Lex Talionis versus Lex Orandi.
Say what? These are Latin phrases standing for the Law of Retaliation versus the Law of Prayer. I had never really thought about them in regard to racial reconciliation until I was listening to a lecture about Cyprian, a Bishop from North Africa, who had to deal with whether or not the Church should forgive those who had betrayed their faith (lapsi) during a time of persecution and made sacrifice or burned incense to the Emperor of Rome.
We know the Law of Retaliation in terms of “An eye for an eye.” The Law of Prayer is the one found in Mark 11:25. In this passage Jesus is teaching about prayer. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Or, as when Jesus taught his disciples to pray what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” he adds, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15.
The Bishops of North Africa came to a decision about demanding “penance” for those who had betrayed their faith, but they also came to the conclusion that eventually they had to forgive them and receive them back into the Church. Some of the Bishops had lost all their property, some had been in hiding during the persecution, some had been tortured and had not given in to the demands to deny their faith. They had lost family and friends to the Roman persecution and seen fellow Christians slaughtered for their faith. It must not have been easy to forgive these traitors. There was another group of Christians (Rigorists) who felt that those who had betrayed their faith should never be forgiven or brought back in the Church.
I confess that I have a problem with the teachings of Jesus about forgiving others, especially when I am praying or before I pray. My problem is not with his authority, or the truth of it. My problem is I don’t want to do it. These are usually simply personal issues of offense; someone who has betrayed me, slandered me, said something mean to me or about me. They have hurt me, and I can’t seem to get over it or shake it. Then Jesus says, “when you stand praying…” Which of course is every day for me, every day I come before the Lord to pray, or if you think he is speaking of formal worship then I have to face the issue every week.
So how about those who bear the scars of racism and racist attacks? How about those who have experienced loss due to prejudice and bias, or have been and are insulted, or who feel the suffering of their people as a minority in a majority world, read and hear a long history of oppression, see present instances of ignorant, mean, and harsh hostility based on race? Suppose these people who have experienced suffering or are sensitive to this suffering are indeed Christians, and suppose some of the racists also call themselves Christians?
It is one thing of course to call sinners to repentance, no matter what those sins might be. This is what believers and the Church of Jesus Christ should be doing against all sin, racism and injustice included; calling for an end to it, calling for repentance for it, calling for evil and sin to stop. What happens when there are people who do repent, at least in owning up to their sin, who are sorrowful for it, who confess it?
This is exactly I think where Cyprian found himself, trying hard to believe these people were really sorry for what they had done, trying to figure out how they could move toward repairing the damage, prove their loyalty, and make their way back into fellowship. I think it reasonable for those of us who have been racist in our hearts and actions to bring forth fruit worthy of our repentance, and do the demonstrable work of pursing reconciliation- and not just ask for a “make me feel better” card. I think Cyprian and the other Bishops were also trying to figure out a way inside themselves to let the bitterness go, to truly and completely forgive.
The hurt inside us makes Lex Talionis seem so reasonable. Justice demands a payment, a recompense, a pound of flesh. Forgiveness often seems like a miracle, and it seems that way because it really is one, a miracle given by God inside our hearts and without which we can’t really claim to know God, or to love Him, not really. We either forgive or we don’t get forgiven, and that to me seems really harsh of God and I personally wish he would cut us some slack about hating people and be more understanding about it. I suppose a father who gave his only son to die for and completely forgive his enemies has a right to expect the same from us. The really good news in the theology I believe is that not only does he demand it, but he provides miraculous grace to do it. Lord, give us more grace!