If you have read any of my blog posts then you will know that I care deeply about justice for the powerless and for the voiceless of this world. The principal of justice is very important, but we need to be very careful about how we apply justice. How often have we heard people effected by crime cry out, “We want justice” when they really mean that they want revenge and to see perpetrators suffer. This may be a natural response but as followers of Jesus we should not seek revenge and retaliation.
Sermon on the Mount
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ (Matthew 5:38 NIV)
Jesus was quoting from the Jewish Law in Exodus 21:24. The demands of justice allow for a penalty proportional to the crime. But Jesus went beyond justice as we will see in later verses.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” (Reputed to be said by Mahatma Gandhi)
Gandhi was saying that if we keep punishing those we deem cruel, then we’re no better than the bad guys ourselves. You cannot solve violence with violence.
Jesus went on to say:
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39 NIV)
Jesus showed us by his life as well as by his words that violence cannot be defeated by violence. If we are struck then we should not retaliate. We must be prepared to be stuck again. If we are injured it is better to be injured still more than to inflict injury on the other person. If we are spoken ill of then we need to forgive, not give ‘as good as we get’, or reciprocate with words.
Non-violence is not cowardice. If we suffer injury, Jesus is not suggesting that we try to ignore the injury, but to willingly open ourselves to more violence. The only way we can do this is by forgiving the perpetrator, even if that forgiveness is not accepted, resulting in more suffering.
These are not mere words from Jesus – he lived by these principles. When he was beaten by roman soldiers he did not retaliate. When he was cruelly nailed to the cross he said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” He could have called on angels for protection and could have met violence with violence but instead he actually forgave those who were torturing him.
When Jesus subjected himself to the violence of mankind, he defeated violence through the miracle of non-violence. In the whole of human history there was no better example of overcoming violence not though more violence but the complete opposite. When Jesus rose from the dead, that defeat was complete, giving his followers the same opportunity of experiencing the same defeat of violence, not by cowardice but by non-violent forgiveness.
2+2 = 4 Meeting violence with violence simply doubles the total suffering.
2+0 = 2 Ignoring the violence or running away is no use. The suffering remains.
2-2 = 0 Forgiving the violent person negates and defeats the harm done.
And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. (Matthew 5:40 NIV)
This principle of going beyond justice does not just apply to violence. When we are wronged we can seek justice and may be the civil courts will agree with us and put things right. But Jesus challenges us and suggests that we do not appeal to the judges, but willingly give the other person more than they have given. How can we apply the principle today.
- If a neighbour erects a new fence and ‘steals’ 6 inches of our garden, suggest to him that he may well like a fence giving him another 12 inches of land.
- If someone ‘cuts us up’ on the road, bless them instead of cursing them.
- If we are over-charged at a restaurant leave a bigger tip!
These examples can sound kind of silly to us, but we have been conditioned by ‘standing up for our rights’ and have so often ignored the words of Jesus. Going beyond justice means not demanding what is rightfully ours and demonstrating that in the end love defeats the wrong that people may do to us.
Going the extra mile
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matthew 5:41 NIV)
Roman law said that if a soldier is carrying a heavy load, he may demand that a civilian carries his load for one mile. That is simply exploitation of a subject people and is not just. It is the sort of law which I would probably want to challenge as I seek to address injustice on behalf of other people. But here, Jesus is talking about a personal response to injustice when our own rights are effected.
“Going the extra mile” is defined by the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus as:
“To make more effort than is expected of you”
It is one thing to seek Justice on behalf of other people. It is quite a different thing to stand up for our own rights, meeting violence with violence, and doing the bare minimum of what is expected of us. The challenge from Jesus is to go beyond justice, by forgiveness, by giving to others more than could be demanded, and to win over our fellow human beings through love.