An Eye for an Eye?

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The late Scottish actor Sean Connery won his only Academy Award playing a hard-nosed, incorruptible Irish cop in The Untouchables.
Early in the film he schools a frustrated Elliot Ness, who has been thwarted at every turn in his efforts to stamp out organized crime.  “You wanna know how to get Capone?  They pull a knife, you pull a gun.  He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.  That’s the Chicago Way.”
The Chicago Way, unfortunately, is an apt description of how things work all over the globe.
“If you hurt me, I’ll hurt you worse.” 
That spirit of retaliation fuels one of the world’s most festering open wounds – the stand-off between Palestinians and Israelis in what Jews, Muslims, and Christians have long identified as the Holy Lands. 
In 2017, Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman wrote Catch-67, an analysis of the political and moral issues that have painfully divided his fellow citizens since 1967, when Israel began to occupy Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights as the spoils of a war they did not start. 
The book became an instant bestseller.  But so far it has failed, in Goodman’s estimation, to accomplish his primary goal: to help ordinary people stop, take a breath, listen, and be willing to compromise their deeply emotional convictions about what everyone agrees are life-and-death issues.
Goodman makes a crucial observation.
Both sides, Palestinians and Israelis alike, believe they have been grievously harmed.  Both sides sees themselves as victims.  And both sides believe something must be done about it.   
Israelis are desperate for security.  They yearn to go about their daily lives without fear.  Ever since their fledgling nation came into existence in 1948, they have felt victimized by the all-too-real possibility of terror.   
Palestinians are desperate not to feel humiliation.  They yearn to reclaim the lands that were taken away from them in 1948 and 1967, and not to feel beaten down into the humiliating condition of non-citizenship in the very towns and villages where their great-grandparents lived. 
Goodman points out that as long as both groups feel victimized, and both cherish uncompromising demands of repentance from the other side, the stalemate will continue.  There will be little hope of progress.
Even worse, there may be tragedy.
There can be no justification for the savagery of Hamas’ sudden attacks on Israeli citizens last October.  Likewise, there can be no justification for the depth and breadth of Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza, which have extracted a tenfold degree of payback.  Both sides, acting out of ancient hurts and fears, are pursuing the Chicago Way: “As soon as we get the opportunity, we’re going to make you pay.”   
Such raw emotions are as old as humanity itself. 
But Scripture presents an altogether different strategy for going through life. 
The primary Old Testament prescription is found in Exodus 21:24: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  This is the so-called Law of Tit for Tat.   
At first blush, it has the feel of something right out of the Middle Ages.  If you put out my eye, I get to put out your eye.  If you run over my dog, I get to run over your dog.
In truth, it was a declaration of magnificent restraint.
Jewish rabbis have classically understood this part of the Torah as a God-provided boundary on revenge-taking:  If someone deprives you of your health or property, you’re entitled to fair compensation – not more than you deserve, yet no less than you deserve.
The law has almost never been interpreted literally.  “A tooth for a tooth” doesn’t mean that you get to extract someone else’s bicuspid in the event of a dental assault.  The goal is equivalency.  What’s a fair and just settlement if you experience loss?  That’s for a wise judge to determine, not for you to decide in a back alley when you’re amped up on rage.
Tit for Tat is how things stood in ancient Israel for more than a millennium. 
Then along comes Jesus.  And suddenly the entire notion of what constitutes a healthy response to injury is put in a different light.
He says in the Sermon on the Mount, “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.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). 
It’s worth trying to picture being struck on the right cheek by a presumably right-handed person.  Jesus is describing a slap.  A humiliating backhand.  A public diss.  If you’re someone whose ultimate security is in God, then the appropriate response, according to Jesus, is not to strike back.  Instead, show your left cheek and invite another slap: “Here, you missed a spot.”
This is startlingly subversive.  Suddenly the attacker is under attack – not by retaliatory violence, but by a higher moral principle bringing his actions into the light.
It worked brilliantly for Gandhi, who acknowledged his debt to Jesus.  And it worked brilliantly for Martin Luther King, Jr., who acknowledged his debt to Gandhi. 
The Chicago Way has never been God’s Way.  And the spirit of “an eye for an eye” was never intended to be a God-approved mandate for getting even: That is, if you refuse to invite me to your party, then I get to snub you right back.  And if you say something nasty about me on social media, I’m empowered to use my Facebook page as a weapon, too.
Jesus calls us to a higher path.
As Gandhi put it: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
Which is hardly the need of the hour in a world yearning to see the Light.