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Why America Needs “An Eye for an Eye”

GARIBALDI    Oh, I’m an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth kind of guy, Ambassador.

DELENN         So you support a system that would leave everyone blind and toothless?

GARIBALDI    Not everyone. Just the bad guys.

—“Passing Through Gethsemane,” Babylon 5 (1995)

The Death of Personality

“One of my monks is having bad dreams, ” says Brother Theo with decided understatement. In fact, the bad dreams are the fragmented memories of another life. The monk in question, Brother Edward, was once a serial killer, a psychopath. But in the year 2251, murder no longer carries the death penalty. Instead, the convicted killer faces the death of personality. All of his previous memories are erased from his mind and with them the personality that committed the murder. Psycho-technicians then build a new personality within the psyche, one dedicated to the service of humanity. The new man is released somewhere far away from his victim’s family and positioned to begin a new life of community service. According to popular opinion in the year 2251, this mind-wipe is more humane than capital punishment as well as providing an easy solution to overcrowded prisons.

This story, “Passing Through Gethsemane,” falls within the third season of the television series Babylon 5. The episode’s author and series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, is dealing artfully with issues of justice, revenge, and forgiveness. Is the mind-wipe just? Is it a better response to murder than capital punishment? Is it right to recreate a human personality under any circumstances? Can murderers be let off? In commentary elsewhere, Straczynski admits that he has no answers, and that, as an atheist, he is incapable of forgiveness. He simply wants to make the rest of us think.

The death of personality is a fictional extrapolation from what has been called the humanitarian theory of punishment—if punishment is even the right word. You see, the State is recreating the man here, not simply punishing the criminal. Not everyone in the story buys into the process, however. The families of Brother Edward’s victims are still looking for justice or revenge. And as Brother Edward recovers his memory, he is horrified at what has been done to him. “How can I confess my sins to God when I don’t even know what they are?” he asks.

The Truth about “An Eye for an Eye”

The Biblical concept of lex talionis has nothing to do with personal revenge.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39). Anabaptists and Quakers see in these words a straightforward rewriting of biblical ethics for the Christian era. Though “an eye for an eye” might have been a valid approach to ethics in the Old Testament, Jesus, they believe, has introduced a better way. This interpretation explains their commitment to non-violence and pacifism and their rejection of any participation in the civil government or military. It also explains, in part, the significant role that Quakers have played in prison reform. But is Jesus in Matthew 5 really rejecting the Old Testament ethic? Let’s take a closer look.

Throughout His sermon, Jesus corrects the moralism of the Pharisees. By additions and subtractions, the Pharisees had nullified much of the Mosaic Law. And so six times, Jesus contrasts the teachings of the Pharisees (“You have heard it said”) with God’s real intention when He gave His law. Jesus tells us that hatred is murder, that lust is adultery, and that broken oaths amount to blasphemy (Matt. 5:21-37). In short, He addresses the real meaning of the law and the application of that law to man’s heart, to his thoughts and motives.

This is the context in which Jesus brings up the “eye for an eye” passage. In the law, God had said that where criminal sanctions were concerned, His people were to render eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut 19:21). The Pharisees taught God’s people to carry this judicial standard into their personal relationships; that is, they taught the validity of retaliation and revenge in personal and private matters. Jesus rejects this altogether. His followers are warned in the matter of “resisting evil” (Matt. 5:39; cf. Luke 6:26-36). Specifically, they should not retaliate when they are slapped; they are to turn the other cheek (v. 39). They are to submit cheerfully to the judgment of the Roman courts (v. 40). They are to comply with Roman soldiers who compel their service and in fact, they are to “go the extra mile” (v. 41). They are to give generously (v. 42). In short, God’s people are to be gracious and loving; they are not to seek revenge or try to get even. They are to leave final justice to God.

But this ethic is by no means unique to the New Testament. The Old Testament, too, leaves vengeance in the hands of God. Consider these texts:

Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee. (Prov. 20:22)

Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me: I will render to the man according to his work. (Prov. 24:29)

If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: for thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee. (Prov. 35:21-22)

Paul was simply summarizing Old Testament teaching when he wrote: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:9).

An Avenger of Evil

But if we want to understand what God’s justice requires, we can’t stop here. Scripture also tells us plainly that under circumstances dictated by God’s law, the civil magistrate is to act in God’s place as His avenger. Paul writes of the magistrate:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Rom. 13:4)

Both Testaments tell us that the civil magistrate is God’s agent, His “minister” to execute vengeance. And at this point we must return to the Old Testament phrase, “an eye for an eye,” as its original context was that of civil justice. Here are the big questions then: With what measure of wrath, with sort of penalty, should the civil magistrate respond to any given criminal act? By what standard should the civil magistrate mete out justice?

An Eye for an Eye

“An eye for an eye” simply means that the magistrate ought respond to a criminal act with proportionate sanctions. He ought to make the punishment fit the crime. According to the case laws in Exodus 21—23, the proper punishment for theft is restitution; the proper punishment for murder is death. Far from being a license to brutality, “an eye for an eye” limits the State in what punishments it may inflict. The State may not inflict an eye for a tooth, or a life for a hand. It may not torture one that it ought to execute. Furthermore, “an eye for an eye” also requires that the State actually punish the law-breaker. It doesn’t allow for the State to engage in efforts of rehabilitation, remedial treatment, or regenerational mind-wipes.

Though the Mosaic Law reflects a hope for the restoration of the law-breaker and provides an opportunity for public repentance and restitution, it doesn’t have rehabilitation as its primary goal. Under its terms, the criminal is to be punished, not rehabilitated or reformed. God can and does regenerate and transform (Titus 3:5); God can certainly restore the years that the locusts have eaten away (Joel 2:25). But He works such grace through the ministry of the gospel. When the State takes on the task of regeneration, it steals the prerogative of the Church and always fails. In fact, history has shown that when the state becomes the molder of men, hell on earth is unleashed. The re-education prison camp system in the former Soviet Union was a logical extention of the premise.

Punishment or Rehabilitation?

If crime is an ethical and legal matter, then the law-breaker is objectively guilty. He deserves to be punished. And he deserves to be punished according to the nature of his offense. He deserves no more punishment than his crime merits, and no less.

But if crime is a psychological or sociological phenomenon, the law-breaker is merely sick, maladjusted, or messed up. He doesn’t deserve punishment at all. He needs to be repaired, readjusted, or rejuvenated. And with our limited knowledge of the man’s “inner condition,” no one can say how long that might take or exactly what steps it might require. But for the good of both the man and society, the cure must be effected and the man fixed.

In his modern “fairy-tale,” That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis has one of his villains speak to this point:

For desert was always finite: you could do so much to the criminal and no more. Remedial treatment, on the other hand, need have no fixed limit; it could go on till it had effected a cure, and those who were carrying it out would decide when that was. And if cure were humane and desirable, how much more prevention? (69).

Lewis addresses the issue more formally in his essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”:

To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Vienese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grow wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

In all of this Lewis is not imagining that the psychotherapists and sociologists involved will be particularly evil men. They may regard themselves as very good men. They may be idealists. They may sincerely want to do us good.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.


The criminal has a right to be punished. He has a right to humanly administered divine justice that fits the penalty to the nature and degree of his crime. The State, on the other hand, has no right to torture the criminal, no permission to rewrite his personality, and no authority to substitute arbitrary punishments, greater or less, for what God has established in His word.

This country desperately needs penal reform. The statistics bear eloquent witness to the fact. But such reform will always be hampered on two accounts. First, the natural man hates God’s justice and His prescribed sanctions. He would be wiser, more merciful, and more effective than God—this, despite endless failures by would-be reformers. Second, the natural man wants to play God and recreate humanity in his own image. Man always seeks to be the Potter, and caged criminals make great clay.

Scripture offers the only real possibility of penal reform. But as long the people and those in charge of our judicial system hate God, we should expect increasing torture and totalitarianism as establishment potters remake the world in their hideous image. What America needs then, are citizens, pastors, lawyers, lawmakers, and judges who take God’s word seriously.

©2011 Off the Grid News

For Further Reading:
Gary North, Victims’ Rights, The Biblical View of Civil Justice (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
Gary North, Tools of Dominion, The Case Laws of Exodus (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1970).
James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant, An Exposition of Exodus 21—23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984).
T. Robert Ingram, ed., The Death Penalty (Houston: St. Thomas Press, 1963).
C. S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970).
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1946).
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