Lex talionis (eye for an eye) can be retribution, but is not necessarily retribution.1 Retribution can be excessive, or it can be lex talionis, or something which causes less bodily harm.2
A person who seeks retribution, seeks it in order to hurt the person who hurt them. Retribution is by nature vindictive, and is therefore harmful to the soul of the person who seeks it.
The Purpose of Punishment
The purpose of punishment should be to help the person who committed the crime to see the seriousness of their crime. The punishment which is most likely to help a criminal see the seriousness of their crime, is the punishment which is most likely to bring about his or her repentance; and is therefore the punishment which is best for the soul of the criminal. (And is therefore the punishment which is best for society as a whole. ) The fairer the punishment, the more likely it is to bring about repentance. The punishment which is most likely to bring about repentance is the punishment which is most likely to bring about reconciliation between the perpetrator and their victim; and is therefore the kind of punishment which our government should enforce. With that in mind, consider the following crime and its punishment:
- Suppose a man stabbed another man, and there was no doubt regarding the stabbing as it was caught on camera.
- Was then convicted in court.
- The sentence of stabbing with the same size knife in the same part of the body was then carried out by a government official.
Would most criminals say that was a fair punishment?
Would most criminals say that was fairer than the punishments the state currently enforces?
Would such a punishment deter the same kind of crimes if carried out in public?
Is it possible that after the criminal received his sentence that he and his victim could be reconciled? (The obvious exception is murder. But even then it is not necessarily the end of the story. See here. Such a punishment certainly has the advantage of not separating the perpetrator from his (or her) family, while not increasing the prison population.)
Ok. But what did Jesus have to say about this issue?
Jesus was certainly against individuals taking the law into their own hands (see John 8:1-11)3 ; but I can find no examples of Jesus being opposed to the government implementing the laws which were given to Moses (See By This Standard).
We must not take the law into our own hands; and we must forgive those who harm us. But it is not the governments role to forgive criminals (see here). We must not forget that multiple times in the Old Testament we are told that the laws God gave Israel were good. God does not change, and it was God himself who gave those laws to the people.
But shouldn’t victims have the right not to press charges? If the crime was only committed against them, then they should have this right; but all crimes in a state are not only crimes committed against the individuals directly involved, they are crimes committed against all the citizens of that state (as contempt of the states laws has been shown).
Whether or not a victim of a crime wishes to see the perpetrator punished, or whether or not they wish to see the perpetrator suffer, 3 the state has an obligation to punish the one who has committed the crime.
If a victim has it within their power to stop the state pressing charges, or from punishing a convicted criminal, criminals will attempt to manipulate their victims. This puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on victims and makes criminals feel hard done by if their victims don’t let them off the hook. (God expects the government to punish evil doers. See 1 Peter 2:13, 14.) When just punishments are enforced, crime is deterred.
“The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.” (Deut 19:18-20)
This passage goes on to say “show no pity.” There are a number of times in the Bible where God tells the Israelites to “show no pity” or “show no mercy.” Was God being kind when he said, “Show no pity”? Yes he was.
"To regard any suffering with satisfaction, save it be sympathetically with its curative quality, comes of evil, is inhuman because undivine, is a thing God is incapable of. His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes. Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing." (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons ).
I hold out little hope that the government will enforce just punishments, but I know God will ensure justice is done in the end.5
(1) Retribution is not part of God’s nature. Everything he does is a kindness. (Even his punishment is a kindness.) But that does not mean he does not or will not use lex talionis. If necessary, he uses lex talionis to help people to see just how much they have hurt others (see here), but he does not require payment in order to forgive (see here).
(2) For example, a man whose wife was murdered may be able to do no more than stab his wife’s killer in the leg with a pair of scissors; he may wish to cause more suffering but is not able to inflict it.
(3) Jesus knew that while under Roman rule the Jewish leaders had no authority to put anyone to death (only Rome reserved the right to put a person to death). Jesus never encouraged the Jews of his day to oppose Rome by disobeying the laws which were imposed on them. It is true that occasionally Roman officials overlooked an individual being stoned (see Acts 7:54-60), but this was only because their priority was keeping the peace within the empire. If overlooking a stoning kept the crowd happy, they would overlook it. And this, by the way, is why the religious leaders used Rome to have Jesus crucified; Jesus was popular and they were afraid of the crowd. If they could have put Jesus to death without suffering the wrath of the people they would have. Whenever they or a group of people tried to harm Jesus they were not able to; but when the religious leaders and the crowd saw that Jesus had been whipped by the Romans, they were convinced that he could not be the Messiah and so shouted “Crucify him!”
(4) You can wish someone receive punishment while not wishing them to suffer. A good example of this is when a parent—who does not want to see their child suffer—punishes their child for the child’s good.
(5) "But where is the grace?"
When a society has just laws (and those laws are enforced), the grace and the kindness of individuals is much more apparent than in societies where crime is not very costly to criminals. (The more costly the crime, the more the kindness of individuals is appreciated.)