“Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt. But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court. “Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.” Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.”1
Stephanie’s punishment didn’t really fit the crime; in fact, the punishment actually breaks the Law of Moses that our legal system supposedly agrees with. “In this case the command in question is not one of the more familiar Ten Commandments but is instead the so-called lex talionis or “law of retaliation.” As Moses articulated it in the Old Testament, this law mandated, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
“The purpose behind this law was to short-circuit wild-eyed vendettas in which you get so angry at someone for insulting you that you go out and burn down his barn or in which someone slugs you in the stomach and you turn around and put a knife through his heart. If you need to seek justice in your life, Moses said, be sure it is proportional.”2
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this model; it’s certainly better than the alternative, which we saw in the example of Stephanie George, our drug-hiding girlfriend. Even Jesus didn’t really denounce this law, but He did have a few things to say about it.
Here’s one of the most argued about lines in the whole of Scripture: Jesus tells us “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Turn the other cheek, the great talisman of Christian pacifism. This is bold language from Jesus, a new commandment as of then never heard or even thought about, and so we need to look to the example of Christ when enforcing it. When Jesus was arrested and stood before Caiaphas, the high priest, something Jesus said to the Caiaphas was taken as a bit snarky, and one of the officers standing by struck Jesus in the face and said, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus did not physically offer the officer His other cheek but rather said, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” That said, Jesus didn’t hit him back, either, and so we can say that what ‘turn the other cheek’ means is that personal vengeance is no longer a viable option.3 As Paul reminds us, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay.”
But what does this all look like today? First, on the list if not in priority, we need to make sure that our systems are just; is it okay to bug your representatives about unjust laws, about any law that devalues life? You bet your sweet petunia it is. Second, much like we were talking about last week, we need to keep our hearts in check, to make sure that the anger that’s in all of us doesn’t win over the rule of not just the law of the land, but the law of love. But mostly it’s just about you and me; it’s about stopping and checking to see if justice outweighs mercy, and when it does, remembering that only Christ among us has ever been truly just. It’s about our daily lives together, about living in a relationship with God and with each other that’s so focused on the betterment of the other that we stop worrying so much about who slighted who; it’s about walking side by side with each other focused on this cross, so that when something or someone goes wrong, our first instinct is not vengeance but rather to look upon our crucified Savior and say His words, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
1John Tierney, For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars, The New York Times, 12/11/12.
2Scott Hoezee, This Week.
3Robertson’s Word Pictures