“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
A few years ago I had given a talk to some Lebanese leaders, both political and religious. I spoke to them about love and forgiveness and Jesus’ advice to us to turn the other cheek if one was slapped. After the session was over, a muslim cleric asked me how I reconciled what Jesus said with what the Old Testament prescribed about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Scripture does say this; you will find this instruction in Exodus (21:24), Leviticus (24:20), and Deuteronomy (19:21). It was a legitimate question, and one that I am sure many of us have, so let me explain.
This is not a prescription for vendetta. God is not saying: “if somebody hits you, you hit him back”. This is a prescription for fair justice. What does this mean? See, it is a natural tendency for us to seek vengeance for pain received. And when we are able to exact vengeance, there is a strong desire in us to inflict greater damage than we have suffered. Part of the reason for this is to let it serve as a warning to the person never to hurt us again. It’s like telling them: “Don’t you dare do this again, because next time you do, it will be even worse for you.” You know what I’m saying, don’t you?
So, to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of an avenging individual (or government) the “eye-for-an-eye” policy ensures that the punishment should fit the crime. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Now, this is justice. But like Gandhi, who was very inspired by Jesus, said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” And that is exactly what is happening to the world. A desire for vengeance is resulting in a vicious unending spiral of pain that never seems to end, because everyone is reacting only in hate. Hurt continues to be inflicted, and old wounds get deeper, while new wounds are constantly being gouged. Look at what is happening in America today.
How does it end? It will end only if one party says, “Enough. You hurt me if you want; I won’t hurt back. No matter the provocation.” And then, if this person is able to follow through on his decision, the cycle of unending pain might cease. It isn’t easy, because sometimes the other person just goes on hitting and hitting, often under the belt, and you wanna hit back just to make them stop. And not to react can take everything out of us, because there is a part of us that keeps crying: this is wrong!
So, how do we do it? There is only one way. We think of Jesus. We think of what he went through. The agony in the Garden. The scourging at the pillar. The crowning with thorns. The carrying of the cross. And finally the crucifixion. So wrong. All of it. So wrong. Yet he took it. As he told Peter in the Garden, if he wanted, he could have had twelve legions of angels come to defend him. But this is how it had to be (see John 18:11, Matthew 26:52). He had to die to change the world. We might have to as well. I know it is scary, but if we want to change the world, there might be no other way.
It’s called the way of love.