Evolutionary psychologists believe we are hardwired for revenge. Fear of retaliation helped our earliest ancestors to keep the peace and correct injustices. Acts of revenge helped deter a second harmful act and acted as an insurance policy, a warning that mistreatment would not be tolerated. As St. Augustine explains, this desire for revenge, which is natural in us, often tends to go beyond strict justice. For example, someone might want to kill in a moment of rage someone else who stole only a small amount of money from them.
Because of the desire for exaggerated vengeance, God gave through Moses in the Old Testament the “lex talionis,” the law of retaliation, which Jesus quotes today “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The lex talionis is definitely an upgrade over an unlimited amount of revenge’s cruel fury. By it, you cannot retaliate more than the same measure of the offense received. This law helps check the rage of disproportionate vengeance.
I practice the lex talonis every week on game night. Fr. Sam, Fr. John James, and I meet weekly to play Settlers of Catan. This game is definitely a lot of fun! As I’m saying, it is a lot of fun, except when you get the robber in one of your tiles. I often warn the priests and everyone else that if the robber is placed in one of my tiles, they will “anger the gods…” This means I will exact the “an eye for an eye” on them the next time. I guess I have not yet upgraded to the New Testament in my playing of Setters of Catan.
The lex talionis is not sinful, but Jesus calls us to a higher standard saying, “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”
St. Augustine paraphrases this passage saying, “I might state it yet thus; It was said to them of old time, you shall not take unequal retaliation; but I say unto you, you shall not retaliate; this is a completion of the law if in these words something is added to the law which was wanting to it; yea, rather that which the law sought to do, namely, to put an end to unequal revenge, is more safely secured when there is no revenge at all.”
Does this mean that nobody should ever be punished? Again, St. Augustine comes to our aid. He explains that we must distinguish between punishment for correction’s sake and punishment from angry hate. The Lord does forbid the latter but allows for the former since fraternal correction is part of the virtue of charity and, therefore, an act of love when done without hate.
A great example of the practice of this Gospel passage is St. John Paul II. In 1981 he was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca. After the incident, the Pope said, “pray for my brother (Agca), whom I have sincerely forgiven.” Agca was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Italian government. The Pope visited Agca, conversed with him, and later on was visited by his mother. In June 2000, he was pardoned by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at the Pope’s request. This led to his conversion to the Catholic Church in 2007.
John Paul allowed imprisonment because it was out of his hands, but also because it was building restorative justice, but after a while, he interceded for Agca. The Old Testament would have been fulfilled by simply accepting the just sentence the Italian government imposed. But this was not enough for our Saint. He decided to go beyond and imitate Christ more fully. Let us go and do likewise.