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Is Retribution a Christian Value?

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By Paul Graves

On both the national and local scenes, “retribution” and “retaliation” are threatened by people almost indiscriminately.  Anger and fear are alive and un-well in our culture!        

On a recent interview on Fox News, Donald Trump was asked what he will do if “Americans revolt on Election Day” if Trump wins. (How did we get to where this dysfunctional question is even asked?) Mr. Trump reactively responded, “We’ll put them down very quickly.  It’s called ‘Insurrection.’ We’ll just send (military) in and we do it very easy.”

He was then asked to comment on a tragic shooting in Portland, Oregon and then the shooter was later killed by police. Mr. Trump commented on the killer being shot, “I will tell you something. That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”        

On a local level, the mask/no mask controversy brings out some puzzling, fearful reactions. My wife and I were yelled at in a big box store parking lot by a woman who was offended by our wearing masks, “Take off your masks!” Why is our mask-wearing any of her business?        

Are a majority of people in our country so fearful that they must emotionally spew their feelings out at people who are different — are “other” — than they are? In my limited experience, they are a loud minority. And I’m sad for them.         

My sadness pushes me to explore where this spirit of retribution might find its foothold. Are retribution and retaliation Christian values? Absolutely not!         

For many, I suspect they come from a serious mis-reading of “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth,” found in Exodus 21: 23-25, Leviticus 24: 19-20 and Deuteronomy 19:20.         

I also suspect those who take these passages literally haven’t spent much time reflecting on Jesus’ interpretation of them. Find his extension of those laws in Matthew 5:38-42. He knew those commands were not lived out literally in ancient times. Monetary compensation was more in vogue for injuries caused. Not retribution, but a form of restoration.        

Further, Jesus urged his listeners (mostly Jews, some Gentiles, no Christians at this point!) to go beyond retribution or retaliation to other ways of dealing with being wronged. “Turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “give more than you’re sued for.” His students also knew great fear, great insecurity, great anger. We certainly didn’t invent those feelings.        

It’s like Jesus understood those feelings as emotional bullies living inside of us. They can intimidate us to the point we only see lashing out verbally or physically as our only options. Those options certainly seem to be all some people — some well-intentioned Christian people even – seem to choose. But Jesus offers other options!         

Read his words carefully, imaginatively, and you might see some of those options. They all command his followers to not return violence for violence. Stand up to your inner bully. Humble your bully by dismissing violence as an option. Humble your bully by standing up courageously to it.        

“Humble” and “humiliate” come from humus, “earth.” Our inner bullies (read out-of-control egos) must be brought back to earth. Violence feelings feed them. Healthy humiliation starves them. But that humbling, that humiliation, also feeds the “better self” who live inside, beneath the bully.        

Jesus’ alternative way deals with lash-out-blindly feelings, deeply negative reactions. Self-control is empowered with the confidence we are loved in spite of our retributive or retaliatory tendencies. Thus, we are safe to change those tendencies!        

Don’t let your inner bully — or someone else’s outer bully — decide who you are. You are God’s child!

About Paul Graves

Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he's been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in the Spokesman-Review's Faith and Values section and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.

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