In Catholic theology, there is always an emphasis on the connection between the promises in the Old Testament and their fulfillment in the New Testament.
For instance, Jesus declared in Mathew 5:17: “do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill them.” On reconciliation, he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mathew 5:38-39). The laws he was referencing are these: “Burn for burn, wound for wound and stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:25); “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he injured the other person, the same must be inflicted on him” (Leviticus 24:20); “You must show no pity; life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21).
How did Jesus fulfill these laws of the Old Testament? It is pointless to do an extensive academic research on that, but simply to go back to his words and actions especially in the context of his arrest, trial and death. “One of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him. “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mathew 26:51-52). When Jesus said: “Offer no resistance to one who is evil and when someone strikes you offer the other cheek,” he set Christianity on a path that is almost difficult to comprehend particularly through the lens of human nature. Our natural inclination is to suppress violence with an overwhelming stronger violence.
Aware that the teaching of Jesus seems to be contrary to human inclination for revenge, how can his Gospel of non-violence and no revenge be interpreted in the 21st century? This is in view of the many unprovoked violence visited upon many innocent victims. For instance, how do criminals who are going about destroying people and properties be encouraged by such a teaching? In legal terms as explained by David Van Drunen (professor of Law at Liberty University): “The idea of the lextalionis- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth- seems to take us back to the murky origins of legal history, to the raw, primitive, and violent impulses of not yet-fully civilized humanity. The idea evokes the specter of villages filled with one eyed men consumed by violent demands of honour cultures and tribal feuds. The lextalionis is easily dismissed as unworthy of human civilization and especially of a legal order historically influenced by Christianity” (Van Drunen, Natural Law, the LexTalionis, and the Power of the Sword 2008)). Jesus in today’s reflection revoked the lextalionis through his teaching about “turning the other cheek”.
In the opinion of Van Drunen, “…a facile dismissal of the so called law of retribution is both legally and theologically hasty.” The view of Van Drunen is expressed through a series of questions: “What if the lextalionis is not so much a relic of a barbaric past, but an expression of a perfectly proportionate justice? What if the desire for the lextalionis is not a disordered craving for violence, but a virtuous sense of equity, which we are still striving to approximate in our own day? What about the fact that the lextalionis played a role in many widely recognized milestones in the positive progressive development of legal order such as the code of Hammurabi and the Twelve Tables of early Roman Law? Most Christians, throughout history, have interpreted Jesus commands to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile (which accompany his revocation of the law of talion) as impossible to be followed literally and hence in some sense hyperbolic? The lextalionis remains legally and theologically relevant in binding together two very important ideas: first that natural law is the standard for civil law, and second, that the civil state (but not the church) wields the power of the sword” (V David Natural Law, the LexTalionis, and the Power of the Sword 2008),).
The idea that the state, and not the church, bears the sword, is best described in Thomas Hobbes’s work of 1651, The Social Contract. It defends the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. The social contract theory of Hobbes argues that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights or for the maintenance of the social order. It mains that the destruction of this social order breeds violence and further violence.
In the last five months, there has been a wave of killings in Southern Kaduna that seems to suggest the absence of a strong government to protect the lives and properties of hapless citizens. The news media is replete with gruesome accounts about the barbarity of those who senselessly slaughter their fellow human beings without any qualm of conscience. One basic truth that has surfaced seems to indicate the present macabre violence has been in the incubation for about 40 years. The governor of Kaduna State said that much in his interview with Seun Akinboleye of Channels Television. Other people allege that the Zangon-Kataf conflicts have not been completely solved. While these insinuations are peddled around, innocent Nigerians are the defenseless victims who pay the heavy price with their lives and those of their children. This cycle of violence should and must stop! These wanton cruelties and killings must stop. Their unabated continuation signals the end of civility and even the death of the social contract between the government and law-abiding citizens. When Jesus cautioned his followers against retaliation, he basically meant that unborn generations should not inherit a fight or enmity that has nothing to do with successive generations.
Peace is not realized through wishful thinking. The example of Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, is worthy of being highlighted. Both men are religious leaders in Kaduna. They work together to teach warring youths to resolve their conflicts peacefully. Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye did not initially start out as peacemakers. Years ago, they were enemies, intent on killing one another in the name of religion. Christians and Muslims fought each other in the marketplace, destroying crops and attacking families during the violent interreligious conflict that broke out in Kaduna State in 1992. The imam and the pastor were drawn into the fight, and both paid heavy prices for their involvement — Imam Ashafa lost two brothers and his teacher while Pastor James lost one of his hands.
At the cessation of conflict, both harboured hatred and revenge towards each other. Their roles as religious leaders in their community meant that the two men had to reluctantly agree to meet for the sake of peace. Their meeting was facilitated by a concerned member of their community. Imam Ashafa recalls what happened: “A mutual friend…took both of us by the hand and said: “The two of you can pull this nation together, or you can destroy it. Do something.’” Over the next few years, through frequent meetings and separate religious celebrations, the two men slowly built mutual respect, and decided to work together to bridge the divide between their religious affiliations. Ashafa and Wuye formed the Interfaith Mediation Centre In 1995. It is a religious grassroots organization that has successfully mediated between Christians and Muslims across the country. Nigeria yearns today for men and women of peace like Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye who are wearied of the seemingly endless cycle of violence in our Land.
Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. ([email protected])