As the United States begins engaging with ISIS forces in Syria by means of air strikes, marking the beginning of another American “involvement” with conflicts in the Middle East, many commentators observed that the political world seems largely untroubled. Few critics of this new action are to be found in the halls of power in Washington, where people all along the political spectrum seem supportive of the President’s decision to move in this direction.
On the one hand, this is not surprising. Americans have seen images and heard stories about horrific atrocities committed by this extremist group, and there is no question that the massive numbers of people dying and suffering dislocation and deprivation deserve justice. The real question is, what kind of justice do they deserve?
Americans have proven themselves time and again to be highly susceptible to a narrative that makes justice look a lot like vengeance. We have accepted a conceptual framework in which the proper response to violence is more violence. The level of violence within our own society makes this abundantly clear — as do the calls, in the face of that violence, for more violence: are there school shootings? Arm the teachers. Are there dangerous people lurking on the streets? Adopt open carry laws and arm the citizenry. This same dynamic has created the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, since Americans think it is best to imprison people for a whole range of offenses that are handled differently in other countries: it is just meeting violence with violence in another form. And, of course, the ultimate expression of this dynamic in our justice system is the continuation in most US jurisdictions of capital punishment — something that almost every other developed country has abandoned. We are a people who are swift to judge, swift to pick up the nearest weapon to deal with whatever we deem threatening. The name of this way of thinking and acting is retributive justice, a view that defines justice as a proportionate, punishing response to injustice. It is a view of justice that is enshrined in large portions of the Hebrew Bible, where a kind of tribal understanding of justice from the early Hebrew period often surfaces. It is exemplified by this verse from the Hebrew Scriptures: “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.” (Lev. 24:19–21)
It must be said that rabbinical commentaries on passages like this often soften and nuance the meaning that is most apparent, with various scholars suggesting that monetary compensation (as we are familiar with through our own judicial system) can satisfy the demand for reciprocal injury in verses like these.
The rabbi Jesus went much further than softening and nuancing:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
In the face of the seeming divine sanction that Jesus’ own tradition seemed to give to retributive justice, he prescribed a much different course: one of non-resistance. It is, perhaps especially for us, a radical teaching. And most people, confronted with it, find a multitude of practical objections to it. The teaching is linked with another teaching that immediately follows:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48)
The relationship between these two passages suggests that Jesus roots his non-resistance teaching — his overthrowing of the legitimacy of retributive justice — in the spiritual practice of developing love toward our fellow human beings, a love that allows us to see humanity in even the most unrighteous of people. This, Jesus tells us, is the perfection of God: to see the world as a whole, and not to break into the dualism that the identification of others as our enemies necessarily entails.
Jesus, I think, recognizes the difficulty of this teaching. His phrases about tax-collectors and Gentiles limiting their compassion to those whom are easy to love suggests that recognition. But clearly he is calling those who would be his followers to a different way of living, calling us to embrace an understanding of justice that does not include retaliation.
Our willingness as Americans to resort to violence in the face of violence — despite the numerous examples in our history of how badly such a response can ultimately turn out — serves as a sign of our spiritually underdeveloped culture. We have, consciously or unconsciously, adopted a religious perspective in which God is interested in punishment, and is not afraid to mete it out. Scores of conservative Christian communities, pastors, and people have so pushed this image of God that it has become the default mode for many. This image of God, and the bible passages that have been used to support it, do not correspond to the image of God that is supported by the teaching of Jesus. Those of us who seek to follow Jesus have an obligation to deal honestly with his teaching of non-resistance and his vision of the oneness of humanity under God, and to understand its implications for our lives both individually and as citizens.
I will not claim to have the definitive answers when it comes to the latest crisis unfolding in the Middle East. But I am fairly sure about a couple of things: that our history makes clear that most of the time, when we employ our military power to correct what we deem to be an evil situation, more harm than good generally has been the result, and the problem we thought we could so easily fix turns out to be complicated beyond all expectation. And, whenever a country chooses to engage in military action, the citizenry of that country should be disturbed. We should be bothered. And so should those who lead us.