Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered (Leviticus 24.19-20)
…life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deuteronomy 19.21b)
Lex talionis, the law of retaliation, was…is intended to govern, indeed, restrict to a similar degree the penalty for an injury. Despite the scriptural citations above, it predates the Hebrew Bible, going as far back as the Code of Hammurabi of the 18th century B.C.E. This principle and, now, its nearly 4,000-year-old resiliency is at the heart of countless legal codes, perhaps, too, in the minds of many of us in our daily encounters with others in the world.
This latter case is my point.
I think of the varied and increasing calls, aye, cries for a restoration of civility in our public, especially political discourse. The loss of gentility is attributed by some to President Trump. I do not believe that Mr. Trump begat or otherwise invented incivility, which has been alive and unwell for as long as humans have inhabited the earth. Still, in my view, Mr. Trump’s hardly benevolent, verily, I feel, malignant brand of pugilistic engagement with others, particularly those he perceives as opponents, has stimulated and hastened our descent into the bowels of a dangerous, life-devaluing form of discourtesy. Personally, I find his way of being contrary to the values, the virtues of unconditional and impartial love and justice for all on which I stake my life.
That said, equally, I am opposed (and for the same reason) to the actions of those who, apparently prescribing (whether consciously or not) to the dictum of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth,” have chosen to retaliate in kind. For example, Representative Maxine Waters, in a speech this past June, encouraged the public confrontation of presidential administration officials and staffers, saying, in part, “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Another example, this past month, former attorney general Eric Holder, speaking at a campaign rally leading up to the recently concluded November mid-term elections, referenced, then refuted former first lady Michelle Obama’s mantra, “When they go low, we go high,” saying, “No, no! When they go low, we kick ‘em. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”
The problem with lex talionis is that it doesn’t work because we humans, from the dawn of creation, have proven to exercise little restraint on our desire, our need to respond to an offense. In so (or not!) doing, we have placed even less restrictions on the measures of our retribution. In a word, our retaliatory reactions always escalate, worsen the situation.
The Apostle James, decrying the destructive impact of human will and action and calling for purity of purpose, admonished, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh”(1)
I also am reminded of one of the earliest biblical testimonies to our unbridled, insatiable human hunger for vengeance…
When Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Lord punished Cain, banishing him from the divine presence. Cain despaired, crying out in fear for his life. The Lord responded, setting this limit, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance”(2)
However, within six generations, Lamech, Cain’s descendent, boasted of increasing the degree of retribution eleven times: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold”(3)
And we have continued this treacherous way.
Back in the proverbial and historical day, to be civil meant that one was a citizen dwelling in a commonwealth, that is, with and among other citizens, thus, not a barbarian or uncivilized. Oh, to recapture this understanding that we might learn anew and know as true that civility ne’er can be restored through incivility.
(1) The Epistle of James 3.11-12
(2) Genesis 4.15
(3) Genesis 4.24
Cain and Abel (1740), Giovanni Domenico Ferretti (1692-1768). Note: Ferretti portrays that moment when the Lord, accompanied by members of the heavenly host, appears in judgment of Cain, his countenance etched with fear, standing over the fallen and dead body of his brother Abel.
Lamech and his two wives, Jan Sadeler I (1550-1600). Note: Sadeler depicts Lamech’s declaration to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice. You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4.23-24).
7 thoughts on “Civil Restraint”
I am so glad you offered an opportunity to think clearly about the concept of retaliation and revenge, as I’m convinced it serves as the basis for much of the world’s pain. I love your clearly stated explication of the concept and some of its biblical history and foundation. Isn’t it true that there is something in the chemistry of retaliation in kind and the darkness of the human heart that does not permit “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?” The ante must almost always be upped before our vengeance appears proportionate in our own eyes to the original injury or insult. And so it goes on, and on, and on. I always think of the neverending tragic situation between Israel and the Palestinians being one of the most reliable example of disproportionate vengeance, and how much worse each people’s situation always becomes because of that toxic pattern.
One of the things I’ve taken to doing in some situations where terrible things have been done is to ask myself the question where it all could have started and and trying to imagine tracing the human experiences and feelings back to some word or deed that began it all, whether it be a mass shooting, domestic violence, a poisonous political exchange, etc. What could have prompted the deeds and words, even generations back, through which the ripples of violence, rage, intentional infliction of pain have spread in all directions? What one thing, if changed from anger, impatience, self-centeredness, etc. to forbearance, patience, consideration, etc could have prevented or mitigated the destructive vibrations from destroying lives, careers, marriages, relationships, hopes? I have discovered that this exercise, if practiced enough, makes me more mindful of my own words and deeds and what unforeseen and unintended chain reactions they may be starting, even years from now, that I will never even know about.
I must believe that revenge and retaliation are among the very most destructive inventions humans have ever conceived. The idea that our behavior must be dictated by and must mirror the worst behavior of other human beings is without a doubt one of the most empty-headed and heartless ideas ever expressed and acted upon. I have a very difficult time attributing that idea to God/Love, even though there are, I know, many, many examples of divine vengeance in scripture. This is one of those scriptural ideas about God/Love where I have to simply say to myself that God always has been and is undergoing deep evolution, just as we humans are. I suppose views like that make me a heretic, but so be it, I guess.
Paul, once again, you’ve made me think and pray about something that is so important to us all, and I am the richer for it. Thank you, dear friend, for pondering, studying, valuing, and continuing to raise central human questions so faithfully and so well and for providing clarity and inspiration to those of us also struggling with them in an effort to walk more closely with God/Love as we continue on the path of our individual and collective human growth and development.
As usual Paul, you find words that describe and explain what we are all feeling but can’t quite articulate it. I couldn’t agree more with all you’ve said… AND I add a fear I have surrounding this incivil world we live in. My fear is that we won’t recover from this in my lifetime. I find the current state of incivility not just sad, but hurtful. Looking at the news hurts, overhearing mean conversations that some people are saying about others hurts, and trying to stand up for those who are being mistreated is exhausting. I know that we can’t just run and hide from it all, but truthfully I’m just plain tired. I hope find the rejuvenation I need to continue to be a person who considers civility a wonderful way of life.
Much love and thanks.
As usual…as always, Karen and Loretta, you honor me with your reading and responding to my posts and encourage me to continue thinking, feeling, praying, writing…
Karen, your spiritual practice of pondering events and acts of sorrowful, sorrow-filled revenge and retaliation, seeking to tracing the bitter fruits back to their planted seeds, is a noble endeavor. I laud for it. Verily, I find your present and personal discernment and application – “…this exercise, if practiced enough, makes me more mindful of my own words and deeds and what unforeseen and unintended chain reactions they may be starting…” – is precisely the benefit of your practice. By this I mean to say that all such spiritual exercises are meant to aid the practitioner in coming to and arriving at and, I pray, staying in a place of deeper self-awareness. Moreover, I mean to suggest, in this, that none of us, in such a practice, can prevent the onerous outcomes of the cycles of vengeance engaged by others, whether those others are individuals, families, communities, regions, nations, or peoples. Such is the limitation of individual power in hoping, dreaming, wishing for peace…
And, in this, Loretta, I, as the now proverbial saying has it, feel your pain. I, too, oft am weary and pained in looking at the news, overhearing harsh speech, and attempting to stand on the side of the mistreated. Thus, I rest, literally and metaphorically, in my understanding of what I call the sacred cycle of Jesus’ life – as revealed in the gospel accounts – of engagement with the world, then retreat from the world to pray, to rest, to recharge, then re-engagement with the world, then, again, retreating from the world. There are times, as I know you know, in your life with your blessed RV JOY, that we have to unplug from the world to find and reconnect with our sources of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual rejuvenation.
And, Karen, as to your profession of potential heresy in considering that God is evolving along with the creation, know that I, too, oft have had that thought and, indeed, oft have considered that premise. Indeed, one of my favorite reads of past years is Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God” (2009). Moreover, Alfred North Whitehead, that late great English scholar and theologian, was a primary promoter of the notion of process theology, which, among many principles, posited the probability of God’s being in the process of becoming along with the creation. Now, on another and immediate turn, I also think that the vengeful God we behold in scripture may be more an expression, indeed, a projection of what humans wished to see in their god (particularly in times of threat or oppression), thus, making their god in their own image(s) and not an aspect of God’s Self-revelation.
A final, for now, word. As a Christian who abides by the values, the virtues of unconditional and impartial love and justice, active benevolence and fairness for all at all times, I simply do not, cannot, and will not believe that retaliatory action in response to an offense (though, as human, surely, I have and embody such desires!) is or can be an expression of the life of God’s kingdom. We all must die. Still, if I am to kill another, please, God, by Your Spirit, let me slay them with Your Love.
Love you two, each and both, always and in all ways,
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Your thoughtful response to Loretta’s and my comments on your original post is validating, and helpful, not to mention loving and kind. Every day I am buoyed by the fact that I am blessed to know some wonderful faithful people, among them of course you and Loretta, who seem always to seek the heart of what is happening in the swirling, confusing, often hurtful world around us. You seek the sparks of light in the deepest shadows, the whispered word amidst the shouting, the gentle touch in the rough pulling and shoving. Where judgment and condemnation are expected, you offer calm attention, careful assessment, forbearance and often forgiveness, always patience, always hope. You are all a part of that constant river of love that flows quietly below the ubiquitous noisy confusion that we mistake for the totality of current reality. I thank God for all of you, both for the world’s sake and for the reassurance you bring to me personally.
Much love to both of you,
You both are awesome!!! Being here in PA this weekend to rest and recharge with my RVing Women, some of the finest women I know, I feel like I can breathe again!!! I also had a VERY interesting email today. A colleague from work wrote me an email regarding the blurb in Parade magazine’s blurb on Caregivers in tomorrow’s issue. This is a person who always is pushing his views on others, voted for the current administration, is tries to bully those who don’t agree with him. In spite of the fact that I’m not looking at any news this weekend, I decided to read his email…. and what a shocker!! Because we don’t converse at work, he knows very little about me. He wrote that we was inspired by me and my caregiving for my Mom and that he was working to be more kind and compassionate towards others like I am… WHAT???????? What did you do with my colleague??? Lord have Mercy… I’m in the Post and has inspired someone I don’t even like….. Not a bad day!!
Love you both!!!
I am not a bit surprised at your colleague’s response to the article, Loretta. As I have said before, you are a force of nature! This may be the beginning of a change in your colleague’s attitudes. I hope so. Keep on doing what you’re doing, dear Loretta. The world needs your energy and your loving influence.
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Amen my sister!! Thank you thank you!! I’m hoping for a change in him for sure!! If I have a part in that process I’m thrilled!!