who are tenaciously committed to justice, but I’m also afraid of them. Their determined pursuit of justice is often contaminated by revenge. Revenge seeks to right a wrong committed against us through violent punishment, but revenge doesn’t just stop at righting a wrong – revenge always escalates.  

The problem is not with justice. The problem is with our violent methods in pursuing justice. We think violence will solve the violent injustice committed against us. As James Warren points out in his masterful book on mimetic theory Compassion or Apocalypse: A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, humans have always been prone to violence as a way to solve violence. “From the very beginning of the human experience, because of its power both to destroy…and to generate results … violence was seen as both the number one problem and the number one solution” (122).

Violence against an enemy has always been our number one solution because it does provide a sense of justice, but the problem is that violence is always mimetic. We unconsciously imitate the violence of our “enemy” as we mutually pursue justice with violence. Of course, our violence is “good” and justified, while our enemies is “bad” and unjust. Unfortunately, our enemy believes their violence is good and justified, while ours is bad and unjust.

Now, if the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human beings, then not only is revenge worthless, but violence itself is pointless. Violence seeks to destroy our fellow human beings, not embrace them.

Again, the problem is not our pursuit of justice. The problem is our violent methods. When we use violence in the name of justice, it will always be perceived as revenge, which will lead to a mimetic act of revenge, which will lead to a mimetic act of revenge…all in the name of “justice.”

What’s the solution? Mandy is Jewish and has talked about his spirituality. One of the quotes from the Hebrew Bible that often gets lifted up in Christian circles is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, the Jewish Jesus quoted that passage from Leviticus, but we don’t usually hear the full quote from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Revenge, of course, is a synonym for vengeance. In Judaism and Christianity, you are not permitted to take revenge “against any of your people.” Rather, you are commanded to love them. So, who belongs to “your people”? Just like the Jewish Jesus, Mandy includes everyone in that category.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

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