Non-Retaliation

Let’s be honest. Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking are radical. Not only does Jesus take actions that alienate most of the respected religious leaders of his day, he also gives his followers new commandments that are hard to believe and even harder to follow – both then and now!

Shortly after the Beatitudes recorded in Matthew 5, Jesus shares some of the most radical of all his teachings. He begins by quoting the Mosaic law (Exodus 21:22-25) that established the principle of exact retribution. This Mosaic law was revolutionary in its time because it limited compensation due to a victim and restrained revenge – contrary to the common response to injustice in the culture of that time, especially if a family feud developed.

Although Jesus does not contradict the principle of retribution, he states that this principle is not applicable to our personal relationships where love, not justice, ought to be the dominant characteristic.

What a difficult teaching! Jesus says our duty to someone who wrongs us is not retaliation, but acceptance of the wrong without a spirit of revenge. Jesus illustrates this radical teaching with four examples taken from the everyday world of his listeners, examples that must have been painful to hear.

The illustration of being struck on the right cheek was not taken from a fist fight, but was rather the back-handed slap of a master to a slave, a Roman to a Jew – the demeaning blow of a powerful person to the face of a weak, vulnerable one. In a similar way, going the second mile was a clear reference to the practice of the occupying Roman army to commandeer Jews to do forced service.

Jesus is teaching his disciples to avoid revenge and to practice non-retaliation in their personal lives. We must not conclude that Jesus is prohibiting the administration of justice or suggesting that we acquiesce to injustice. Rather, Jesus is forbidding his followers from taking the law into their own hands.

An “eye for an eye” is a principle of justice that belongs in the courts of law, but in our personal lives, Jesus teaches that we must not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). If, in response to a blow to the cheek, we retaliate with a return slap, then the perpetrator has taken control of the situation and determined our reaction. Jesus gives us the freedom not to respond according to the actions of our attacker, but to respond in love.

So What?

  • These teachings of Jesus are hard for me to share with you, because I really struggle with them in my own life. I am someone who hates injustice and wants to deal harshly with its perpetrators. I can’t stand it when people cut in line in front of me, make fun of minorities, or take illegal actions for their financial benefit at someone’s expense. How do you deal with these kinds of issues?
  • It is hard for us to understand the radical examples Jesus used because we don’t live in a country occupied by foreign soldiers who exploit us. Can you think of some examples that fit our cultural context?

2 comments on “Non-Retaliation”

  1. Jerry in DC

    In our day justice is often thought of as “me getting my rights” or “treating me right.” Jesus points to the way love transforms justice. More accurately, his words actually take our upside down me/my-centered take on justice and puts it right side up.

    Indeed, I would argue his correction cannot be limited to personal relationships, but speaks also to the public relationships of the courtroom. It applies precisely to the danger of allowing the horror of a perpetrator’s act to distort into retaliation a judge’s ruling of justice.

    Does not real justice require more than simply fitting the punishment to the crime? (Did not Jesus come to fulfill the law?) Is not a fuller and truer understanding of justice involve restitution for victim, for community, and for perpetrator? Does it not also include, as much as it is actually possible, the restoration (making whole) of victim as well perpetrator, and the relationship between them and the community? Does not the arc of justice bend toward shalom?

    In our day when “rights” seem to trump all other considerations to the hurt of community (social or relational) wholeness, are not Jesus’ words a corrective to what real justice indeed requires? In truth, is not justice a public dimension or expression of love, a love that sees in a fallen world the need for punishment and restitution, accountability and forgiveness, correction and compassion?

    No easy task, for sure. Nonetheless, I believe Jesus’ radical words raise signposts pointing toward right/righteous relationships, individual and institutional, personal and public.

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