An Eye for an Eye

[Jesus said:] “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.”

Matthew 5:38-39a

I used to hear this phrase, “An eye for an eye”, and understand it as a warning not to engage in vengeance. Exacting revenge on someone who wronged me only guaranteed a similar response, locking us both in an endless cycle of the Hatfield-McCoy variety. It was considered an excessive punishment.

That is not what the phrase actually means. The phrase actually means that punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed. For example, if someone plucks out your eye, you are not entitled to burn their house to the ground with their family still inside. You are entitled to compensation equal to the loss. Whether that means you get to pluck out the offender’s eye or make some other equitable arrangement depends on many factors. “An eye for an eye” actually exists to restrain excessive punishment.

“An eye for an eye” has been on my mind lately as I watch the protests and riots catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd. I wish “An eye for an eye” governed the responses to the riots, but that is not the case.

I have argued whether or not peaceful demonstrations are an excessive response to centuries of oppression and violence. I don’t believe they are.

I have argued whether or not broken windows and looted merchandise are an excessive response to decades of police brutality and the murder of innocent black siblings and neighbors. I don’t believe they are.

I have argued whether or not violating curfews, blocking traffic, and spraying grafitti on monuments are an excessive response to beatings by police, the use of pepper spray, and the deployment of chemical weapons against civilians. I don’t believe they are.

I only wish “An eye for an eye” was the case here.

I believe that responding to peaceful protesters with riot gear, beatings, mace, and tear gas is grossly disproportionate to the offense (I also happen to believe this about responding this way to lobbed water bottles and looting).

I believe that condemning my black siblings and neighbors to further police brutality through intentional inaction because the looting and violence have attached themselves to the protests is grossly disproportionate to the offense.

I believe that to suggest that property damage negates a four-hundred-year history of state violence against a particular set of people places such low value on human life as to be un-Christian.

That is not to say that property damage is harmless or a victimless crime. I have been a victim of property damage. It sucks, especially if you don’t have the legal or financial means to recover “an eye for an eye”. I do not advocate for more property destruction. Nor do I suggest that those who have had their property damaged deserved it.

What I am saying is that between property damage and the loss of black lives, the property damage is the lesser of the two evils. They are not equivalent.

What I am saying is that between breaking curfew/assembly laws and the use of chemical weapons against protesters, the breaking of curfew and assembly laws is the lesser of the two evils. They are not equivalent.

An end to the riots must focus on the black lives lost to police brutality. It must focus on the police brutality deployed against protesters. When that is accomplished, the rest can be addressed.

A few last comments on “an eye for an eye”. The quote above from the Gospel according to Matthew is one of the most well known of Jesus’s teachings. It’s also one of the most difficult.

Jesus rejected the notion that his followers are entitled to overwhelming and disproportionate compensation when they are wronged. But he also rejected the notion that his followers are entitled to equitable compensation when they are wrong.

Instead, Jesus demands that his followers reject the notion of any compensation when they are wronged.

I confess that I haven’t yet been able to accept this command. Nor can I demand it of others. It is a command each of us must obey on our own, and it doesn’t preclude seeking justice for others.

But perhaps there is more than just poetry behind the axiom, “An eye for an eye makes both of us blind.”

What do you think?

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