Beyond “An Eye For An Eye”

During a desperate moment in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln observed:

Doing battle in the name of God is a very tricky business, for each side can quote the same verse to justify the slaughter of the other.

So it goes with “an eye for an eye.”

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” ~ Exodus 21:23-27

Throughout history warriors have destroyed the lives of millions in the name of God. It’s a wonder humanity has survived.

Recently I read a story that illustrates this point.

Three teenagers were brutally murdered in Israel, supposedly in retribution for a Palestinian teenager who had been abducted and burned alive.

When a group of Israeli mothers called on the mother of the slain Palestinian boy with a message of their heartfelt sorrow she responded with the demand for yet more retribution and that the perpetrators be brought to her — dead.

An eye for an eye — perhaps the perfect doctrine for perpetuating misery. A doctrine that ensures broken hearts have divine permission to break hearts and do so — forever.

“And a man who injures his countryman, as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as another person has received injury from him, so it will be given to him.” ~ Leviticus 24:19–21.

The thing that ought to cause uneasiness about teaching your child the righteousness of an eye for an eye is that your next door neighbor could be teaching their child the very same thing. How many eyes will it cost your family to perpetuate your end of this fatally flawed teaching?

When I was in kindergarten an older boy grabbed the Valentine’s Day card I’d made for my mother and tore it up in front of me and the whole class while our teacher was out of the classroom.

As a seven-year-old kid I fully grasped the righteous justification of an eye for an eye. I wanted to shred that bully in two.

My anger knew NO limit.

I went to bed seething. All I could think about was how I’d get even. When I woke up the next morning and told my mother what happened she sensed my fury and moved in immediately to dial me — down.

She put her arms around me and thanked me for the card she never saw. She then said what would mean the most to her was for me to let go of my anger. Mother knew I wouldn’t let go of my anger for myself but I might let go for her.

She wasn’t about to sacrifice the well-being of her eldest son in defense of an eye for an eye.

She she saw the same thing in me as the poet Paul Valery saw in “every man.”

Latent in every man is a venom of amazing bitterness, a black resentment; something that curses and loathes life, a feeling of being trapped, of having trusted and been fooled, of being helpless prey to impotent rage, blind surrender, the victim of a savage, ruthless power that gives and takes away, enlists a man, drops him, promises and betrays, and – crowning injury – inflicts on him the humiliation of feeling sorry for himself.”

Reinhold Niebuhr rightly observed we all need to be saved from such righteousness:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”  

True enough!

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2022 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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