An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

Part 1: Donald Trump’s favorite Bible verse

by Ken Sehested

“We’ll worship the hind legs off Jesus but never do a thing he says.” —Clarence Jordan

            Let’s be honest. Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is likely the New Testament’s most memorable yet most effectively ignored directive.

            US presidential candidate Donald Trump hints at the disconnect in a recent interview.

            When asked on a radio talk show to name his favorite Bible verse or story that “informed” his thinking or character, Trump’s response was (and this is verbatim):

            “Well, I think many. I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that.” (Notice his characteristic way of saying something without quite saying it.)

            He continued, “That’s not a particularly nice thing.”

            “Not nice”? You mean there’s something “not nice” in the Bible? When asked to pick a text that informed his thinking, why go to the “not nice” part? One that Jesus contradicted.[1] Why not a “nice” verse or two?

            In the interview Trump continued, “If you look at what’s happening to our country, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us and how they scoff at us and laugh at us and laugh at our face. They’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country. We have to be very firm and we have to be very strong, and we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”[2]

            Meet Donald Trump, populist theologian and champion of street level exegesis.

            Trump was referencing the lex talionis tradition in Hebrew Scripture, popularly alluded to as the “eye for an eye” standard of justice.[3] As scholars point out, those teachings were established for the cause of justice rather than justification for vengeance. These stipulations undermine the kind of limitless revenge as typified in Lamech’s pledge, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (Genesis 4:23a-24).

            Trump instinctively senses that revenge is “not nice,” but, hey, somebody has to do it, or otherwise people will take advantage of you. Which is why Jesus’ mandate about loving enemies—undeniably the hallmark of his teaching—is so thoroughly ignored, except as a tool for instructing children about playground fairness.

            Trump—along with most, even in the church—consider “loving enemies” utterly impractical and, for that matter, the reason we’re in the mess we’re in. Though criticizing Jesus isn’t something you want to do in public, especially during an election cycle. Majority opinion is closer to this bumper sticker sentiment accompanied with a Marine Corps insignia: “Pacifism is a luxury paid for by warriors.”

            “It is a rare society that tells exemplary stories of peacemaking,” Lance Morrow wrote in a Time Magazine essay, “except, say, for the Gospels of Christ, whose irenic grace may be admired from a distance, without much effect on daily behavior.”[4]

            Trump is hardly the only one who reveres the Bible while panning its substance. According to polls, 88% of US citizens own a Bible, 80% think it sacred, and more than half think it has too little influence in public life. Yet only 20% read it on a regular basis. More than three-fourths believe the Ten Commandments should be posted in public buildings, but nearly two-thirds of those can recall even five of those instructions.[5]

            When 82% of those polled believe “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible,[6] Scripture’s function as cultural prop and national talisman is confirmed.

            In a quick search I found one online poster with a photo of the lethal Air Force A-10 “Warthog” fighter with the inscription:

            “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”[7]

            But underneath the text, in smaller type is a subtext:

            “But he subcontracts.”

            That inventive interpretation also takes aim indirectly at the repeated insistence in the Bible against meeting evil with evil.[8]

            The notion of loving enemies is effectively reduced to humorous ridicule, as when Frank Sinatra quipped: “Alcohol may be man's worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy.” Mohandas Gandhi was right when he said “An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.”

            The power to love enemies is both the evidence of salvation and its acclamation, taking on the Abba’s family resemblance, walking in the Way of Jesus, by the Spirit’s power conforming to the mind of Christ. For “while we were enemies [of God] we were reconciled” (Romans 5:10) by the Beloved’s unilaterally transforming initiative, baptizing into the same mission all who trust Resurrection’s promise, disarmed hearts rising to participate in the disarming of the nations.

#  #  #  End of part 1. Part 2 to come.



[1] Matthew 5:38-39. In his far-reaching exegesis of Jesus’ admonition, “Do not resist an evildoer,” Walter Wink demonstrates how poorly that text is rendered in English. “Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run counter to everything he did and said.  He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.  Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit.  He is saying, in effect, Do not mirror evil; do not become the very thing you hate.  The best translation is the Scholars Version: "Don't react violently against the one who is evil." “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.”

[2] Listen to Trump’s comment from a radio talk show interview by Bob Lonsberry on Rochester, New York’s WHAM 1180AM station.

[3] See Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-22, Deuteronomy 19:15-21.

[4] “To Conquer the Past,” Time Magazine, 3 January 1994, italics added.

[5] “State of the Bible 2015," Barna Group 2015 poll for the American Bible Society; Albert L. Winseman, “Americans: Thou Shalt Not Remove the Ten Commandments,” Gallup, 12 April 2005 ; Caleb Bell, “Poll: Americans love the Bible but don’t read it much,” Washington Post, 4 April 2013

[6] Albert Mohler, “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem,”

[7] See Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, among others.

[8] cf. Proverbs 20:22, Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:27-35; Romans 12:17-20; 1 Peter 3:8-9

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