RETALIATION VS LAW OF GRACE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [1 Kgs 21:1-16; Mt 5:38-42 ]
There is this innate sense of demanding justice in every human person. This is why those who advocate moral relativism contradict themselves. The fact that we all desire justice which means truth and fairness, presumes morality exists, what is right and what is wrong. Otherwise, we cannot speak about justice. The foundation of justice is truth. But if the truth is relative there is no way to determine what is just. We do not need any great philosopher or theologian or an intellectual to understand or know what is right or wrong. Deep in our hearts, we know what is wrong when our rights have been violated. This is because God has put the faculty of conscience in our hearts. Otherwise, we cannot speak of evil or that something is wrong or right. Of course, we can numb our conscience as what moral relativism seeks to do.
So justice is demanded when we feel our rights and dignity have been violated. But there is also that vindictiveness in us because we not only demand redress; we also have the perverted joy of seeing those who have caused us to suffer being punished with the same suffering we went through because of them. This is where the law of retaliation comes in. This law is a very ancient law, which even guides the legal system today. In the Old Testament, Moses decreed “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Ex 21:23f) It is within this context that this law was cited by our Lord in today’s gospel.
In all fairness, this law of retaliation is not wrong. It was enacted to ensure even justice for all, regardless of who we are. Justice, even in the face of wrong, must be executed in a fair manner. Hence, the principle of retaliation, “an eye for an eye” guides the judge in not imposing a punishment or retribution more than the offender deserves for his crime. If not, some punishments can be excessive in comparison to the crime the person has committed. In some countries today, some laws and punishment are still archaic and considered harsh, whether it is public shaming, caning or death penalty especially for some non-life-threatening offenses.
Nevertheless, this principle of retaliation was never meant to be used for personal vengeance. Unfortunately, it is unilaterally assumed by individuals when seeking retribution and revenge. There are many people who take upon themselves to be the judge and the executor. They would use this principle to hurt those who hurt them. If they are slandered, they will take the law into their own hands and find ways to destroy the reputation of others. If they have been cheated, they will find ways and means to cheat them in return. It is a tit for tat principle. Unabashedly, some world leaders follow this principle. Instead of going through the proper legal process to redress the apparent injustices they suffered, they use slander, unsubstantiated accusations, force, power, threats, and manipulation to get back at those countries that pose a threat to their power, their supremacy, and national interests.
But this is not the way of the gospel. It was never the way even of the Old Testament. On the contrary, the Bible also exhorts us not to take vengeance. Moses commanded, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:17f) St Paul told the Christians, “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.'” Then citing from the book of Proverbs, he said, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:19-21; cf Prov 25:21f)
The way forward in transforming the world is not through war, retaliation, and vengeance. It is the way of non-violence and non-retaliation. This is what the Lord is asking of us who are His disciples. We must never stoop so low as to overcome evil with evil, righting a wrong with another wrong. As Mahatma Gandhi says, “An eye for an eye, makes the whole world go blind.” Jesus said to His disciples, “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.”
This principle of non-retaliation is what the gospel is all about. The Christian gospel speaks of grace, mercy and compassion. What Jesus taught at the Sermon on the Mount was how He lived out His teaching. In the face of His enemies, He never retaliated but in meekness accepted innocent suffering. This was what He taught the disciples in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:9-11)
St Peter exhorted the Christians to do the same, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Pt 2:21-25) It is because of Christ’s vicarious and innocent suffering that we are touched and moved by God’s love, mercy and compassion for us. Or as St Paul wrote, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-9)
Today we Christians who have received the grace and mercy of God rather than His vengeance and punishment for our sins must now do the same. We must extend the same forgiveness to our enemies as well, since we have been forgiven by God. St Peter challenges us, “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” (1 Pt 2:19f) Through our forgiveness and non-retaliation, our enemies will eventually be won over by our love. We cannot conquer our enemies with greater infliction. They will only react by hurting us all over again in return. This was the case of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. When they did not get what they wanted even when it was not their right, they retaliated by causing Naboth to die. We cannot win evil by evil, only by love and forgiveness. This is the way our Lord has shown us and there is no other way. Like Jesus, only by our wounds can we heal the pain of our enemies.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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