Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Vengeance is Mine--you can't play with it any more!

I didn't have anything of my own to say about the impending execution of Tookie Williams, for pretty much the same reason Pastor Dan at Street Prophets says he refrained from comment, there were others who could say it better, and more succinctly. Well, that, and the fact that I didn't feel well enough versed in the particulars of the case to comment intelligently. Now that the execution has taken place, the discussion of the death penalty in general continues. Over at Blog for America, Demetrius commented:

Understand that at the time the typical response to someone putting out someone's eye would be to take *both* their eyes, the eyes of everyone in their family, and the eyes of anyone who looked at you funny on the way there. "An eye for an eye" means *just* *ONE* *eye*! This was a radical concept.

In my EFM classes, I have been learning about the book of Genesis, the different sources it is believed to have come from (at least four distinct sources), and what it tells us about how the Hebrew people understood their relationship with God. One thing I remember from my reading is that the concept of revenge really did get out of control exponentially so that, yes, saying ONLY one eye for an eye was clearly an effort to put the brakes on.

On the page about revenge at Answers.com, I found this:
Revenge is a hotly contested ethical issue in philosophy. Some feel it is necessary to maintain a just society. In some societies, it is believed that the damage inflicted should be greater than the original one, as a punitive measure. The Old Testament philosophy of "an eye for an eye" (cf. Exodus 21:24) tried to limit the allowed damage to avoid a series of violent acts that spiral out of control. Detractors argue revenge is more like the logical fallacy "two wrongs make a right." Some Christians interpret Paul's "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19, King James Version) to mean that only God has the moral right to exact revenge.

Of the psychological, moral, and cultural foundation for revenge, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written: "The primitive sense of the just - remarkably constant from several ancient cultures to modern institutions ... - starts from the notion that a human life ... is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another's act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counterinvasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment. It differs from the original act only in the sequence of time and in the fact that it is response rather than original act - a fact frequently obscured if there is a long sequence of acts and counteracts" ("Equity and Mercy," in Sex and Social Justice [Oxford University Press, 1999], pp. 157-58).

The interpretation of Paul's words makes sense given what I read about the history of revenge. According to the story that has unfolded up to that point (and continues today) humans have proven incapable of handling revenge in a responsible manner, without misusing it. When our kids are having a loud, headache-inducing squabble, and it turns out that some *thing* is at the center of the problem, it is not uncommon for Demetrius to say, "Okay, bring it here. Put it on my desk. You can have it back when I think you can handle it responsibly."

It's not that big a stretch, for me, anyway, to see vengeance as something that humans have proven incapable of administering responsibly, justly, and without excess.