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The Lamech Strategy

February 20, 2017

“The Lamech Strategy” Matthew 5:38-48 © 2.19.17 Ordinary 7A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Last Monday, a man named Johnny Max Mount was scheduled to go on trial for murder. The start of the proceedings was delayed, however, until May 1 to allow for a psychological evaluation. Mount is charged with killing Waffle House waitress Julie Brightwell in November 2015. When she asked him not to smoke in the restaurant, in compliance with policy, Mount allegedly drew his handgun and shot her in the head. Brightwell died on the way to the hospital (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-man-fatally-shoots-waffle-house-waitress-20151127-story.html; Starkville Dispatch, Sunday, February 12, 2017: 3A).

Surely a horribly disproportionate response. Mount’s alleged crime is an instance of what I’m calling “the Lamech strategy.” Do you know that Old Testament character? He’s from Genesis, in which he makes a bragging speech to his wives: “‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’” (Genesis 4:23,24). Notice how lopsided his action was? Killing the man who merely wounded him.

The incident in Biloxi at the Waffle House is but one of many examples of how prevalent still is the ancient urge to take overwhelming revenge. Look at me wrong, and I’ll kill you. Talk back to me, and I’ll kill you. Cut me off in traffic, and I’ll kill you. Don’t do what I say, and I’ll kill you. The disproportionate action isn’t always physical violence. A spouse in a divorce or an abuse case may threaten to ruin the other, to reduce them to nothing, leave her or him in the gutter without resources if she or he calls 911 or testifies about ill treatment in court. The pain of a broken relationship is not enough for the followers of Lamech in such instances. They must destroy their former spouse, now their hated opponent.

Here is how the thinking of Lamechs in any age goes. I am an Exalted Person, Special and Unique, Indispensible to Society, so striking me, hurting me, even speaking to or looking at me the wrong way, should carry the ultimate penalty, namely, death, which I can and will impose as judge, jury, and executioner. I have become Exalted either because I have achieved more than you or because I believe I am entitled to benefits and privileges which I claim you have robbed me of in some way. It is my right, and indeed my duty, to make the world safe for other Exalted Persons and rid it of those of lesser value who do not do what they are told and stay in their place. My soul is of more value than yours, and I am more equal before God and more loved by him than you.

To thwart such warped perspectives by force of law in the ancient world, both Israel and other cultures developed a system of justice based on what is now called the lex talionis, which means “the law of retaliation.” The name is unfortunate, since the approach to dealing with injury and compensation was the opposite of the endless cycle of revenge. Instead, it was meant to provide for a proportionate response to a crime, so punishment was fitting, and not the sort Lamech envisioned. Here is the whole text from Exodus: “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (21:23-25). So if your neighbor broke your tooth, you couldn’t cut off his hand; you were only entitled to damage one of his teeth. Leviticus has something similar: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered” (24:17-20). Finally, Deuteronomy applied the principle specifically to the instance of someone giving false witness: “If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:16-21).

By the time of Jesus, the justice system prescribed monetary damages rather than mutilation or dismemberment, and had added inflicting pain and causing shame to the list of offenses for which compensation was to be granted. But somehow the law had become in the popular mind and practice a warrant for taking revenge, the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” could go on and on in an endless cycle, until, as some wit has observed, we are all toothless and blind.

This, and not justice, is what Jesus is opposed to when he calls on his followers not to resist, to turn the other cheek. How ridiculous would it be for the One in whom God is uniquely present to be against holding evildoers accountable, to advise against righting wrongs? The God whom we know in Jesus was constantly calling for equity, for justice, for fair dealings, for lifting up the fallen and the downtrodden. So we need to hear Jesus’ words in a way consistent with what we know of the will of God from the prophets and sages and good kings whose role Jesus takes up, especially in this gospel.

As our Lord critiques the Lamech strategy, he cites some specific and problematic examples from his day, using technical legal and military terms to make his point. The translation we heard has “Do not resist an evildoer.” But this is not a counsel to be passive, to just stand there and take it. Better is “Do not take revenge against one who does you wrong” or “Do not resist in an evil way.” The word could refer to suing someone for damages for wrong done. It also has a military meaning: “Do not offer armed, violent resistance.” Jesus is asking his followers to renounce the right to personal retaliation.

The church fathers told us that our Lord’s call does not preclude self-defense. And it does not mean a Christian cannot serve in the military. Augustine said that the evils in war were not so much death and destruction but rather “‘love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity… and the lust of power… (see Lisa Cahill, “Nonresistance…,” Interpretation, 10/1984: 384). Thomas Aquinas taught that when we defend ourselves, we must do it not in “revengeful spite.” And he told us sometimes it’s necessary to fight for the common good.

No doubt there were plenty of people hearing our Lord that day who considered themselves fighting for the common good. Judah was occupied by Rome, and there were insurgents who resisted the Romans violently. Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot, among Jesus’ disciples, were two such men. “Iscariot” means “assassin,” and the Zealots were a radical political party, who advocated the overthrow of Rome by any means necessary. Is our Lord deliberately trying to antagonize these people, even his own followers?

One particularly irksome practice of the Romans and King Herod’s troops was called “impressing.” No, that wasn’t about a soldier dressing sharp, flashing cash or a Rolex to woo the ladies at the local tavern in his off-duty hours. “Impressing” meant that the military could make civilians carry a 70-pound soldier’s pack or the person’s cart or donkey could be taken for use by the army. This caused a hardship on peasants, who expected to be tending the fields or fishing to support their families, rather than serving a soldier, walking a distance and then back home, which would cut significantly into the hours the peasant could labor. Simon of Cyrene was impressed by the army when he was made to carry our Lord’s cross. Jesus uses the military term for such a practice. He also tells people to go not an extra stadion, which was the Greek term for a long distance, but a milion, the Latin, Roman unit, from which we get our word “mile.” It’s a term for measurement that would have sounded foreign and reminded the crowd of the language spoken by the army.

The revolutionaries would have called Jesus a traitor for such talk. How he ever got the terrorists Judas and Simon on board is a mystery. But the revolution Jesus has in mind is much more radical than overthrowing an oppressor, as wonderful as such freedom is. He has in mind going beyond expectations held by both neighbors and enemies. Radical, unexpected, incredibly gracious action. Like taking insults without responding in kind and even going beyond that to doing good to the one who insults you.

Turning the other cheek, for example. Typically, peasants and servants, women and children were struck on the right cheek with an open hand by a master or mistress, husband or father. This was a sign of the dominance of the privileged over the powerless. The left hand was not used because it was considered to be unclean. To turn the left cheek while you stand with head held high would force the aggressor either to walk away, back hand you with his left or hit you with the open right palm. But if you were slapped with an open palm rather than backhanded, that would mean you were the equal of the one who struck you. By your action, you shamed the other while affirming your dignity. Paradoxically, you also urged him or her to remember his or her own humanity and the dictates of good conscience. Resistance of this sort was an act of love for enemies, saying that they were capable of moral action, inviting them to repent and make the right choices. Love does not want anyone separated from God because of his or her evil deeds, like oppression and domination of the vulnerable.

Shame also entered into the advice to give up both your inner and outer garments when sued, thus having literally nothing to wear. The coat or tunic in the text is equivalent to our “shirt,” except that it’s really closer to underwear. The cloak was the outer garment. These two pieces would be the only clothes, indeed, the only possessions, a poor person owned. Jesus means his followers are to care so much even for those who mistreat them that they are willing to be without security or resources. They also shame the one suing them, since the plaintiff has reduced the defendant to going around with nothing on, and making others see a naked person, both of which were shameful for the Hebrews, and would show the plaintiff to be utterly without honor. And in the ancient Middle East, no one wanted to be thought of that way. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to us or make much sense, but in that world, honor and shame were big deals. Notice that no violence is done by the Jesus follower, but a point has been made about the system and those who would exploit it for their own ends.

It’s hard to know how to translate these ancient examples into modern ones. Perhaps the best we can say is that whereas Lamech displayed no restraint or conscience with his strategy of violence and revenge, we are to show unbounded, unrestrained love. Jesus takes the calculus of revenge and turns it upside down, telling Peter later on to forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22), the same proportion by which Lamech was avenged.

Jesus is asking for a bold initiative beyond business as usual. The scholar Walter Wink calls it “the third way between passivity and violence.” We don’t have to be locked into the same old options. Jesus invites us to use our imagination, to act with courage, energy, and love. He asks for creative action that breaks the ever-escalating cycle of retaliatory violence, abuse, and oppression. He tells us not to be baited by our enemies; he reminds us that when we are so drawn in, we become like the one intent on hurting us. Our Lord invites us to remember that we are free people, free to choose how we will respond to insults, hurt, and pain. As if often said, we can’t change other people, but we can decide how we deal with them. Jesus wants us to act positively, for good and healing and restoration.

It doesn’t take much courage, imagination or energy to do what everybody else is doing. Jesus wants his followers to stand out. If we love those who love us, greet those who greet us, what’s so special about that? Even the worst sort of person does the same. Why should people be attracted to the Church if Christians are no different than anybody else? What’s compelling and inspiring and innovative about that?

What would be truly radical, especially in our violent, divided day? Wouldn’t it be to “love your neighbor as yourself,” with all Leviticus tells us that involves? Not more than yourself or less than yourself, but as yourself. That puts the neighbor on equal footing with you and me. He or she or they are the same as we are. God makes the sun rise and sends his rain on the evil and the good, the just and the unjust, Jesus says. Yes, we are different in many ways, and the world assigns status based on those differences. But fundamentally, our souls are of equal value. As someone has written, “Every soul is a thread in the fabric of the world” (K. Gear and M. Gear, People of the Silence: 351). And because our faith teaches us that humans are incarnate souls and ensouled bodies, our bodies are also valuable and not to be harmed. If our neighbors are of equal value, we do not take revenge or do them violence, but show them love beyond expectation or deserving. In our litigious, violent society, where killing and hatred are everyday news, one of the most stand-out ways, and one of the hardest ways, to show we follow Jesus is to refuse to take revenge.

There is an old saying we have all heard, whether from The Godfather or even Star Trek. “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold,” it goes. It originally comes from a French novel of 1841, where it appeared as “Revenge is very good eaten cold. “La vengeance se mange tres-bien froid.” In popular usage, it came to mean that revenge is most satisfying after being planned for a long time and exacted in an unexpected way. The one wronged nurses the hurt and lets the desire for vengeance sustain him or her until the act is carried out with a cold heart, devoid of the warmth of human compassion. But like the lex talionis, it was made to say exactly the opposite of what it meant. “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold” reminded us that revenge ought not to be taken in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should wait and consider consequences and let wiser, cooler heads and hearts prevail. And then no doubt, we will not take revenge at all.

Justice, yes. Revenge and disproportionate, angry, even insane action, like killing someone for wounding you? No.

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

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