In the early months of this century, I was serving as an active duty Air Force chaplain at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, when I received an anonymous call from an off-base civilian. Before I could say as much as “God bless you,” the man launched into a complicated story about a sergeant who was “messing with” his wife.
“Pardon me?” I said.
But he wasn’t in the mood for granting pardons. He’d evicted his wife and now he wanted the philanderer prosecuted.
“The UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) demands adulterers be prosecuted,” he said. “If the sergeant doesn’t see some brig time, I’m calling my congressman!”
When I said chaplains don’t practice military law, he was undeterred.
“I left a message for sergeant’s commander,” he warned. “When he calls me back, the sergeant’s family will need your help.”
“So, you’re asking me to do the clean-up work?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Oh, I see,” I said. “The sergeant hurt you, so now you’re going to hurt his family. An eye-for-eye deal, right?’ ”
That observation inspired him to ask for my boss. I ignored his request by asking how his wife had met this man.
“They never actually met,” he said, “but they talk on the Internet.”
“So, you’re going to hurt the sergeant’s family for what he’s planning to do; not for what he’s actually done?”
“This home wrecker is going down!” he said, and so did his phone.
My guess is that my caller was probably a proponent of something I call, “The Moses Plan.” The plan is a page from the book of Exodus that calls for an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
However, centuries after Moses suggested this radicalized version of ophthalmological surgery, Jesus used a bit of skillful hyperbole to introduce his own plan:
“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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
I say, “hyperbole” because if we took the advice literally, we’d all be a bunch of bruised nudists.
Jesus’ strategy does three things. First, it calls for us to re-examine our motives when seeking justice. Second, it removes the necessity of revenge by removing the power from the insult. But most important, it demands that we seek the powers of love and forgiveness, which is a much higher level of justice than revenge.
The nuts and bolts of the plan can be difficult, but I’ve found practical advice in the writings of the Apostle Paul who advised readers to find things in people that are “... noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious, the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
After that call, I sat for a moment, hoping the man would call back with a more dispassionate tone. He didn’t.
On his end, I imagined him waiting for a return call from the interloper’s commander. But, knowing that commander as a man who played no part in vengeful games, I can assure you that the angry caller waited a long time for a call that never came.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist and author of “No Small Miracles.”