An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
For the past month I’ve been haunted by the conclusion of a very troubling and infamous court case—the trial of Dylann Roof, the 22 year old murderer of nine parishioners of an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, you may recall, walked into a bible study class on a Wednesday night, and was welcomed by the pastor and other members of the church. He sat down next to the minister, listened to the conversation about the love of Jesus, and when everyone began to pray, he stood up, pulled a gun from a fanny pack and aimed it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson's nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. The shooter responded, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." Sanders dove in front of his elderly aunt and was shot first. Shouting racial slurs and saying: "Y'all want something to pray about? I'll give you something to pray about," Roof went on to shoot eight other people.
Remarkably, the day after the shooting, a mother and daughter, a sister and grandson ---relatives of his victims-- spoke out and publicly forgave the murderer. And a year and a half later at his trial, others did the same. “I forgive you, and pray that God have mercy on you,” said one of them.
And despite those words of forgiveness and mercy, Dylan Roof said at his sentencing: "I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed."
To be honest, if my mother or brother or sister or friend had been one of those victims and I was sitting in that courtroom, I’m sure I would have wanted to leap over the aisle and taken that kid down, mercy and forgiveness be damned. Revenge is what I would seek. And that’s precisely why I have not been able to shake away my thoughts about this case.
I’ve never had to face such a terrible loss from such a hate-filled person. But I know what the feeling of revenge feels like because I’ve been hurt a bunch of times by complete strangers, by so-called friends, collaborators, co-workers, even fellow priests. I know, I know how it feels to want to strike back, let them feel what they have done to me. At times I’ve allowed myself to consider ways that I could hurt them back---in words or deeds. An eye for an eye, right? And these days it is so easy to strike back without physical weapons: why there’s facebook, snapchat, tumbler, instagram, twitter---so many ways to get social media revenge on the internet. You can spread the damage pretty quickly and deeply with a few choice stories or damning words.
We all have seen it used in the raging political battles of our day. Even the President resorts to such methods on the internet to exact “an eye for an eye” justice.
I’ve seen the college students I teach resort to that kind of revenge against their peers and their professors.
One young man, smarting from being dumped by his girlfriend, suggested that he would say some pretty mean things about her on Twitter. “You don’t really want to do that,” I said, quietly. He was sitting there in front of me—a really bright kid, amazing student---but like a little kid, completely at the mercy of his emotions. He stopped talking for a minute, and then the tears started trickling down his cheeks, wordless, without a sound. I patted his back, tried to give him that moment to let it all out. And he did. It wasn’t just about the girl, but about so many other rejections he had felt, stored up, rejections that he had compiled as evidence that he was not loved or loveable. Going way back. Oh man…he was one hurting boy. We talked for a long time after the tears had stopped. So many hurts, and this one had been the final straw.
An eye for an eye, right? A tooth for a tooth, right?
But of course, there is this:
"But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”
In Jesus’ day, if you were wronged by someone, you had to right to seek revenge and regain your honor by slapping them back-handed on the face. Jesus says, let him slap both sides of the face. In Jesus’s day, if you were wronged by someone, you were allowed to seek revenge by taking the cloak that served as their coat, and their sleeping bag. Jesus says, go naked and give him much more than the shirt off your back as well. In Jesus’ day, it was legal for a soldier of the occupying army to seek revenge by forcing a civilian to carry his heavy baggage for a mile. Jesus says, carry it for two miles.
Because for Jesus, it was never about revenge. It was always about forgiveness because it was always about love. You love the one who brutalizes you, who tortures you, who defames you, who has no mercy for you---because love and only love can truly transform a human heart. And if you want to follow Jesus, if you want to call yourself a Christian—one of Christ’s---then, my friend, you actually have no choice. Your life is always about love—real love for every human being that God has created.
But isn’t that ridiculous? Love that…that… thing, Dylan Roof?
Love the girl who dumped me? Love my unfaithful husband or wife? Love my daughter/son/brother/sister/parent/friend who hasn’t spoken to me in months, who has chosen money over family, who has betrayed me so many times? Love my co-worker who stabbed me in the back, love my neighbor who has been so nasty for years, love the thieves who stole my wallet or my pension, love those hateful Democrats, those hateful Republicans, love the rapist, the pedophile, the torturer, love the terrorists who murder innocent victims at Ground Zero, in Boston, in Paris, in Baghdad? I mean, come on, really, Jesus?
Are we really meant to be doormats for evil people, should we just rollover and let them have their way? That’s just stupid.
Well yes, it is. But love is that important, and love is that powerful. And that’s why following Jesus is dangerous and totally foolish. “If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.”
How do you love as foolishly as that, like God, how do you love like God, and not like us? To tell you the truth, I don't know. I mean I know how, but I don't know how, you know what I mean? How is easy: like Jesus, love like Jesus, you fool. But how to love like Jesus, foolishly, I don't know how, and I don't do it very well.
When I was kid, my father thought I should learn how to defend myself against the bullies who may come my way, and I remember him giving me lessons about how to throw a punch, how to block an incoming blow, how a man fights back when he is attacked. Out there in the garage on a Saturday morning, my father trying to equip me against a world of bullies. He even got me boxing gloves, like I was Joe Louis or Muhammed Ali. And then the one time I actually was bullied around by this other kid in the neighborhood, I was creamed and came running home with tears streaming down my cheeks. So much for the boxing gloves.
Later on, when I was a little older, my father tried to teach me other ways to defend myself. One time, in our local candy store, he felt I got cheated by the owner who packed some ice cream for me in a carton. My father thought he packed a little too much air in the carton, and made me go back to the man to confront him with his deed. You can imagine how thrilled I was to do so, and when I did go back, the owner, who was actually a nice man, got indignant at the accusation. I never bought any ice cream in there again, for the sheer embarrassment of it.
But I don't blame my father so much, the world does that to us, there are lots of bullies around, lots of people trying to take advantage, and you grow up with that, and your parents try to teach you how to survive, how to be careful, how not to get hurt. And that is a good thing that they teach you that, and you need to learn how to protect yourself. I learned it pretty well myself. And even today, when I have disputes with my fellow co-workers at school, I often figuratively put my dukes up—no one is going to take advantage of me. But it can become more than that, it can become hatred and sheer bitter cynicism, it can create complete mistrustfulness, and prejudice, it can tear our families and our neighborhoods and our nations and finally our world apart. In the end, it can and will leave us—completely and absolutely-- alone.
There are so many great examples of people who followed Jesus’ words:
Mahatma Gandhi, who had stirred up the passions of his Indian brothers and sisters at the injustice of the British, realized that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind, and he stopped eating to prevent the revenge he has started. Nelson Mandela recognized that the only way his nation would ever become one after the horror of apartheid was to embrace the enemy—even those who imprisoned him for 30 years. Pope John Paul went to the cell of his assassin and forgave him for shooting him on the square of St Peter’s. And closer to home, Steven McDonald, the New York City policeman--who was paralyzed and lived on a ventilator for life--forgave the 15 year old who shot him three times in Central Park. Civil rights activist Ann Atwater reached out many times to her former opponent Ku Klux Klan leader Clairborne Ellis and they became close friends. Eric Lomax traveled to Japan to find and kill his World War II Japanese torturer, but wound up forgiving and helping the repentant Nagese Takashi. And even my young friend, after our long meeting, called his parents and asked for forgiveness for being so selfish with them.
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," says Jesus. Perfect in love, be perfect, like God the creator, who made people who hurt other people, love perfectly like God the creator, who looks down upon his creation and continues to love it even as it loves imperfectly. To love perfectly like that we've got to learn another lesson, perhaps unlearn what we've already been taught for our own good.
The lesson is hanging on the cross: to love like Jesus loved, with your arms wide open to everyone who comes your way, even the bullies—especially the bullies. But the problem is, it's not cost-free, it’s a sure thing you'll get hurt. It comes with the territory. So why do it? Why be so foolish? Who wants to get hurt?
And the answer is… who wants to be alone?
What does it take to forgive someone like Dylann Roof? How does one muster the courage, the conviction, the moral fiber to grant such a gift to someone who has already taken so much? To serve a feast of forgiveness to a person who hasn’t even ordered a single serving?
Love is a powerful thing. Perfect love is universe shattering-earsplitting, eye blinding, mindblowing, heart-breaking, and like the love of Jesus, it always brings us together, and that, in the end, is what we all really want.
To be together, and not alone.
There is only one way: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”