“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth. BUT I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ , BUT I tell you : Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…” Matthew 5 :38-44.
Jesus was speaking into a world that knew the “eye for an eye” form of justice. It was well known and practiced by the Roman occupiers of Judea at the time. The Roman folklore included the way that Carthage was destroyed by Roman power.
In my Latin class I was taught the phrase “Carthago est delenda”, “Carthage must be destroyed” which became the war slogan at Rome. Carthage under its famous general, Hannibal, defied Roman power and suffered grievously. Not a stone of that ancient city remained standing.
The great Roman author Tacitus described his own countrymen and their love of power and the way Rome oppressed its enemies. when he said;
“They make a desert and call it Peace”.
Mahatma Gandhi shamed Christians by being one of the only leaders in history to take Jesus’ words literally and follow them as best he could. He had a great respect for the teaching of Jesus and was deeply influenced by Christianity. He describes in his autobiography how he nearly became a Christian when he encountered a Plymouth Brethren evangelist on board ship to South Africa.
The message was too simple for Gandhi and he rejected it. Hinduism saw salvation being achieved only through earned merit, but the influence of Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount remained to shape Gandhi’s strategy in India or what he called “satyagraha”- non- violence and passive resistance. Gandhi famously said; “An eye for an eye and the whole world becomes blind”.
I must say that the blindness is also on the part of Christians who claim to follow Jesus but fail to take Jesus’ word with seriousness and resort in times of conflict to hatred of enemies and the taking of violent steps to destroy them. I do not target the Jewish and Muslim antagonists in the same way. They do not profess to be followers of Jesus.
We, in New Zealand though, should know better. The history of our country tells us of a time when Jesus’ teaching of love for enemies transformed a warring people. Let me illustrate the forgiveness that comes from Jesus that can change enemies into friends, from our own history in New Zealand.
I shall describe my journey of discovery in relation to a Maori word, “muru”. The Maori justice system gave a central place in dealing with conflict to “utu” (retaliation and vengeance) and “muru” . Both were an “eye for an eye” form of justice.
My son is an Anglican vicar in Wellington and from time to time we worship with him at his church. There I encountered a beautiful rendering of the Lord’s Prayer in the Maori language sung to a haunting Maori melody. There is a dark passage in the music towards the end of the prayer and when I first heard it I (wrongly) thought it must be dealing with the words, “Deliver us from evil”, but I did notice the Maori word “muru” was repeated twice in this passage.
I encountered that word later in a fascinating little book I read, the Journals of Marianne Williams. It tells the story of the missionary women who first came to New Zealand, in particular the story of Marianne (wife of Henry Williams) and her sister-in-law Jane Williams who came to this country in the 1820′s.
At that time New Zealand had a reputation for being a savage country. Muskets had been introduced by European traders to a people already engaged in inter-tribal warfare. The tribe who could acquire an arsenal of muskets could wreak a terrible utu (retribution) on their enemies. The early missionaries, particularly the Williams brothers, Henry and William and another CMS missionary, Alfred Brown, made it their task to literally stand between warring enemies and seek to bring peace.
Their wives at home not only waited anxiously for their men to return safely but encountered another peril. Marianne Williams’ little book describes their terror when from time to time, for no reason that they could understand, a war party would arrive at their mission station and demand entry. The warriors had not come to exercise violence but to strip their home of valuables. To these terror-stricken women this was heartbreaking. Ever since they left the comfort of their homes in England and arrived in New Zealand, they tried to re-establish the home comforts they had once known. Their husbands after the earlier years, living in earthen floor raupo (reed) huts, but as soon as they could, replaced them with sturdy wooden homes.
A wonderful example is the mission house, “The Elms” in Tauranga built by Alfred Brown. Slowly their wives accumulated carpets, curtains, ornaments, pictures and furniture, to furnish their homes and now these were all gone. For those who suffered “muru” it was a fearful thing. Yet, this was the word I had encountered in the Lord’s prayer. How did it get there? I did some more research and discovered that there was an underlying meaning to muru which led the early missionaries to use this word to translate the word, forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.
Muru was a central part of the Maori legal system. It was the way in a culture that held to an “eye for an eye” retribution, that satisfaction was given for a wrong or insult. If a tribe or family group were offended or insulted a war party would be sent out to plunder the group that had created the offence. The war party would be headed by the chief and would demand entry to the village or homes of those concerned and strip them of valuables until satisfaction was obtained. Once the chief considered that sufficient plunder had been taken he would hold up his hand and call on his men to stop. The opposing groups would then embrace each other, tears might be shed and forgiveness and reconciliation were achieved.
The missionaries had sufficient insight into Maori culture to use this (to their wives) terrible word to describe forgiveness. I can imagine Henry Williams preaching from Ephesians 2 and claiming from verse 14 that “Jesus is our muru”. (In the English NIV version, “Christ is our peace “).
Maybe I’m speculating there about Henry Williams’ preaching because the word chosen to translate peace in vs 14 is another Maori word., but Christ as our muru would illustrate the heart of the gospel. Jesus provided the satisfaction that brings forgiveness. In the words of Ephesians 2:16 Jesus “destroyed the enmity”.
The story does not end there. The translation and distribution of the gospels provided a remarkable transformation of Maori society. After years of resistance, a flood of conversions took place and by 1850, almost the whole of the Maori population had become Christian. The tribal wars ceased and muru became ahistorical curiosity.
The CMS rejoiced and supporters back in England could hardly believe that the most savage of people had responded to the gospel and were completely changed. Tragically conflict returned, not between tribes, but between European settlers and the Maori over land. Maori regarded all white men (Pakeha) as being Christian and found it disillusioning that Christian Pakeha would fight bitterly, and then extract massive compensation by way of land confiscation, contrary to the way missionaries such as Williams and Brown had acted urging reconciliation and peace. The missionaries witnessed the collapse of their work which had appeared so promising.
The New Zealand experience shows that there is a power in the gospel which can change the most violent conflicts, but even as Christians we have a problem of belief. Do we really believe that the gospel works? Is forgiveness and reconciliation through the power of Jesus, the way forward or do we see Jesus’ power to change lives as being limited to individual conflicts and estrangement and do not see it as working among nations?
Peter McKenzie KC is a New Zealand King’s Counsel. He has practised in all three main branches of the law in New Zealand and abroad. He has spent a decade in university Lecturing, as well as in private practice. He was chairperson of the New Zealand Securities Commission and later visited new Commonwealth countries in Africa, the Indian Ocean islands and the Pacific involved in law reform. He has also published articles on NZ history.
REFLECTIONS ON THE ISRAEL/GAZA CONFLICT
By Peter McKenzie KC
Special to VIRTUEONLINE
November 29, 2023
The present conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has drawn responses from many Christians who see total support for Israel’s violent response and the “wiping out of Hamas” as one Israeli leader has called it, being the only effective solution to this terrible conflict.
Might I suggest that Jesus had another way, although as G.K. Chesterton noted; “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said:
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