The second in our series on the theology of justice, from our resident theologian, Mr J Foster.
Amongst the hustle and bustle of this post-modern, developed, metropolitan city with people from all over the world and all walks of life around me, I found a small space on the train and settled to read the news. I flicked through the pages and found a small article about a young man in Saudi Arabia who had stabbed his friend when he was 14 and has been waiting for ten years to have his final ‘punishment’ carried out. The penalty he faced was to surgically have his spinal cord severed causing him to be permanently paralysed – the injury he had inflicted in that moment of youthful anger so many years before. The article went on to express an understandable horror at the ‘grotesque’ punishment that it described as being against international law and having ‘no place in any society’ citing the country’s religious views as permitting it to apply an ‘eye for an eye’ principle.
Hang on a minute… An ‘eye for an eye’? I know that phrase…
It’s one of the most famous phrases within the Old Testament Law and it makes an appearance in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy so we know that it’s not there by accident; this is important.
What on earth was it meant to achieve? The clinical disabling of a young man’s body? Is this really God’s idea of justice? Is this biblical justice?
There are loads of different opinions about these laws.
In Exodus, for example, many would say that they really meant the ‘value of an eye for an eye’ as the rest of Exodus 21 speaks of paying compensation for injuries.
In Leviticus, the passage follows on from a large section on the importance of remembering the majesty and holiness of God. Then in Leviticus 24 there’s a story about a man who forgets that and blasphemes the name of God – an offence so serious that it carries the death penalty. The demand for an ‘eye for an eye’ appears rather oddly in the middle of that story. Could it be that the passage is trying to point out that by harming another human being you are damaging the only part of creation made in God’s image and therefore committing another form of blasphemy?
When we turn to the version in Deuteronomy 19 we find it being talked about not as a penalty for someone who hurts someone else but rather as a punishment for trying to get someone else into trouble. If you falsely accuse someone of injuring another person and are found out, you are to receive the punishment instead of the innocent person you were lying about.
So, from this one simple, (slightly scary!) phrase we can see that justice has to do with protecting the innocent, trying to put right the damage caused by our actions and taking seriously the intrinsic value all human beings have, whoever they are, as they were made to reflect something of the Creator Himself.
Then, in the New Testament Jesus breathes new life into the old phrase in the Sermon on the Mount and explains that it was never meant to be about revenge. (Have a read of Matthew 5 onward)
Biblical justice offers a way of recognising the value of others and finding a way to restore what is broken so it doesn’t happen again. Jesus wasn’t changing the Law; he was explaining it more clearly.
So how does it apply to us? If someone is causing you harm the answer is not revenge. With God’s grace and the support of others the call is to show kindness in return – Why? Because that’s what God did for you and me through the Cross and we’re all designed to look a bit like Him.