Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from Leviticus (the 3rd book in the Old Testament) that God told Moses that nobody should bear hatred. If you need to reprove someone, take no revenge and cherish no grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples to no longer believe in “an eye for an eye” but instead offer no resistance to evil. Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. He tells them that evil people care about their own but his followers are called to love even evil people. He finishes by telling them: “[B]e perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
So how do we evaluate justice? Nearly everyone’s moral compass includes justice and we all think our relationships with each other should be just. But from our earliest days we’ve struggled with our reaction when someone (or somebodies) does not act with justice.
The concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” marked an important change in human history. Previously when someone hurt us, our revenge was “game on” and had no limits. We were justified in destroying those who did us harm. When the Old Testament gave us the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” we were told that our revenge had limits. We were told that when someone hurt us we could hurt them only as far as they hurt us. Revenge had limits.
But in the thousands of years of our history we’ve learned that revenge has not satisfied our need for reconciliation. I know this will sound strange, but I experienced this when I was in sixth grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Wiley, was a strong believer that boys and girls should be dealt with equally, and most of the time I agreed with her.
But one day a female classmate (whose name I’ve long forgotten) swung her metal and leather purse and struck me in the head. It hurt. Mrs. Wiley and most of my classmates witnessed this and knew that something had to be done. But Mrs. Wiley was caught in a dilemma because she couldn’t really give me permission to strike my classmate, and truthfully I didn’t want to. Giving her pain would not lessen my pain. I would have been satisfied with an apology (that I never got). As I look back on this, decades later, I recognize that I forgave her minutes after the event. But I don’t know if she ever knew (or cared) about my forgiveness.
So does this mean that justice has moved from the concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” I hope so. I think the next step from “revenge justice” is “restorative justice.” Had she, in her shame and embarrassment, recognized that she shouldn’t have hit me with her purse, and apologized, I would have accepted it. We were classmates and not friends, but had she recognized her guilt and had I accepted her apology, we could have returned to our previous relationship. We were classmates and not friends.
But I think God calls us to something more. We form relationships when we encounter each other. And we encounter each other in a variety of experiences. As children we encounter our family members before we recognize them or ourselves. We don’t remember meeting our parents, our older siblings, or our older cousins. Some of us claim friendships that predate our memories, perhaps in kindergarten or preschool. And conflict finds its way into nearly all of them. As a matter of fact, couples preparing for marriage nearly always (should) discuss conflict resolution.
We don’t want “an eye for an eye” when we’re hurt by someone we love. Granted, there are times when we are hurt in a way that ends our relationship with another, but those are (hopefully) rare. When we are hurt by someone we love we look not for “revenge justice” but for “restorative justice.” Restorative justice preserves, and even strengthens relationships. Talk to any couple who have been married for many years, and they will eagerly speak about how their toughest times tested and reinforced their relationship. Friends, when they injure each other, can appear to be on the edge of destruction, but reconcile only when each person recognizes that they are better together than apart. Ironically we use the phrase “restorative justice,” but these reconciliations don’t restore our relationships, they often make them stronger.
But are we called to something more than revenge justice and restorative justice? I think we are. In my work as a hospice chaplain I’ve been blessed to work with Catholics who were called to be deacons. Jim Walsh was one of those people. Here in San Diego he answered his call to work in the criminal justice system, to do the seemingly impossible. He felt called to reconcile criminals and their victims. He sees crime as a moral issue and works with criminals to restore them; if the victim is willing, the victim is involved in the process.
Deacon Jim leads a program he calls restorative justice, but I disagree: I think what he is doing is instead “progressive justice.” If revenge justice limits our revenge, and if restorative justices calls us to repair our relationships, progressive justice calls us to create relationships that began in violence but need not end there. Perhaps the most famous example of this comes from Jesus himself: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” Our history since that day shows that Jesus’ death and resurrection points to the redemption of everyone, even those who crucified Jesus.
But there are other examples. On April 20, 1999 Dylan Kleebolt and Eric Harris, students at Columbine High School in Colorado, brought guns to school. They opened fire in the library, and before killing themselves they murdered 12 students and a teacher, and wounded 21 students. Last year Dylan’s mother Sue Klebold wrote a book entitled A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. I recommend this book highly because it is heartbreaking and courageous. Shortly after its publication we found that she and her husband wrote apology letters to the survivors and the families of those who were killed. Anne Marie Hochhalter was paralyzed by and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. After the book was published Anne Marie wrote to Sue Kleebolt thanking her for her concern and forgave her.
Please understand that I’m not claiming everyone is called to this. Victims of crime have the right to find a path to healing that does not require them to be in relationship with, or even forgive, their attacker. But Sue Kleebolt’s experience tells us that when progressive justice happens, it is transformative.
As disciples of Jesus we are never called to disproportionate revenge. We recognize that sometimes revenge justice is the best we can do. Restorative justice allows us to maintain and strengthen our relationships. And, while rare, progressive justice allows us say along with Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”