HOMILY for Mon 11th Week OT (II)
If we find “an eye for an eye” a rather barbarous approach to personal justice, it shows how influenced we are by Christian ethics both individually and as a society. Because this Levitical injunction, which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law was originally a genuine advance in morality and justice. It was meant to limit the penalty exacted for wrongs done to the person so that revenge was not limitless. One could not, as the ancient Chinese codes sometimes allowed, eliminate an entire clan because of a wrong done to one person! But as Gandhi observed wryly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. So, Christ’s teaching goes beyond this reciprocal version of justice.
But it would be a mistake to think that Our Lord is telling us in today’s Gospel to be pushovers, that we’re neither to fight nor even to flee, but to passively give in to evil done to us. After all, does he not say: “Do not resist one who is evil”? But in fact, the examples he gives to illustrate what he means by “do not resist” demonstrates that its not mere passivity that is asked of Christians. In the first place, Christ teaches that evil is not to be met with evil, violence with more violence. For to respond to an action with an identically mirrored reaction is to lock the human situation of animosity into a hopeless impasse. Which is the terrible state of things on a macro level in many parts of the world today.
Rather, evil is to be met with an active freedom, courage, and virtue. Christ urges us to stand our ground, so that we are not made into victims or inferiors. On the contrary, we rise above the bullies and show them the deep injustice of what they’re doing. We surprise our aggressors with compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, and ultimately love. In this way, the Christian action aims to reveal the truth of the injustice being done, and to shame the aggressor into a change of heart.
Perhaps this seems rather abstract but a few striking examples may help. Blessed Mother Teresa once went with a small child to a local baker in Calcutta and begged for bread for the child. The baker spat in her face. Undaunted, she calmly replied: “Thank you for that gift to me. Do you have anything for the child?” Desmond Tutu tells of the time he was walking on the pavement in apartheid Johannesburg. He was met by a white man coming along the other way, who said to him: “Get off the pavement; I don’t make way for gorillas”. Tutu stepped aside, gestured broadly, and said “I do”. In both India and South Africa, such non-violent responses have been traced to the influence of Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha. As Gandhi explains: “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders, and, therefore, serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence”.
However, Gandhi’s thought, in turn, was deeply influenced by the witness of Christ himself who is non-violent Truth and Love. For is it not Christ who shuns violence, is struck, stripped of his clothes, and compelled to serve the Romans? It is he who thus mounts the Cross to effect the victory of Love and the triumph of Truth over evil and violence. Hence, he calls us, his disciples, to follow him on the way of the Cross. And he will give us the grace necessary to do so.