An Eye for an Eye

It's true. I do love Star Trek.
A common theme in Christian ethics is the importance of "turning the other cheek," a reference to this passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well... (Matthew 5:38-40, NRSV)
Putting on my historical-critical hat for a moment, I'm noting that here, as in the Temptation story that came just a few pages earlier (see my previous post about literalism), Jesus is critiquing a teaching from the Torah, though in this case instead of counterposing it with another passage, he's making up one of his own. Standard preaching practice is to treat this as a counterpoint, to suggest that Jesus is rejecting the Biblical mandate for vengeance with a different one of passively accepting whatever horrible thing your enemy wants to do to you, whether it's a backhand to the cheek or a withdrawal from your wardrobe. Just to spare you the suspense, and to keep you reading (in case you're someone who's fed up with that line of reasoning), I don't buy that interpretation.
A quick search reveals that the teaching Jesus was quoting appears in several different contexts, this one being the most akin to modern interpretations: " Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered."  (Leviticus 24:19-20) The rule is not original to the Torah; it can be found in the code of Hammurabi: "196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out." In both cases, the rule appears amid a long list of punishments for crimes against another person or that person's property (including slaves).
Modern ears have heard the penalties imposed by these codes as prescriptions; and the words "shall suffer the same injury in return" do lend themselves to that interpretation. But consider this: if someone broke into your house and, without provocation, put out one of your eyes, would you be satisfied with a justice system that did the same to him, then turned him loose? And yet under both Torah and Hammurabi, that would be the end of it.
In fact, crimes of violence and abuse cause for more injury than whatever physical wounds may be dealt. There are psychic injuries that go far beyond the loss of a limb or even of a life. Many a war has been fought because a crime against a single person was deemed of adequate significance to merit the slaughter of many people, perhaps an entire city or nation, in retribution. No amount of recompense can make up for the permanent emotional and spiritual scars wrought by a maiming, rape, or murder.
This was understood in the ancient world. The impulse to give back as good as or better than you got, and keep giving it back until the offender was a bloody pulp, as were his wife, his children, and anyone else associated with him, runs through ancient literature. Consider the Iliad, in which an entire city is besieged and ultimately destroyed in punishment for the abduction--really more an elopement--of one woman. For all the heroic feats it describes, both the Iliad and its sequel, the Odyssey, are more about the chaotic consequences of retribution than the courage of those caught up in the strife. Similar stories abound in the narrative portions of the Hebrew scriptures, tales of cities being put to the sword for minor reasons, of entire generations suffering for small misdeeds. The underlying message is clear: control your righteousness, or there will be no end to the suffering the ensues.
We don't have to look to the ancient world for such stories, either. On September 11, 2001, agents of Al Qaeda crashed passenger jets into both the World Trade towers and the Pentagon; a fourth jet, wrested from the terrorists by passengers, crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Thousands died. The nation went into a state of furious grief, and promptly set about looking for someone to punish. Afghanistan had acted as a refuge for Al Qaeda, so naturally its government had to be toppled. But still the masterminds were at large. Who else did we hate enough to punish for this crime? Saddam Hussein! He's a jerk! Let's topple him, too!
Twelve years later, the dust is still settling. The US-supported replacement governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq are chronicly unstable. Hundreds of thousands have died. More American troops have died than there were victims of the original crime, and there are tens of thousands more who have been maimed in the conflict. Once again, we have been reminded of what history has been trying to teach us at least since the Iliad: Vendetta is the way of chaos. Driven by grief, pain, and the madness of righteousness unleashed, the human impulse is, like Ahab, to stab the object of our obsession again and again: "to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."—Moby-Dick, Chapter 135. "The Chase.—Third Day"
And yes, this is exactly the passage Khan quotes in Star Trek II as he unleashes the Genesis device, launching an explosion that, he hopes, will swallow up the Enterprise and all aboard, in retribution for the suffering inflicted on him and his people by Captain Kirk. There's also a Moby Dick reference in Star Trek: First Contact, in which Captain Picard is cast in the Ahab role by his insatiable hunger for vengeance against the Borg, leading him to quote (and this is the actual text from the novel, not the paraphrased version in the script): "He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."—Moby-Dick, Chapter 41. "Moby Dick"
Now back to Jesus, and further, to the original teaching: the point of this code of retribution is not, in fact, to prescribe punishment, but to limit it. Civilization was in its infancy at this time. Humans were only just beginning to transition from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian culture and, further, to urbanize. The only way for humans to live in numbers larger than family groups, the only way for them to have villages, let alone cities, was for some central authority to impose restrictions on retribution. Absent that authority, or if that authority was itself coopted into the lust for revenge, Chaos could break out in an instant. People who have been injured want, deserve, become obsessed with justice; but if we humans are to continue living together in our towns, cities, and suburbs, we must accept the great compromise of limited retribution. An eye for an eye is about forswearing punitive damages. It's about staying civilized, learning to live together by giving up our right to a just outcome that goes beyond simple tit for tat penalties.
But, you argue, we are civilized. That stuff about 9-11 is just an extreme case where horrible mistakes were made. We're not about to inflict even tit for tat injuries on criminals.
That, of course, means I have to tell a story.
In 1995, I became the pastor of the Amity United Methodist Church. Every church I pastored during my career had a family or two who quickly became my favorites. In Amity, it was the Aschims, Newt and Doris. Newt, in particular, was a delight: a crusty retired farmer with a heart of gold. He could be ornery, but deep down he loved people, especially children. I remember taking my small children (aged 3 and 6 at that time) to visit Newt, and marveling at how quickly he got down on their level, playing with them, delighting in everything they said and did.
In October, 1995, three months after I came to Amity, a drunken man wandered into the Aschims' house sometime after dark. Newt confronted him. Newt was wiry, but small and elderly, almost 80; the man was tall, strong, not a native English speaker, and intoxicated. He reacted to the confrontation by hitting and kicking Newt until he was unconscious. He then wandered out into the night, and was easily apprehended by police, not even putting up a fight. Newt was life-flighted to Emanuel Hospital in Portland, where he drifted in and out of a coma. He was eventually transferred to a nursing home in McMinnville, where he died on Christmas Day.
There was never any doubt that this man had killed Newt, and in the spring of 1996, he was tried on murder charges. I attended the trial with the Aschim family. I heard the defense attorney insist that the man could not be held responsible because, intoxicated as he was, he had no control over his actions. In the end, that was enough for at least one member of the jury--and as the prosecutor told us after the trial, it only takes juror who's been drunk enough at some point to wonder if, in different circumstances, he or she might be in the dock for this crime--to vote against Murder Two, leaving the lesser charge of Manslaughter One. Conviction of manslaughter in the first degree carried with it a fifteen-year sentence, no chance for parole, but I could see the family sag as they heard the verdict. They so badly wanted to hear the word "murder."
That Sunday, I faced a daunting task: to preach a sermon that addressed both the grief of this family and of the entire congregation, and their fury that the monster who committed the crime was getting off on a lesser charge. I pulled out the same texts I've quoted above (though not Moby Dick; I hadn't yet read it), and for the first time, began composing my own understanding of limited retribution and its necessity to the preservation of civilization.
It has served me well ever since. While this may have been the first time I dealt with the frustrating compromises of the criminal justice system, it was not, unfortunately, to be the last; nor have I found civil court, despite its provision for punitive damages, to be any less frustrating. But this is the deal we have struck, the covenant we have entered into with each other, that makes civilization possible, that keeps us from still living in treetops and caves. Eye for an eye is, in the end, the best we can do, giving over our right to exact real, satisfying vengeance for crimes to a civil authority that will tone it down and never, ever subject our abusers to more than a fraction of the pain they have inflicted upon us.
And now back to Jesus. "But I say to you ... if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." This is not a rejection of the Torah's limitation on retribution, but a heightening of it, kicking it up a notch. It's easy to get preachy about being passive in the face of abuse, to make a martyr of oneself. Many will, like the Apostle Paul, hide behind the notion that, whatever we might do to  perpretators here on earth, God has much worse in store for them: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" (Romans 12:19, NRSV) Unfortunately, even that comfort proves cold if one has read the entire Bible. Granted, there are some stories of divine retribution, both in this life and the next; Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) come to mind, as does a story Jesus tells about a rich man going to hell while a beggar named Lazarus goes to heaven (Luke 16:18-20).

But of all these, the story that rings most true, because it speaks of a God who desires life for all of Creation, is the book of Jonah, in which a minor prophet is dispatched, utterly against his will, to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, a nation dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Jonah is a reluctant prophet because he fears he may actually succeed, and that the Assyrians will turn from their evil ways and be spared--which is exactly what happens. In fury, Jonah shakes his fist at the Almighty, complaining: "O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  (Jonah 4:2-3, NRSV) God's answer boils down to this: "Are you right to be angry?"

My answer is a qualified "Yes, but..." I am right to be angry when someone has harmed me or my loved ones, and gotten off lightly. I am right to be angry at the thought that this same person may, in fact, never have to face justice, either in this life or the next. But I must also temper my anger with the knowledge that the same mercy shown this person may well be extended to me; that there may be things I have done to others, either through action or inaction, that are every bit as harmful to them as whatever it was that was done to me; that all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God; and that, if there is a God who is worthy of belief, then mercy is an essential part of that God's nature, and if it is not, then we're better off having no God at all. 


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