The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

Blessed are the merciful

Early one morning in October 2014 Brian Herrick dropped his partner and three sisters at East Midlands Airport for an early-morning flight to Malaga. On his way home he was waiting at a red light, just a few miles from the airport, when a lorry crashed into his car. Brian died as a result of the accident. His partner and sisters heard the news of Brian’s death as soon as they arrived at Malaga and flew straight back to East Midlands.

At a recent hearing at Nottingham Crown Court the driver of the lorry, Luke Bates, pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He said his attention had been distracted and he had not seen the red light until it was too late. At the court Brian’s family asked the judge not to send Luke to prison because they did not want his 2 young children to be left without a father. They also realised that Luke would have to live for the rest of his life with the memory of the devastation he had caused. The judge said he wished to respect the humbling request from the family and sentenced Luke to a two-year driving ban and a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work.

Brian’s sister, Kathleen, told the judge, “We were brought up as Christians and were taught to be compassionate and humble. We felt so sorry for Luke’s wife when we saw her bring their young baby to the court. We weren’t going to benefit from sending him to prison. I’m sure my brother, who was a kind and gentle man, would have done the same in our position.” Outside the court, Brian’s relatives hugged a distraught Luke.

Mercy is a rare, but beautiful, quality. Our society loves to blame people and condemn them. Some people try to justify their wicked acts because they are retaliating against what other people have done to them. Jesus taught that true strength and dignity is seen not in revenge and “getting our own back”, but in mercy. He said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” When we show mercy to someone who has wronged us, and forgive them, we release the potential for healing and restoration both for them and for us. It is also good to remember that one day each of us must appear before the Judge of all the earth whom we hope will show us mercy.

Love your enemies

Some people try to justify their evil actions by quoting the principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This legal principle is known as “lex talionis”; the law of retaliation. The principle was given by God to Israel through Moses. It did not give people an excuse for vicious personal revenge, but limited the extent of retaliation. It established the principle of justice. The punishment must fit the crime. It did not authorise either excessive revenge or personal mutilation of the person who had committed the offence.

God gave Moses examples of its application. “If an owner hits a male or female slave in the eye and the eye is blinded, then the slave may go free because of the eye. And if an owner knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave, the slave should be released in payment for the tooth.” So the lex talionis provided protection for the weak and vulnerable, for women as well as men. When they were mistreated they were entitled to legal protection and compensation.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out much more radical principles. There is to be no retaliation and revenge in his Kingdom. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”

The teaching of Jesus is a challenge to us all. Retaliation and revenge, whether committed by individuals or governments, are not a sign of strength, but of weakness. The experience of God’s sheer love and grace in Jesus, of which none of us is worthy, creates the context in which loving our enemies becomes a possibility. I remember meeting with a group of Iranian Christians to study the parable of Jesus about the Good Samaritan. In the parable a Samaritan man saves the life of a wounded Jewish man, even though Jews and Samaritans were enemies. One of the Iranians said, “If we are to obey the teaching of Jesus in this parable then it means we must love Iraqi people!”