Law of Retaliation [Lex Talionis]
Much has been said about the blessings of the peacemakers in our society today. The fact that I feel this is something important to write about is based on the fact that the law of retaliation is very applicable to many scenarios or situations today as well as they were back in the Old Testament days.
Let me make my purpose clear why I am writing about the “Lex Talionis” or the ‘law of retaliation’ as it sits within our justices system today. We are talking specifically about retributive justice, in the phrase of ‘an eye for an eye’ from Exodus 21:23-27. The basis for this law is the foundation of punishment and must be considered to be a root value of our society as it is written for us to follow.
The basis for this form of law is the principle of ‘proportionate punishment’ or as we usually say in today’s words, ‘let the punishment fit the crime.’ The problem with such ideology is that the punishment may not be at all proportionate in certain ways. This calls for a discretionary decision to value the loss versus the punishment.
In none biblical terms, this is the law often applied in cases where the principle is designed to give or provide equitable retaliation for an offended party. Straying away from the Old Testament, we began to see various definitions come out of this traditional law including those words spoken by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mound where he preached to ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than the ‘eye for an eye’ approach but offered a monetary compensation offer rather than violence upon another. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Islam that has a code that has been taken more literally as a thief may lose his hand in punishment for such an act.
Simplifying this process, as Christians, we are taught that the difference between Christianity and Islam is simple: Christianity teaches that when struck you should turn the other cheek; however, Islam teaches that when you are struck you strike him back – this is better for you and the other person involved. One can begin to see a wide gap in the meaning of the different worlds involved already. It really becomes an issue of who or what is the appropriate authority on the matter when the punishment is handed out.
Under the law of retaliation, we are taught to strike back, get even or do unto others like they did to you. This is the basic rule of law for the justification for doing what is actually a retaliatory act. For many, this appeals to them as the right way to handle most situations where an injustice has been committed or done especially if this harm was personal and not just offending but embarrassing or humiliating as well.
Perhaps, we can readily see how this could go wrong as a retaliatory strike and do away with justice. So as it stands, turning the other cheek may, in fact, be a profound way to settle the score in a more practical manner and in the meantime, avoid further conflict, oppression and the needs of everyday life.
Thus, in the end, reasonable men follow Jesus’ teachings in confronting the words of the Old Testament and the law of retaliation. Here the ‘Lex Talionis’ has been softened up a bit to give it a more practical and less harsh meaning that before.
Why do we follow the words of Jesus and not the Old Testament you ask? Let us compare societies from the past with today’s cultural and dynamic influences. Without taking it to the ‘edge of the possibilities’ we see how our ethical limits are now imposed by our laws.
Laws that defy the old way of ancient situations where you and your family lived without a formal justice system in place, no regulatory police force to enforce the laws equally and no courts set up by local, state or federal levels to guarantee your rights are being upheld through due process. There are no kings or other higher authorities looming to rule over you. It is you and your laws to follow and work out some sort of retribution. A settlement that is fair and equitable on all counts without doing any more harm that has already been done. Every law has a sanction that has bee created or drafted and passed with due diligence and to the satisfaction of the people as well as the government.
In ancient days, whenever a crime was committed, you had to take the law into your own hands and inflict the punishment because there was no police to arrest the offender, no courts to impose punishment and no end to the madness as it was nothing more than a cycle of violence that never ended. Something that was likely to end up in a feud that lasted forever.
Thus under this Mosiac law of “lex talionis,” it was a real advancement of society as it addressed the cause of justice through a tribunal hearing and seek the appropriate punishment. But what should the appropriate punishment be in the case of murder or maiming? This is where the law comes into play: “a life for a life,” “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth.”
The punishment must fit the crime – no more than the crime but also no less. It was strict but fair. It was also designed to prevent and deter such crimes. It was there to remove punitive actions for crimes from the hands of the victim and his family and put them into the hands of the governing judicial system. It was designed as a principle of proportional justice. It was also designed to suitably punish the offender. This is the irony and abuse of how people misunderstand this law. It is misunderstood now the same way it was misunderstood at the time of Jesus. A law that was designed to prevent actions of personal retaliatory revenge is used to justify it!
Under the teachings of Jesus, the Son of God is trying to avoid confrontation and get away from the old ways of teaching the ‘eye for an eye’ and the mindset that is associated with such thinking. Let me make it very clear that God wants us to take actions of personal revenge out of our hands. We can turn them over to the governmental authorities if appropriate, and even if that doesn’t work, we need to turn them over to God Himself.
As we learn more about the words of Jesus, we see the genesis of the role of the peacemakers and the peacekeepers. By contrasting the old ways, we have formulated a system that allows justice to be handled in a more structured way rather than emotionally and often irrationally as crimes stimulate the emotions quicker than most other things around us. Jesus has a different perspective. He addresses the issue on what you should do if offenses of conflict or insult happen to you. Jesus, in my view, addresses not what the court or government should do, but what a disciple should do when he or she is offended. Keep in mind that Jesus was comparing his system of righteousness with that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is an important point to hold onto as much as you can to keep things in perspective.
When we are confronted with situations when we are offended, when we are insulted, we have two choices: we can escalate the conflict with retaliation, or we can de-escalate the conflict. We can be a “warmaker” or a peacemaker. Jesus said in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
We are peacemakers when we de-escalate these situations of conflict and extend a blessing instead. When we turn the other cheek, we are a peacemaker. When we forego the lawsuit, we are a peacemaker. When we go the extra mile, we are a peacemaker. When we give to our brother in need, we are a peacemaker.
Now we come down to the applicability and practical aspect of this most difficult part of applying the teachings of Jesus. What is the scope of applicability here? It can be applied to a lot more situations than we may want it to apply and what we are comfortable with at the time.
Peter writes, “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; 9 not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9). Strangely, this parable does not apply to war or capital punishment. For some reason, it has been left out of that scope of applicability.