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).