On an Eye for an Eye
(Lev.19:1-2, 17-18; 1Cor.3:16-23; Mt.5:38-48)
Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. It seems quite a popular dish, too, because revenge often appears in film and literature. Hamlet, Star Wars, True Grit, Taken and The Count of Monte Cristo are all stories of people seeking justice for past wrongs.
We’ve all been hurt, at some point, by someone else, and it’s a natural thing to seek justice. It can also be very satisfying to see wrong-doers get what they deserve.
But consider this. Towards the end of World War One, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, told his chief peace negotiator, Admiral Wemyss, that the war must end at 2.30 pm on armistice day. He wanted to be the one to tell the nation.
Admiral Wemyss, however, thought it better to end the war at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month. This time had a stronger and more poetic ring to it, and ending the war slightly earlier would save thousands of lives. The French and the Germans agreed, and King George V made the announcement.
Lloyd George was furious; he’d lost his moment of glory. But he got his revenge: he cancelled Wemyss’ war pension that would have been worth over £5 million today. [i]
It seems natural to want to hurt those who hurt you. That’s what children do. But stories like this reveal just how nasty and misguided revenge can be.
Some people try to justify revenge by quoting Moses’ rule of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Ex.21:24; Lev.24:20; Deut.19:21). This is called the Lex Talionis (law of retaliation), but its purpose wasn’t to encourage revenge. It sought to ensure that people don’t overreact when they’re wronged. So, if a man breaks your tooth, you can’t respond by breaking all his teeth (cf. Gen.4:23).
Moses believed that the punishment should fit the crime, and this principle still applies in criminal law today.
But in 1963 Martin Luther King warned that this philosophy of an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.[ii] What he meant is that if everyone followed the tit-for-tat approach to justice, then the retaliation and the pain would never end.
Do you remember the famous feud between the MacDonalds and Campbells in 17th Century Scotland? Dozens of people died.
Or the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky and West Virginia? This vendetta began in 1878 and many were killed or wounded. It was only in 2003 that the two families signed a formal truce. [iii]
In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples not to retaliate when someone hurts them. In fact, he says we must love our enemies. Not just tolerate or vaguely accept them, but actually love them.
This sounds like a real challenge, but Bishop Robert Barron says that when you hate your enemy, you confirm him as your enemy. But when you respond to his hatred with love, you take away the very energy that feeds his hatred.
He gives the example of aikido, one of the oriental martial arts. The idea of aikido is to absorb your opponent’s aggressive energy by moving with it, continually frustrating him until he comes to realise that fighting is useless.
‘Some people’, Barron says, ‘have pointed out that there’s a great deal of this in Jesus’ strategy of nonviolence and love of the enemy. You creatively absorb your opponent’s aggression, channelling it back against him, to show him the futility of violence. So when someone insults you, send back a compliment instead of an insult. When someone conspires against you, work to help him’.
Such responses are bold, but non-violent. They rob the aggressor of their power, and they can break the cycle of revenge. They can also help the victim gain control over the situation. [iv]
Jesus isn’t expecting us to accept abuse, but he does say that any response should be non-violent. And it is important to always seek peace.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘I object to violence because when it appears to do good, that good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent’.
And in 1957, Martin Luther King said, ‘Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love’. [v]
That’s what Jesus is trying to teach us. That’s why he says we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt.5:44).
And that’s why Jesus prayed for those who nailed him to the Cross, saying ‘Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they’re doing’ (Lk.23:34).
How do you respond when someone hurts you?
[i] Jonny Taylor, Remembrance Address. Concordia, Merchant Taylors School, London, Winter 2018, p.14.