An Eye for an Eye … A Whole World Blind?
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an important advance in human relations at the time of Babylonian ruler Hammurabi around 1754 BCE. In earlier ages, particularly in small tribal societies with large extended families, the norm was that family honor demanded extreme reaction/retaliation for wrongs committed against any member of the family. Of course, some members were more highly valued, so retaliation for wrongs against them was more extreme, but even for those with lower status, some sort of response was necessary. Otherwise the next offense might be more extreme. No family could affort to appear weak. This approach is still all too common among tribal peoples today. Honor killings have not disappeared from the face of the earth.
However, as larger groups of people/families began to live in towns and cities, feuds between families, with ever escalating degrees of violence, wrecked havoc on social order and stability. Something had to be done. The Code of Hammurabi, like the codes of other ancient rulers, served as a guide for dealing with conflict and setting levels of responsibility or punishment for offenses.
Legal Codes Limit Revenge
Under the terms of the Code of Hamurabi, wrongs could not be avenged with actions more extreme than the original offense, though what was considered extreme varied by social class, with offenses against the poor or slaves meriting smaller degrees of punishment. Nevertheless, limiting the scope of acceptable response/retaliation was absolutely necessary for human social progress.
The Mosaic Law, which undergirds much of Western Civilization, incorporated many of the features of the Code of Hammurabi. In contrast with the codes of monarchies, such as that of Hammurabi, Hebrew law was seen to come from God and included care of widows, orphans, and outsiders (“strangers”) in its scope. The concept of mercy and inclusion of forgiveness of debt were also part of the Mosaic Law.
All of this comes to mind as headlines scream that government forces have bombed a civilian hospital in rebel-held territory one week and the next week another civilian hospital in government-held territory is bombed by rebel forces. Terrorists kill theater-goers. Bombs explode near airports and in subways. Politicians speak of excluding all members of a world religion or all people from certain countries from entry to their more privileged country. Refugees are turned away from country after country. And women and girls who have been victimized by warring men are shunned by their families or killed for bringing dishonor on their families.
Where will it all end? When will it all end? How can it all end?
Jesus was not joking when He told those who came out to hear Him teach that they were to love their enemies, pray for those who persecuted them, and treat others the way they themselves wanted to be treated. (Mt 5:1-7:29 and Lk 6:27-38) They were to be compassionate as the Father is compassionate. These words were meant for us too. They challenge us today. Are they just for individuals or are they for communities and nations?
Forgive and Forget?
We sometimes hear the phrase, forgive and forget. It is so commonly heard that it’s become a platitude, a phrase that is somehow expected but without anticipation that it can actually happen. I suggest that it would be better to say “forgive but don’t forget.” Don’t forget the pain, the shame, the humiliation, the embarassment. But do forgive it and resolve not to pass it on. Take necessary steps to protect the vulnerable from harm. Be reasonably careful yourself, but forgive. Don’t carry the weight of hatred or of seeking vengence through the days following an injury or injustice. That only hurts the one who carries it. Passing on the pain doesn’t take away pain either. Passing it on just gives pain new energy, draining the energy of the one who harbors and holds on to it.
I don’t know how to solve the world’s problems. I don’t know whether we’ll ever see a time when wars will stop. I know that religious conflicts are among the hardest to end, in part because of their confusion with a desire for power and control that masquerades as a search for orthodoxy or conformity in religious belief and practice.
Nevertheless, I do believe that each of us is called to do what we can to stop the bloodshed, both literally and figuratively. We must forgive. We must find ways to hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions. We must learn how to teach our children to love rather than fear or hate those who differ from us and our ways. We must welcome people from other lands. We must resolve to share the goods of the earth, even if that means we must live more simply ourselves. We must go beyond “an eye for an eye,” because as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” None of us is perfect. No country is entirely innocent on the world stage. But it’s time for all of us to grow up and stop passing on the pain. Time to forgive and remember and resolve, “Never again.”