The familiar call and response “Mom, Johnny hit me!” ~ “But he hit me first!” is repeated throughout homes and courtrooms throughout time and space. It’s called retribution-punitive violence and seems to be human nature, it’s clearly embedded in many different legal codes. The Old Testament phrase for this is “an eye for an eye.” Jesus captured this nicely with his phrase, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
In ugly fashion, adults too often refuse to grow out of this tit-for-tat concept of “justice.” Take Sam Mullet Sr. for instance. An Amish man whose story has been in the papers for 2 years. Deeply offended and hurt for how his authoritarian leadership was received, Mr. Mullet hit back when he felt he had been hit, and cut off the beards of those who he felt hurt him. Tit for tat, eye for eye. The cycle of violence once again careening out of control.
His story isn’t unusual, it just happened to be illegal how he expressed it. We justify retributive violence in our homes and especially in our courtrooms all the time. We might call it “punishment” or “discipline,” but here are three helpful ways to live into base human nature:
- 1. If we don’t punish them, how will they learn anything?
- 2. If we don’t punish them, how will they know how bad they’ve made us feel?
- 3. If we don’t punish them, I’ll look bad and be ashamed. Don’t I need to retaliate or punish to prove I’m not a wimp?
Does Jesus give us any hope of breaking out of this cycle of violence? Was retributive violence the behavior we see in God at the cross; does God fight fire with fire? Let’s explore this question historically, ethically, and theologically.
When Pilate asks Jesus if he’s really a king, Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not recognized in this world. If it were from this world, My servants would be fighting for my freedom.” (John 18:36) Instead of entering the expected cycle of violent retribution or choosing to flee, Jesus chooses nonviolent self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Instead of a justifiable war cry, all we hear from Jesus is “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) At the precise moment one would expect divine anger to boil over into a kind of tit for tat, Jesus refuses every form of retribution imaginable.
And when the rubber meets the road and a disciple has wrongly used violence to protect Jesus (Matthew 26:52) he responds, “Put your sword back into its place, for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” When Jesus first sees his followers who each hid out of empire’s gaze as he dies a painful death, his words are anything but vengeful: “Peace be to you.”
Rather than tit for tat, Jesus absorbs hate, returning good for evil.
This truth is like leaven in the Christian dough. In his most famous teaching we learn, “Do not retaliate revengefully by evil means….Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:39)
This teaching of course ripples throughout the entire New Testament and becomes the basis of millennia of Christian ethics for Christians of all stripes, including Anabaptists.
Paul in Philippians 2 and Romans 12, Peter in 1 Peter 3:9 are just two examples: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary repay with a blessing.”
OK, so the story and teachings of Jesus help us see a way out of the cycle of violence. But isn’t God by nature violent?
Here’s what we know: God creates out of nonviolence (Gen 1) in contrast to the surrounding creation myths of the Ancient Near East. This same God promises never to violently destroy in the Flood story, and then commands Abraham to not kill his only son. Various poetic texts image this same non-retributive God: Exodus 34:6-7 and Psalm 103:10-12 are 2 examples:
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
But our theology must move beyond poetry and address the violence of the cross and Jesus unjust death.
Over and again the New Testament uses the death and resurrection of Jesus to point us to the good news that it is this peaceful God who is Lord of all. It’s an equation outlined simply like this: Jesus death + Jesus resurrection= Jesus is glorified by God as Lord of all. You can see this gospel formula in Peter (Acts 2:22-36), Paul (Rom 1:4, 1 Cor 15:24-28, Eph 1:19-23, Phil 2:8-9, Col 1:18, 2;15) , John (John 17:5f, Revelation 4-5), and Hebrews (10:12-13).
The inauguration of Christ as God and King is clearly a theological statement about the divinity of Christ. But equally so, and perhaps more helpful to ponder for US Christians, is its clarity on the Jesus-likeness of God. At the cross of Christ God is revealed to be like Jesus.
And thankfully so! As Paul says, “It is central to our good news that God was in the Anointed making things right between Himself and the world. This means God does not hold their sins against them…While we were enemies (and sinners) we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” (2 Cor 5:19;Rom 5:10,8)
Jesus makes peace by committing himself to God’s redeeming justice rather than Caesar’s violence of Peace through Victory. Of course this message “about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
The Gospel, as it turns out, is God! If you want to know who God is, look to Jesus, for “he is our peace.” God does not need to destroy in order to make peace. God does not need to punish before he loves. God does not need to be wrathful before forgiving. God does not need to kill the one in order to save the many.
Our God is like Jesus: a God of non-retribution and forgiveness, who confronts and unmasks evil, a God who defeats evil through self-sacrificial love, God is “the God of peace.” Evil has been defeated! Death is no more! Resurrection proves the victory of God and affirms the method and message of Jesus’ peace for all people.
Christ’s method and message of forgiveness and peace, rather than retribution and revenge, makes things right in the world!
But we will continue to treat people how they treat us unless and until we intentionally mirror and mimic the vision and practice of Jesus and not the other. Paul assures us that we can genuinely “consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We who were once enslaved to our own human nature – including “an eye for an eye” retributive violence – can be freed through the power of the Spirit to live in the freedom of forgiveness as Jesus did.
May God’s redeeming justice flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more! (Psalm 72:7)