On a visit to the British Isles in 1971, my wife and I spent a night in Northern Ireland waiting to catch a ferry to Scotland. This was during the period of sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics known as "The Troubles." We happened to arrive the day after the Orangemen's Parade commemorating the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The Dutch Protestant prince, William of Orange, had deposed James II, Britain's last Catholic king, and pursued him to Ireland, where the climactic battle was fought. The modern-day Orangemen, named for the troops who fought alongside William, celebrated his victory by parading through Catholic neighborhoods. This was roughly akin to Union soliders celebrating General Sherman's march through Georgia by parading through Atlanta neighborhoods. Tensions were high. We drove past a police station with sandbags piled around it. We were later told that a truck driver had been shot dead by local constables only days earlier when his vehicle backfired while driving past their police station. Catholics had spray-painted messages to their Protestant neighbors on the walls of vacant buildings: SCOTCH BASTARDS GO HOME. At the bed-and-breakfast where we spent the night, our landlady told us there was an average of one bombing per day in Northern Ireland. She and her friends were all on tranquilizers. Her daughter had already emigrated to Australia, and she was planning to follow suit. It seemed the Battle of the Boyne was still producing casualties three centuries later.
The news media frequently use the term "cycle of violence" to describe sectarian conflicts in which each side retaliates tit-for-tat for perceived wrongdoing by the other. However, since both sides are likely to see themselves as the aggrieved party, every action taken to settle the score is seen by the other party as fresh provocation. There is no end to the violence in such situations; in fact, it often escalates as each side seeks to punish aggression with greater use of force. This only plays into the hands of extremists on both sides, who can point to escalating attacks by the other side to justify still more violence. The futility of such behavior is usually apparent to everyone who is not party to the dispute; indeed, even the participants themselves may realize they are in a no-win situation but feel trapped by the perceived intransigence of the other side.
The ancient Hebrews used "an eye for any eye and a tooth for a tooth" as their standard for repaying injury. Far from legitimizing revenge as a method of dispute resolution, this standard was meant to keep the response proportionate to the original injury and prevent disputes from degenerating into blood feuds. In modern game theory, a measured tit-for-tat response has been found to be a highly effective strategy in certain situations, with cooperation as the favored response and retaliation used only when provoked. Game theorists sometimes advocate a "tit-for-two-tats" strategy to avoid the consequences of miscommunication or miscalculation. In this scenario, the player ignores a single provocation in the hope that a cooperative response will elicit the same from the other player the next time around. President Kennedy used this tactic to good effect in defusing the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 by choosing to ignore a belligerent cable issued by Kremlin hawks and instead responding to a more conciliatory message sent earlier.
The original tit-for-two-tats theorist -- and then some -- was Jesus of Nazareth. He called his approach "turning the other cheek." To those who think of life as a zero-sum game, with clear winners and losers, turning the other cheek makes no sense. However, as President Kennedy recognized during the Cuban missile crisis, a winner-take-all strategy can have disastrous consequences for both sides. The ruinous conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, Serbs and Croats and Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland certainly bear this out. In each case, both parties to the conflict occupied the same territory, sometimes even the same neighborhoods, which meant that attacks on one would inevitably harm both. Until both sides recognize their overriding mutuality of interest, there can be no resolution to their conflict. Suddenly Jesus appears less like an idealist and more like a consummate realist. His approach is based on a clear-eyed awareness that, in a very real sense, each is the other -- and the only way to win that game is to love your neighbor as yourself.
Exodus 21: 23-25