Eye for an Eye

June 2011

This past month, on May 2nd, the world woke up to the news that Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of the terrorist organization, al-Qaida, enabler and financier of countless murders, most notably the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on New York and Washington D.C., was killed by American special forces in a residential compound, outside of Pakistan’s capital.  When President Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death, he invoked the word “justice” five times during his speech—“we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.”

Justice can be summed up in the well-known biblical verse of retribution, “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 (Ex 21:23-25).”  Within the Old Testament tradition, that command—“an eye for an eye” was used to punish the actual criminal while protecting innocent family members related to the guilty party.  “An eye for an eye” was to limit damages to the guilty and thereby cease cyclical, highly subjective grudge and vengeance.

We know in the time of Jesus, Jewish legal tradition was already beginning to interpret “eye for an eye” as financially compensating someone for the value of their lost eye.  This tradition is followed today in our modern judicial system which financially compensates an injured plaintiff according to their suffering and loss.

Jesus also weighed in on this law of retribution: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well (Mt 5:38-40).”  Here, Jesus is not promoting pacifism, nor is he telling us not to defend ourselves when attacked.  Rather, he is expanding on the rule of retaliation but from an unexpected perspective—how are we to respond to someone who feels we have wronged them?  While “eye for an eye” says we need only compensate for the harm we’ve done, Jesus commands us to go farther.  Did I hit someone?  So if they hit me back, let me doubly compensate them, by offering my other cheek as well.  Did I cause someone to lose their shirt?  Let me give them both a shirt and a coat for the suffering I caused them.

Jesus’ interpretation does not nullify this practical law of justice and compensation, rather, he prods us first toward reconciliation.  Likewise, may our desire for justice ultimately focus on restoring relationships, when possible, rather than destroying them.