Two thousand years ago Jesus put his heal on the notion of revenge. “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:38-39, CSB).
This sounds wonderful until you are the one slapped; then it gets personal. I was taught by a Christ-following dad that if someone hit me, I was to hit him back. It was a reflection of the practical rural wisdom he grew up with, not with what Jesus taught.
Revenge gets embedded in us early. And here’s the interesting thing, revenge is related to justice. That’s the point of the eye-for-an-eye instruction in the Old Testament. It actually limited punishment to an equal response for an offense. In other words, if someone steals my cow, I’m not supposed to go and kill his son. I’m supposed to seek a just recompense -- one of his cows, or maybe more than one cow as a punishment.
Even though eye-for-an-eye justice is limiting, you can see how it metastasizes, especially when individuals or groups seek to exert what they think is a fair punishment, not what some external authority thinks is just.
This happens over and over on the global stage. An interesting article in The Washington Posttalks about how white supremacists and Muslim fundamentalists are feeding off of one another.
After the recent “attacks on two mosques in New Zealand that left 50 dead, the Islamic State appealed for retribution,” freelance journalist Sulome Anderson reported. “Calling the shootings an extension of the U.S.-led military campaign against the group in Syria and Iraq, the group’s spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, said they ‘should wake up those who were fooled and should incite the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion.’ The faithful cannot stand by, he said, while ‘Muslims are burned to death and are bombed.’”
She then compared that language to the words of Robert Bowers, the man accused of walking into Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall and murdering 11 people. “Bowers wrote beforehand that he believed the white race would be eradicated by Jews and Muslims. He obsessed over HIAS, a Jewish social services organization that helps resettle refugees, including Muslims, in the United States. ‘HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people,’ Bowers posted online before the rampage. ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people be slaughtered.’”
It’s all about revenge, over and over, back and forth, no end in site. We’ve been watching it in the Middle East for decades as Israel and its Arab neighbors have traded attacks. It goes nowhere. The only way to stop it is for someone or some entity to step outside of the circle of revenge.
It may be easier to see this and to condemn it on an international stage, but revenge also works its way down into individual relationships and smaller groups of people.
Let’s read what else Jesus had to say after his eye-for-an-eye comment.
First, he helped people see that this was more than being about physical injury, it was about economic injury. “As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well” (v. 40).
It also applied to be treated unjustly or simply being put upon. Jesus: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (vv. 41-42).
This is not an easy way to live when we are surrounded by people willing to harm us, and we are all surrounded by such folks. Of course, Jesus’ proposal is the ideal, and it’s hard to pursue the ideal in a sinful world, but we pursue the ideal. Do note that these verses are talking about personal injury; it’s not saying anything about coming to the defense of others.
Then Jesus pulls it all together into a principle.
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (vv. 43-45, CSB).