Old-fashioned eye for an eye?


According to this story, Scott Roeder–the man who killed abortionists George Tiller–was  “very religious” but in an Old Testament “eye-for-an-eye way.”

A number of things could be said about such a statement; I will limit my comments to these two points.  First, “very religious” means almost nothing.  That phrase could describe anyone from Eckart Tolle to Billy Graham; it is a phrase which bears no weight in the abortion debate or the conversation over Tiller’s killing.

Second, and much more important, this man was not in any way being religious in the Old Testament “eye for an eye” sense of the word.  Perhaps the author of the article doesn’t understand how merciful and just the “eye for an eye” passage is in Exodus 21.  The eye for an eye passage (known by its Latin term, lex talionis) affirms justice and equality.  If one is caught stealing apples from a farmers’ market, he should not be hanged for the crime. 

The lex talionis acts as a restraint to squelch revenge in favor of justice.  Some in the name of Islam have committed honor killings, such as in this story.   According to the FBI, 2 teenage girls were killed by their father to protect Islamic honor in the family.  Their crime against honor was that they dated non-muslim boys and acted “too western.”  The lex talionis could have been a great corrective in this instance because it would have said, first, that the issue is justice not honor.  Second, it would have prevented the penalty from being enacted with no regard for justice.  The lex talionis would not have allowed the father to act on privatized justice; it would seek rather an institutional justice at the communal level.  And, third, the lex talionis would repay justice at an equitable rate.  Dating non-muslim boys might could be met with a restriction of dating privileges, but it must not be met with execution.  There is no equity in meeting an infraction of dating rules with the death penalty.

So, we see the lex talionis is merciful; it limits the penalty to that which is equitable for the crime.  An eye taken means an eye given; a tooth taken means a tooth given.  One must not execute a man because he broke out another man’s tooth.  Without the lex talionis, we would pervert justice.  Some, such as Scott Roeder, have sought to do just this in relation to abortion.  Though it is true that we could debate whether Tiller was guilty of taking a life (and thus needing to give his life), this decision was not ours to make.  The justice of lex talionis means there must be a trial and a legitimate action of communal justice.  Scott Roeder did not act according to the lex talionis.  His action was murder.  He took a life: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life.

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