'An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,' said Gandhi.
He probably didn't, in fact – at least, no one has been able to find the exact quote. But the saying demonstrates an uneasiness with a biblical quote that seems to approve of taking violent revenge on someone who has done you an injury.
The law of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' is found in Exodus 23: 23-25, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. The rule seems to have applied to social equals rather than relationships between masters and slaves – in Exodus 21:26, if a master blinds a servant in one eye he must let the servant go free rather than having his own eye knocked out.
The rule is also found in other ancient law codes too - notably the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi – and what they all have in common is that the law is about limiting revenge rather than promoting it. It's a way of controlling the human instinct towards a spiral of violence, with an injury provoking a worse injury, which provokes a worse injury in return. Yes, the desire for justice is legitimate and has to be satisfied, but that's not excuse for surrendering to our instincts for violent revenge.
Furthermore, in the New Testament Jesus takes this one step further. Rather than just limiting revenge, he seems to forbid it entirely. In Matthew 5: 38-39 he says: 'You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.'
Some have taken this as a command to absolute pacifism. Others have pointed out that a slap on the right cheek from a right-handed person is a backhander, an insulting cuff – perhaps from a Roman to a Jew. But what's clear is that an injury is to be met with a different kind of response. Instead of exacting the full recompense due under the law, the believer is to take a different line entirely. Believers are to forgive rather than punish.
It's fairly easy to see what this might mean in personal relationships – no grudges, no brooding over old wrongs, an open-hearted willingness to let bygones be bygones.
But what does this mean for life in the world, where issues of crime and punishment are always pressing? Should a repentant criminal simply go free? And what about international relations, where one nation might oppress another? In other words, can we scale up Jesus' command?
Perhaps not so easily. But there are nevertheless hints of a direction of travel. In Jesus' words it's arguably implied that the action of the believer in not taking revenge will have an effect on the one who's done the injury – just as Paul says in Romans 12:20, 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head' (a possible reference to an Egyptian ritual showing repentance by carry on the head a dish containing burning charcoal).
So when we think of how to treat wrongdoers, we should be guided not by a desire for revenge, but by a desire for reform. Prison is a punishment – but in a society influenced by Christianity, it should above all be a place of reform, where people are enabled to repent and change.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods