Many people are crying out against injustice these days. That could be a positive sign – if only we understood what true justice looks like.
But I’m convinced we’ll never truly understand social justice unless we take time for a brief history lesson on the ancient principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In recent centuries, this maxim has come under fierce attack. Reformers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have observed that if we all lived by that principle, soon the entire world would be blind and toothless.
But we need to understand that “an eye for an eye” was originally decreed as a means of promoting justice instead of lawless retaliation. It was applied like this:
- If you gouged out my eye, I would have a right to gouge out yours. That may sound barbaric, but it would be justice.
- If you knocked out one of my teeth, I would have a right to knock out one of yours. Any retribution beyond that would be out of bounds and unjust.
- If you burned down my house, I would have a right to burn down yours – not your entire neighborhood, just your house.
- If you killed someone in my family, I would have a right to kill someone in your family. Once again, although this certainly offensive to our modern sensibilities, the outcome is just if you view it on a theoretically level.
You see, the “eye for an eye” principle was enacted in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 24:19-20) as a way to prohibit revenge that exceeded the bounds of fairness. Without that law, if you killed one of my family members, I might fly into a rage and wipe out your entire family in revenge. Such an act of retaliation might be understandable, but it wouldn’t be justice.
What Should Be Done?
This is timely issue. We need to ask ourselves how justice can be served in the tragic case of George Floyd.
Everyone who has watched the horrific video of his murder by a white policeman has condemned the event. There’s no dispute about that, regardless of whether a viewer is white, black, or some other ethnicity.
We’re all in agreement on the crime, so the only question is what should be done to bring about true justice for George. If we follow the “eye for an eye” principle, we might conclude that since George’s life was wrongfully taken from him, the officer’s life should be taken as well. Arguably, that’s the only way justice can be served, unless mitigating factors would somehow reduce the officer’s penalty.
But wait a minute… Just a few days after George’s death, the officer was already charged with murder. Shouldn’t that be enough to ensure justice?
It’s my understanding that the officer has only been charged with murder in the third degree, and many people feel his charge should be raised to Murder One. I agree. Yet perhaps we have to let the legal system play itself out before automatically concluding the officer will get off too easily.
Meanwhile, let’s look at the bigger picture: Was justice being served when innocent bystanders had their businesses ransacked or burned to the ground? Was justice being done when people looted and pillaged Target stores, removing flatscreen TVs and any other items they wanted? Was justice done when people burned down a police station, a church, and numerous police cars? And what about the hooligans who threw Molotov cocktails or put graffiti on national monuments in Washington D.C.?
Here’s the terrible point to all of this: People who do such things don’t truly want justice at all! They are showing themselves to just be angry, self-centered criminals. After a day or two, the riots had absolutely nothing to do with providing justice for George Floyd. That clearly had become merely a pretense for retribution and greed.
Discovering a Higher Law
If people were following the “eye for an eye” precept, there would not have been any room for rioting or destruction of property after George’s death. None of those actions have contributed to “social justice” or to furtherance of racial harmony.
However, as Christians we’re called to follow a much higher law than “an eye for an eye.” Although this “royal law” is still based on justice, its deeper motivation is grace.
Jesus addressed this head-on in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also…
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matthew 5:38-47 NLT).
What a high standard! In fact, apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, perhaps this is an impossible standard. Jesus calls us to enter into His kingdom by grace, God’s unmerited favor. Accordingly, He expects us to exhibit that grace and forgiveness in our relationships with others – whether they deserve it or not. The justice envisioned by “an eye for an eye” is no longer good enough.
The apostle Paul echoed this same principle about not taking our own revenge:
“Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
“Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19 NLT).
There’s a crucial insight here that helps to explain why our nation went up in flames after George Floyd’s brutal death: Paul is writing this admonition to Christians, people who believe Almighty God is actively working to help us in every difficult situation we face. He assures them that God Himself will pay back the wrongdoers. But for people who have left the Lord out of the picture, their only alternative is to handle things themselves.
Our law enforcement officers and legal system are far from perfect. But Paul says they are “God’s servants,” keeping our society from plunging into to total lawlessness and anarchy (Romans 13:1-5). We should be grateful for their service! When they are functioning properly, we don’t need to worry about taking our own revenge.
You see, people who are confident in the ultimate justice of God don’t need to worry so much about enforcing their own justice. And certainly, those who truly believe in God’s divine sovereignty would find it unnecessary to deface monuments, loot businesses, or set public buildings on fire in an attempt to enact justice. Revenge is God’s business!
Ironically, while so many people are hurting today, George Floyd is now doing just fine. I’m confident he’s in heaven, being comforted in God’s awesome presence.
That’s no excuse for the office who killed him. George’s life ended decades too early. His friends and family have suffered a terrible and unjustifiable loss. But the remedy for lawless actions by an evil police officer is not to instigate lawlessness of our own, harming innocent people who played no role in George’s death.
In the midst of all this, God is calling His children to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). This means speaking up for true justice – not condoning either George’s murder or the violence presently being done in his name.
My friend, beware of false justice! Despite our justifiable anger over injustice, we’re called to exercise self-control and not sin (Ephesians 4:26-27). Beware of listening to any voice – whether from a friend, mainstream news, or social media – that prompts you to justify hatred or violence of any kind. And remember: Political correctness might make you popular, but it isn’t equivalent to actual justice.