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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ No Eye For An Eye ~


The "eye for an eye" philosophy of retribution and bringing balance to conflict won't work psychologically or spiritually. A child feels violated so he takes a punch at the other. The other, now a victim, feels entitled to hit back. Those of us recalling our childhood's will remember that such "tit-for-tat" always escalates. When confronted by peacemakers, such as a parent or teacher, one kid will indignantly exclaim, "Well, he started it!" The other will respond, "He hit me back a lot harder than I hit him!"

Similarly, the chaotic war theater of North Korea and the Middle East can be characterized by such childlike immaturity. No nation or organization claims to be an aggressor and are only defending themselves. Israel is defending itself against Hezbollah and Hezbollah is defending itself against Israel. The Iraqi insurgents are defending themselves and their homeland from the US, and the US is defending itself and Iraq. North Korea is preparing to defend itself against possible preemptive strikes and other nations are figuring out ways to defend themselves against the North Korea threat. There are only defenders in our own eyes and only aggressors in the eyes of each other. Yet among all these defenders war escalates. "He hit me first." "He hit me harder, so of course I'm going to hit harder back."

Let's reframe this in a one-to-one personal encounter studied in scientific parameters. I read with interest of a study at the University College London in which pairs of students agreed to attach their fingers to an instrument through which they could administer varying degrees of pressure on each other's fingers. The instrument could also measure the amount of pressure exerted by each on the other. The experiment was so simple with one strict rule: The pairs of volunteers must exert extreme care to never apply more pressure on their partner than they received from him or her.

The researcher started off by applying a very mild pressure on one of the volunteer's finger, instructing him to exert the same amount of mild pressure on the finger of his partner. The partner was then told to return the pressure on the other's finger an an equal force and no more. The two were to continue going back and forth on each other's fingers until told to stop. One would figure that this experiment would go on for a long time. But remember the children. Ask one to softly hit another in the upper arm, and the other to return the hit with the exact same force. Don't you suspect the two kids would soon be fighting?

That is what happened under these controlled conditions wherein the researcher could measure the amount of pressure each pair of volunteers were inflicting on each other. Although these adults were trying their best to follow the experiment's rules, they typically (and quickly) returned the pressure force they perceived they felt to their partner in an amount of forty percent more. The soft pressures quickly escalated to moderate ones and then to painful ones, the point at which the researcher had to stop the experiment.

Although each of the paired volunteers were convinced he or she was returning the same pressure given, each also perceived that the other was increasing their pressure infliction, so, naturally, he or she had to respond accordingly. A controlled research milieu often validates what we already know through life experiences. It is human nature to feel we suffered more than we deserved or more than the pain we contributed to a conflict, be the situation a family or marital conflict, a personal relationship or national ones.

Naturally, our pain is far more touchable than the pain others received from us. There is nothing mystical or esoteric about this. It is basic neuropsychology. Since I am not you, I cannot feel your pain as you do, regardless of its origin. That's why as a therapist or lay person, I would never tell anyone, "I know how you feel." Two people can ski down the same slope at the same time and hit the same tree breaking the same leg and being transported to the same room in the same hospital. One still cannot tell the other, "I know how you feel." One of the injured can very well be taking the incident in stride and humor while the other in great despondency, worry and regret for ever skiing that day. It all depends on their perception of the event and their living situation. And that will even change the degree of physical pain each of them experience and the rate of their recovery.

We humans naturally feel our pain more than the pain of others. We watch vivid broadcasts of the suffering around the world, lives and homelands devastated by war, disease, hunger and natural disasters. We feel badly and even painful empathy. But an hour later, or less, we are back to work or chores or relaxing entertainment, consumed by our own physical afflictions, burdens of personal worries and energy consuming fears of the future. Intellectually, we tell ourselves to "count our blessings" as we ponder the suffering of others. While this offers some consolation, it doesn't run deep into our souls. A spiritual person is not consoled by the realization that he or she is free while thousands of his brothers and sisters are suffering in our nations' prisons or in horrible refugee camps. A spiritual person's consolation is more derived from being a blessing to those people rather than counting his own.

This is a spiritual protection against the escalation of violence. Since we find self-righteousness and justification in perceiving that only others are responsible for our pain, be they individuals or nations, since all of us regard ourselves to be defenders of our ways and homelands, since we cannot enter (or choose not to enter) into each others' souls and minds, we will always hold up our own pain and sense of self as justification for the escalation of harm and violence against one another. Many may disagree with my suggestion of the universal embracing of an illusion, that others are solely responsible for our suffering and the concomitant position that our responses to others are justifiable and even blessed by God, personally or globally.

Diplomacy is an illusion and war is a paper tiger. "An eye for an eye" is also an illusionary aspiration. An eye lash is revenged with an eye, an eye with two eyes, two eyes with the face, and the face with the head. That's why Christ proclaimed, "You heard it said, 'An eye for an eye,' but I tell you, whoever looks upon his neighbor with hatred has committed murder."

Is there hope and an answer? The kingdom of God as exemplified by the life of the Christ on earth does not follow the rules of engagement we practice personally and globally. Exercising the rules of engagement of the heavenly realm here on earth is an exercise in holy wisdom. Concerning the future, as long as our children punch each other back harder than the punches they took, and these children grow up to be our corporate and world leaders, and they justify their responses to their parents and caretakers as merited and justified, we should be prepared for more of the same.

Some have been criticized for "refusing" to "serve" our country, thinking the military is the only way to do it. Those who raise their children with the rules of engagement of the heavenly realm and the spiritual traditions, and their teachers who espouse to do the same, are serving our country and the people of all nations in nobility and promise. They, along with our troops, deserve support and honorable recognition.


John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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