Revenge & Reconciliation

lincoln-portrait 

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln …. sermon for Presidents’ Day weekend, 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time …. Matthew 5:38-48 ….

Mark Bao is a software engineer who’s been a computer whiz since elementary school. In the fifth grade, he created an application to help his fellow classmates manage homework and sold it on floppy disks for $5 each. You can imagine his laptop computer is a form of personal treasure holding notes, designs, and applications in various phases of development.  The day his laptop was stolen during an unguarded moment was a day of pain and grief.

Days later, the story took an unexpected turn. Bao was able to remotely hack into his stolen laptop’s hard drive while it was connected to the Internet.  There he found something that turned his frown to a smile. It was a video file of the laptop thief.  He wasn’t doing anything vulgar or disturbing. He was simply dancing, perhaps mimicking a favorite music video.  It was bad dancing.

What did Mark Bao do? He uploaded the video to Youtube, letting viewers know this was the guy who had stolen his computer. It quickly became a very popular video.  You could say it went viral. The dancing thief returned the laptop to police. In the conversations that followed, he begged Mark Bao to remove the video. The post in which I read about these events says there’s a moral to the story: “Don’t steal computers belonging to people who know how to use computers.”[i]

There is a certain emotional satisfaction that humans take in revenge. Simple acts of revenge are the most primitive forms of justice. Since ancient times, they’ve given people who are wronged a sense that evil can be countered, stopped, even sometimes its effects reversed.

In the centuries during which the books of the Old Testament were written, the dominant ethic was known as the “lex tallionis.”  It was taken over from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi and we know it in such parts of the Bible as “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”[ii]

But revenge is a complicated thing. A vengeful plan that tastes sweet can quickly turn bitter. Each of us can recall from the news or somewhere in our past  a series of events in which a victim turns the tables and becomes the aggressor, sometimes inflicting more harm than ever received. And, in turn, our sympathy changes to disgust.

Jesus had opportunity to observe many instances of the hurtful, hateful cycle of revenge.  In response, he built upon the foundation of Old Testament theologians, and offered a new personal ethic for his disciples.  In our gospel text for today, he gives three examples of this ethic in operation.

First he says “If anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  One commentator points out the mechanics of a right-handed person offering a slap to the right cheek of an opponent.  Unless that person goes through the most complicated contortions, or uses very little force, the attacker can hit the other’s cheek in only one way – with the back of his or her hand.

According to a rabbinic saying, to hit a person with the back of the hand is twice as insulting as to hit him with the front, or flat, of the hand.  This adds a little bit of understanding to what Jesus says, — even if a person should direct at you the most profane and hurtful insult, it is best not to retaliate.

Second, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak also.”  In Jesus’ time, many men would have had a change of shirts.  But the cloak was the big blanket-like outer garment that a man wore as a robe by day and used as a blanket by night.  Most people had only one cloak. It was Jewish law that a man’s shirt could be taken as collateral for a loan, but not his cloak.[iii]   Jesus challenges his disciples to consider that their witness to Christ’s love is more important than an insistence upon personal rights.  In the best of circumstances, a spirit-filled person thinks less of rights, and more of duties, less of privileges and more of responsibilities.

Third, Jesus talked about the enemy who forces you to go one mile, and instead of resisting, going with him two.  Jesus says this in the context of Israel’s occupation by Roman forces.  At that time, the Jews could be drafted into service in the army.  That service might involve supplying food and shelter, or carrying baggage and weapons. Jesus says that his disciples should not be bitter, but gladly engage in this duty as service done for God.

Jesus’ new ethic is difficult to imagine practicing on a consistent basis. Hurting those who hurt us sometimes seems the logical thing to do.  In international diplomacy and warfare between nations, it is sometimes a necessary evil, the lesser evil among alternative courses. When the safety of vulnerable people or the peace of nations is in jeopardy, sometimes the most loving thing to do may be to fight the enemy. When fascism or terrorism raises its head, and millions of people may suffer as a result, the best response may be to fight the enemy.  Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians have observed circumstances in which it seemed the most appropriate response was a “just war” against the enemy.

But, Jesus understood, revenge never is a preferred strategy. When we observe people giving to their enemies the same treatment they received, often we see them become just as consumed with melodrama, just as hate-filled. It brings no lasting satisfaction; it often makes the quality of our lives worse.

Abraham Lincoln believed this to be true. On this Presidents’ Day weekend, we have opportunity to remember and celebrate the contributions of this great leader. The biography on my bookshelf at home is titled with words from his second inaugural address, delivered near the bloody end of the Civil War, when many in the north were planning and plotting their own particular expressions of revenge. Lincoln called them to a different path: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” It was the path of slowly, painstakingly, replacing hate with love. It was the course with the most possibility for redeeming what was bad, and making it good again.

It’s like the story about a piece of iron that was very strong.  There had been many attempts to break it but all had failed.  The ax said, “I’ll master it.”  And his blows fell heavily upon the iron, but every blow made his edge more blunt until it ceased to strike.  The saw said, “Leave it to me.” And it worked backward and forward on the iron surface until its teeth were all worn and broken.  Then it fell aside.  The hammer said, “Ah, I knew you wouldn’t succeed.  I’ll show you the way.” But at the first fierce blow, off flew its head and the iron remained as before.  “Shall I try?” asked the small, soft flame.  “Forget it,” everyone else said.  But the flame curled around the iron, embraced it, and never left the iron until it melted under its irresistible influence.  We turn the other cheek because Christian mission is not about breaking hearts but melting hearts with the slow but steady flame of God’s love.

[i] “15 Of The Craziest, Most Hilarious Revenge Tales Ever,” The Webtrovert, http://www.thewebtrovert.com/15-of-the-craziest-most-hilarious-revenge-tales-ever/4/ accessed 15 Feb. 2017.

[ii] Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, Deuteronomy 19.

[iii] Exodus 22 tells us, “If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering.  It is his mantle for his body.  In what else shall he sleep?”

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on February 19, 2017.