On not being left eyeless in Gaza

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
6 Jan 2009

These days, people are apt to invoke religious injunctions without the faintest attention to their original context or any serious consideration for their underlying meaning.

This applies as much to those who automatically dismiss them (because they take it for granted that nothing reasonable can come out of religion) as it does to those who seek to hide behind them (because they have spotted a chance for pious self-justification).

The difference is that the misuse of religion is usually much more dangerous than its straightforward denial, which is why for the biblical prophets the opposite of 'good faith' was idolatry (believing in something false) not atheism (a refusal of belief).

Here's a prime example. Over the past few days the ancient biblical tradition of lex talionis - "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" - has been wheeled out on numerous occasions to legitimate in some way or other the appalling cycle of violence in Gaza. Protagonists on both sides have employed it.

In a recent article (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8264), doyen US commentator Martin E. Marty highlighted another disturbing example of the mentality of bloody revenge in relation to the so-called 'war on terror.'

The aphorism 'an eye for an eye' is partly Jewish in origin (derived from the Hebrew scriptures and the earlier Code of Hammurabi), but it has also been taken up in Christian and Muslim contexts, and has seeped far into secular usage too. The notion that this concept, as routinely understood, is just a religious idea is naive and ahistorical. Certain kinds of secular ideology have eagerly justified vengeance too.

In fact, however, the modern popular usage of 'an eye for an eye' is entirely misconceived.

What those who quote this famous phrase forget is that its original intention was not to amplify revenge, but rather to limit it. It is the law of proportionality that it seeks to instantiate - not advocacy of hatred and pre-emptive killing.

In an ancient setting where the tendency was for people to respond to an act of violence by exacting retribution on a grand scale, 'an eye for an eye' was a powerful counter-proposal – a way of saying that you should not go beyond equivalence. It was intended to halt indiscriminate or disproportionate slaughter.

Equally ignored in Christians circles is Christ's broadening and radicalisation of this legal limitation of violence: "You have heard it said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'... but now I say to you: love your enemies ... do good to those that curse you... bless those that persecute you." Repay hatred with love, in other words.

Whereas the lex talionis is about limiting violence, the Gospel takes the next step and seeks its abolition. Not, of course, that the churches have found this convenient, especially in cosying up to principalities and powers - where something more 'realistic' was deemed necessary. Thus the development of 'just war' thinking.

As we survey the terrible woundings of the world around us, however, the more radical demands of the rebellious rabbi Jesus surely begin to look more like the deep-healing medicine we so badly need. Amelioration of the sickness of violent hatred is not enough. It must be challenged and replaced.

For as Martin Luther King Jr pointed out, an ethic of proportionate violent response can never be enough to sustain life. Or as he bluntly put it: in the end "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave us all eyeless and toothless." Gandhi said something similar. So have non-religious peacemakers.

Putting the life-affirming ethics of confronting enemies by refusing to use the tools of hatred and war is, of course, exceptionally difficult in a world where the ideology of violence has seeped deep into our institutional and personal life.

But at the very least, it surely ought to be the commitment of those who claim to follow Christ? This is why converting the church to active, interventionist non-violence and conflict transformation remains a vital priority for those who would take the Gospel seriously.

This is part of the message that Gene Stolzfus, one of the founders of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), is bringing over to Britain this month, as part of a speaking tour which begins on 16 January 2009. http://www.cptuk.org.uk/node/47

The horror of Gaza points us towards the abyss of violence as a 'solution'. The alternative is difficult, costly, fragile and risky. But so is any life worth having. And it won’t happen unless someone dares it.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.

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