Jim Geraghty analyzed the Finsbury Park attacks yesterday by asking the question, “Is Running Down Pedestrians ‘an Eye for an Eye’?” In his analysis is this most potent of thoughts:
Radical Islamists have committed several attacks using vans and other vehicles and hitting pedestrians; this hate-filled maniac decided to do the same to Muslims coming out of a mosque. In his mind, it didn’t matter that these were old men and women with no known connection to terrorism or extremism of any kind; all that mattered is that they were a group of “those people.”
He became, quite literally, what he thought he was fighting, the kind of murderous lunatic who tries to kill as many people as possible in the name of a cause.
That is extremely powerful insight. People tend to think religious thought is pie-in-the-sky philosophical dreaming. But with his Biblical reference (I assume most people know the “eye for an eye” is not just Biblical, but one of the mostly hotly discussed Biblical references ever) and his insight into becoming that which you oppose, Geraghty makes an extraordinarily strong case for the deep practicality of Christian thought and how much it underpins the American understanding of justice
Let’s start by analyzing the applicable Biblical passages. The original reference is contained in Leviticus:
‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.’” (Lev 24:17-22)
Notice how that passage ends – that bit about the “single standard.” In dictating His law here God is talking about the fact that justice is blind, that everyone gets the same outcome. Most people read the first part of the passage and think it is about vengeance, but it is not – it is about justice. When you have that understanding, what Jesus says about this passage thousands of years later begins to make more sense:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42)
Jesus is here, not overturning the idea of the death penalty or compensation for wrongs, He is instead arguing against vengeance as opposed to justice. The Leviticus passage talks about compensation for a wrong, the Matthew passage talks about personal behavior in the face of being wronged – that is a big difference. Everybody has at some point heard the quotation, “Vengeance is mine,” also a Biblical quotation. The source passage is God, acting as the King of Israel, admonishing the people of Israel to leave vengeance to Him, that is to say, to the ruling power.
If we rely on our personal passion to try and achieve justice how are we any different than the original transgressor? That is the point that God makes in Deuteronomy and Jesus makes in Matthew. God wants us to be good, not to be like them. Geraghty got this one so right. It is the difference between chaos and order – between good and evil.
I attended a prayer service on the evening of September 11, 2001. It was a community service and pastors from multiple congregations addressed us. They offered words of comfort, help with fear and anxiety, discussions on justice, and finally a warning against vengeance. The warning against vengeance fell flat with the crowd that night. We were still in shock from the events of the morning. Many there had friends that were at the moment unaccounted for and were deeply worried. Most of us were still asking, “Why?” and not yet considering , “What next?”
But now some 16 years and countless attacks and thwarted attacks against us and our good friends later the wisdom of that caution that night is becoming evident. Vengeance is not justice, and God will always, eventually, bring justice. It is not ours to know when, or even how – but it is ours to know that it will come and to rely on its bringer.