An Eye for an eye
By Virginia Jasmin Pasalo
ON a Thursday morning, Francis Fernandez tagged me to a post of Gabriel Cardinoza quoting Ellen DeGeneres, “If we’re destroying our trees and destroying our environment and hurting animals and hurting one another and all that stuff, there’s got to be a very powerful energy to fight that. I think we need more love in the world. We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, more laughter. I definitely want to contribute to that.” A response from Consuelo Perez came in a poster, “I need Jesus to get better, to do well, to be happier, to be loved, to get richer.”
These articulations share their conceptual beginnings in the Gospel of Matthew 5: 38-42 (KJV), in the New Testament delivered by Jesus from the Sermon in the Mount, as an alternative for “an eye for an eye”:
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
The same is echoed in the Gospel of Luke 6:27-31 (KJV) in the Sermon on the Plain, as part of his command to “love your enemies”.
These concepts were interpreted among Bible scholars and academics as commands for non-resistance, Christian pacifism or nonviolence on the part of the victim.
In the book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Bible scholar and theologian Walter Wink interprets the passage as “ways to subvert the power structures of the time.” Wink says, that during the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance. If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek,” the person in authority is faced with a challenge. “The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. An alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was demanding equality.”
Interpreting Matthew 5:40, Wink said, that giving the cloak, in addition to the tunic, reduces the debtor to nakedness, a situation forbidden by Hebrew law as stated in Deuteronomy (24:10–13). “He notes that public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not just the naked, as seen in Noah’s case (Genesis 9:20–23).”
Wink interprets the Sermon on the Mount as a method for making the oppressor break the law. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus commands “to go a mile“, if the oppressor compels one to do so. At that time, Roman authorities demanded inhabitants of occupied territories to carry messages and equipment the distance of one mile post, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions. “In this example, the nonviolent interpretation sees Jesus as placing criticism on an unjust and hated Roman law as well as clarifying the teaching to extend beyond Jewish law.”
These interpretations should be borne in mind in seeking ecological justice, restitution and remedies for the victims of the Pangasinan Massacre, where thousands of century-old trees were hacked to death. Legal remedies have proven to be slow in saving the trees, and the Catholic church has proven to be slower in embodying Laudato Si, the landmark encyclical of Pope Francis, calling for the healing of Earth, “our common home.”
What Jesus commanded, in the context of his time, is a method to subvert oppressive authority and power structures in a creative, non-violent way. He was a rebel to the core. There is more to ”an eye for an eye” than meets the eye, and turning the other cheek is not literally turning the other cheek.
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