In sixth grade, I got into my first and only fight. It all started when one of us said something hurtful. After that, we went back and forth, tossing the best insults we could come up with. Eventually, I didn’t have anything left to say, so I punched him in the face.
Looking back, I don’t even remember what we were fighting about. After a day or two, we pretty much forgot about what was said, and we actually ended up becoming friends.
What I do remember, though, was how the fight escalated. Hurtful words turned into physical violence. And when we look at the world around us, we see more of the same.
Who gets the final word?
Whether it’s kids in the hallway between class, celebrities on social media, or nations at war, there’s this sense that we can’t back down when we’re challenged, humiliated, or terrorized. We need to do more violence, say more hurtful words, throw harder punches and drop bigger bombs. To truly win, we need to have the final word.
Eye for an eye
Thousands of years ago, the world was similar to how it is today, with fewer toys to play with and less destructive weapons but the same belief that every evil needs to be avenged. In that space, the authors of the Old Testament of the Bible discovered a radical new way of seeing conflict, violence, and retaliation. Instead of escalating vengeance on enemies, they were now called to have an “eye for an eye” ethic. Meaning that the justice used on your enemy couldn’t be worse than their crime.
If someone said something hurtful, you could say something mean back to them, but you couldn’t punch them in the face. If someone stole your donkey, you could take one of their donkeys, but you couldn’t also steal their goat.
This was the new ethic because the authors knew violence always escalates, leaving a trail of pain, destruction, and death.
In short, they knew that violence could never be used to secure lasting peace.
So an “eye for an eye” was revolutionary and radical back then; if you think about it, it still is today. Following that would be incredibly difficult for any individual to do well and impossible for an entire nation to do. It forbids the idea of preliminary strikes and decimating our enemies so they can never recover. It means not doing any evil unless it’s equally been done to you.
Jesus calls us to forgive our enemies.
If you think that’s challenging, though (and I know I do), Jesus takes it to another level. Listen to what he says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
And then he says also says.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
You might have heard these passages before, but I want you to think about it now.
Think about how it applies to your life, the people who have done evil to you, the ones who have caused you pain.
Think about how it applies to our nation and the nations who have hurt us in the past.
These passages say something radical, something almost impossible to accept. To me, it seems like Jesus is saying that retaliation and self-defense aren’t acceptable responses for evil that is done against us. Not for followers of Jesus.
Okay, but how do we start?
That seems a little crazy, though, right? Are we really supposed to let ourselves get beaten up and not fight back? Let people shame, degrade, or hurt the people we love and not respond? That’s not how I was raised to act! That was my first response to this idea. Still, as I continued to look at scripture, I realized that maybe Jesus challenges popular beliefs about violence, self-defense, and retaliation.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
When you look at Jesus’ life, you look at the life of someone with the power and authority to do what he wanted. What did he do when he was beaten and abused and had the power to claim self-defense against his enemies?
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him, who judges justly.
1 Peter 2:23
What happens when we choose to live like Jesus and forgive our enemies rather than fight back?
Stopping the cycle of violence
When I refuse to forgive my enemy and punch as a response to words spoken, I don’t make the world a better place. I actually make it more broken.
When a nation is attacked and responds by killing, pillaging, and decimating its enemies, they haven’t created peace. Instead, they’ve created brokenness and pain, leading to avenging violence in the future.
When we think the only response to death and destruction is causing more death and destruction, we’ve left Jesus and scripture behind.
Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to not be conformed to the patterns of this world but to be made new by the renewing of our minds.
One of the patterns of this world is that it’s a good thing to use violence to provide peace and security. Using excessive force against our enemies is good because they’ll hurt us if we don’t. It’s good to fight bullies to put them in their place. If you disagree, you’re weak, not patriotic, and (if you are male) not a real man.
Don’t be conformed to that pattern. Instead, be made new. Recognize that more strength is required for forgiving your enemies. Stop the cycle of violence, and help you and your enemy step into a new way of seeing conflict and restoration.
Forgiving our enemies creates peace on earth
Forgiveness is following Jesus’ example. It’s taking up your cross like Jesus and allowing violence to happen to you for the sake of those who come after you.
Peace on earth doesn’t come through violence (or the fear of violence). Peace doesn’t come through carrying the biggest stick or dropping the biggest bomb. Instead, peace comes when we live out what Jesus calls us to do, forgive our enemies, and restore relationships.
Check out this post from our friends at Finds.Life for more on forgiveness.