Guns ‘n Moses
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…Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-40,42
It is said that power flows from the barrel of a gun. As does revenge. As does intimidation. The craving to wield violent power against another flows, if not always from a raw desire for additional power, then from a sense of powerlessness, a perceived need for revenge, or a longing to allay one’s fears. It is true today, and it was true in Moses’ day. The book of Exodus, which is attributed to Moses, has much to say about exacting revenge, including this: “If any harm follows (from violence done to you) you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” The purpose of Moses’ guidance was to align the severity of the punishment with the seriousness of the crime. Today’s equivalent would be a bomb for a bomb. Jesus famously, and uncomfortably, refuted the eye-for-an-eye reasoning by telling his followers not to resist an evildoer, to turn the other cheek if stricken by another, and saying to give to another whatever they want from us. Clearly, Jesus had a completely different understanding of and response to power and revenge.
Power over others comes from at least three different sources, each of which can modify the behavior of others: power by force, power by surrender, and power by interdependence. The most commonly acknowledged source is power by force. I remember former president Ronald Reagan’s theme of peace through strength in response to the global standoff between democracy and communism. The idea was to prevent certain countries from doing violence to other countries through the threat of annihilation – bomb me once and I’ll bomb you a hundred times. NATO was formed on this principle, primarily to prevent Russia from expanding its territory into Europe. Vast military resources have been aimed directly at Russia for the purpose of keeping Russia within its current boundaries. That theory of superior military might did not work so well in Vietnam or in the various skirmishes the United States has involved itself in in the Middle East in the past decades. It did not work well for Russia in Afghanistan, nor is it working well for Russia in their invasion of Ukraine today.
Peace by force, even when supposedly achieving its stated aims, does not make for loyal, willing, or faithful captives. Rather, it results in reluctant subjects seeking any way they can muster to undermine their occupiers. And those who feel their homeland has been unjustly taken from them tend to have long memories and an unbending will to regain what has been lost, often stretching over many generations. Such is the ultimate result of power by force. Conquerors can occupy lands and destroy buildings, but they cannot conquer the hearts and minds of the occupied. Whatever peace is attained will always be an uneasy and temporary peace. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrest, one of his followers tried to resist by drawing a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” When we answer violence with violence we only perpetuate the cycle of violence. Sooner or later, the violence we give becomes violence turned back against us. Call it karma, call it fate, call it the law of sowing and reaping. It matters little how we label it. What matters is how we choose to respond when violence is done against us. Jesus rejected Moses’ rules for revenge because they only perpetuated the persistent cycles of violence. What is needed is something to short-circuit the cycle and end the hostility for good, to break the self-perpetuating cycle of violence.
The season of Lent is a good time to reflect on our personal relationship with power, particularly our desires for violence-based power, whether the violence is physical, emotional, or mental. Where, in my interactions with others, do I find myself wanting to respond in an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth manner? It is a natural, almost instinctive response to want to hurt someone who has hurt us, but is that the most effective way to address the issue? Jesus suggests a couple of alternatives which I will reflect upon next week.
 Exodus 21:23-25.
 Matthew 26:51-52.