An eye for an eye

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Like many people of faith, I was deeply troubled when Donald Trump made the Bible nothing more than a prop for a photo op outside St John’s Episcopal Church opposite the White House. His attorney general had ordered police and the military to clear peaceful protestors out of the area with flash grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets so that Trump could walk from the White House to the church.

Moments before, at a press conference in the Rose Garden, he said, “I am your president of law and order.” He spoke those words to a nation which is reeling from both the protests over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the pandemic which has gripped the USA with the worst level of casualties in the world. “The military will dominate the streets”, he said.

I will never forget the image of how awkwardly he held that Bible. It seems as if he had never held a book before. It reminded me of someone holding someone else’s baby without any prior experience. As many have said, it would have been better if Trump had opened the Bible he was holding and taken some of its words to heart.

As I was reflecting on this, I remembered a radio interview from 2016 when Trump was still just a candidate. The interviewer asked Trump if he had a favourite Bible verse. He quickly responded, “An eye for an eye. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”

It’s quite clear (even with the garbled syntax) that Trump understood this phrase from the Bible to be a warrant for getting tough. You can’t let people get away with anything for fear they’ll take advantage of you. An eye for an eye … and in Trump’s mind, the Bible teaches retribution.

Except it doesn’t. When this phrase shows up in the Old Testament (Exodus 21: 23–24 and Leviticus 24: 19–20), it doesn’t give permission to retaliate. Rather, the purpose of this phrase is to limit how a person retaliates for a personal injury. As Leviticus 24 puts it, “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: eye for eye, tooth for tooth …” and so on. In other words, only an eye for an eye. You can’t take a life for an eye.

Or in the context of what was going on that day, don’t shoot rubber bullets and tear gas and flash grenades at peaceful protestors. If you do that, you go too far.

Now this same phrase also shows up in the teaching of Jesus. He says, “You have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘don’t resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other.” (Matthew 5:38–39)

I wonder if Trump is even aware of how Jesus turns the original teaching on its head. I wonder if Trump knows that Jesus commands us to “love your enemies”. I wonder if Trump knows that Jesus “gave us a new commandment, to love one another.” Holding up a Bible in a photo op as some kind of justification for being “the president of law and order” is blasphemy and idolatry of the worst kind.

Eugene Peterson (who wrote “The Message” as a Bible translation) once said that when we read the Bible. “It’s not so much a matter of me reading the Bible, but having the Bible read me. When the Bible reads me, I consent to have it change my heart and my actions. When the Bible reads me, it lays open some uncomfortable truths about my life—life self–righteousness, self–importance, self–aggrandizement, self–centredness, and a bunch of other words that begin with self.”

Peterson points out that when we read the Bible correctly, it challenges our ideas. It invites us to be more loving, more compassionate, more inclusive, more open. The Bible is not a prop for our own ugly ideas.

Finally, remember that this principle of “an eye for an eye” didn’t originate in the Bible. It was developed in early Babylonian law, and from there it made its way to the Bible as well as to Roman law, where it became known as “lex talionis”. The principle is that a punishment should correspond in degree and kind with the offense. Hence, you can’t take a life to punish someone who took an eye. All you can do is ensure that the punishment fits the crime … an eye for an eye.

It seeks to limit human desire for vengeance. And if Trump actually read the Bible, instead of merely holding it up awkwardly and shamelessly for a photo op to justify a police crackdown and military domination, he might even learn that his words in that radio interview four years ago go against the very meaning of those Old Testament passages. Even more, it goes against anything that Jesus taught.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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