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Retribution and Forgiveness

Many Westerners despise the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" principle found in the Old Testament of the Hebrew Scriptures, thinking it too harsh. After all, as we all know only too well, Jesus said "You have heard it said 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you: forgive."

But the Hebrew principle is not all that bad. Consider the following curses found inscribed in the environs of the temple and baths dedicated to the Roman goddess Minerva in Bath, U.K.:

From such statements it seems that in some cultures, not influenced by the Hebrew principles of tsedeq, the principle was of disproportionate revenge: an eye and a mind for gloves, a life for a cloak. And gloves are hardly the most essential piece of clothing.

The Hebrew principle seems very fair and right, in comparison.

Juridical and Ethical

... At least as far as a juridical principle is concerned. As a rule for ordering relationships in society as a whole, and as a principle that informed the legal processes, "an eye for an eye" spoke of retribution rather than revenge. That is, a proportionate response to a wrong.

But in calling for forgiveness, Jesus was talking about a different aspect of living: the aspect of personal ethics and attitudes rather than the juridical aspect. We tend to confuse and conflate them, but Jesus was trying to separate them, and in doing so, providing the ground for us to enrich one with the other. The Jews of Jesus' day assumed that ethics is merely part of law; we tend to assume that law is merely part of ethics; both they and we are guilty of the same misunderstanding, of reducing one to the other.

Remember that Jesus explicitly said he was not removing even the smallest part of the least law. So, for him, the "eye for eye" principles still holds. Rather than replace it with forgiveness, as we Westerners tend to assume, he enriched it with forgiveness. "Eye for eye" is still valid in the legal realm.

A bit of philosophy

We can understand this more clearly with the help of the the Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, who recognised that in our living there are several distinct aspects, which should not be conflated into one another. (He proposed an ontology; the hyperlinks above are to his proposal for irreducible aspects.) In the realm of personal ethics, the kernel of which is self-giving love, we are called upon to exercise forgiveness. But in the realm of juridical structures of society, the kernel of which is 'what is due', we are called upon to exercise proportionality. And since self-giving love cannot be reduced to legal norms nor vice versa, exercising forgiveness does not go against proportionality, but enriches it.

This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2009. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: Counter.

Created: . Last updated: 7 February 2001 email. 19 November 2006 unet. 1 January 2009 .end, .nav, corrected links to dooy.