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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff

No Room for Retribution: Enemy Love in the Ethics of Jesus

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
June 5, 2017

Nicholas Wolterstorff discusses how Jesus does away with the “reciprocity code,” and what that means for forms of judgement and punishment.


How do you think about enemy love, in light of your views on justice and its connection and consistency with love?

So Jesus is truly radical. And my interpretation of what’s going on in the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus is repudiating what I call the reciprocity code, which was clearly common in Ancient Israel, but it was also common in Ancient Greek society and so forth. And the reciprocity code says you return favors with favors, and you return harms with harms.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.


But Jesus’ attitude towards the positive side of the reciprocity code, return favors with favors, as I read it is a sort of yeah, not bad, no big deal. He observes that Gentiles do that too. And then when we look further at some of his actions later, what he’s in effect saying, yeah return favors with favors, but by and large, but don’t confine your dinner parties to guests who can return it. He tells a story about the dinner party and so forth. Concerning the negative side of the reciprocity code, Jesus, and then later Paul in Romans, flatly rejects it. Do not return harm with harm. Return harm with good.

Turn the other cheek.

Nicholas: What’s that?

Turn the other cheek.

Turn the other cheek. And that implies that you extend love even to the neighbor who’s harming you. So that’s truly extraordinary. So even the person who’s got it in for you, we have to concern ourselves with the Shalom of that person, in so far as we can.

So you think that retribution, the idea of sort of seeking retributive justice where we just try to repay wrongs with wrongs, that’s deeply at odds with a Christian?

Yeah. So I’ve come to think that retribution, understood as payback, or returning harms with harms of getting even, and so forth, I think what Jesus says implies that retribution is out. And Paul in Romans 12 explicitly says do not repay evil harm with harm. Now of course retribution, the idea of retribution, and the practice of retribution are deep in human society. I’ve come to think, by talking to friends and so forth, who are active in prisons, that the American prison system is just currently built on idea of retribution. Getting even, they’ve got it coming to ’em and so forth. Jesus, as I read him, says simply forbids do not payback. So an obvious question is: wow, does that mean that punishment is out? Hard treatment. And it seems to me clear that the answer to that is no.

And here I once again go back to Leviticus 19, one of those detailed injunctions that comes before love your neighbor as yourself. If your neighbor does wrong, reprove your neighbor. Now that’s really interesting. What Leviticus is in effect saying, is you are responsible, partly responsible, for the moral health of your neighbor. If you just let him do whatever he wants to do, don’t reprove him. You’re responsible for his moral decrepitude or decline or whatever.


So if a parent, oh I’m thinking of the news story about the 17 year old who pleaded, in Texas, affluenza. Who argued that, who let’s see, killed somebody because he was driving drunk and his plea was his parents were very wealthy and never told him, given him any moral guidance. I’m astonished that the court would even give a hearing to this sort of plea, but I also can hardly believe that he really had no sense of right and wrong, but let’s take it that he’s speaking truth. His parents never gave him any moral guidance whatsoever. That’s stupefyingly wrong, that young kid.

Evan: Yeah.

So, I think if punishment, one punishment, is understood as reproof, not getting even, paying back, and so forth, but reproof. That’s how punishment should be understood, and then when people look a little bit dazed as to it, I say, but that’s how parents understand, unless there is something terribly sick in the relationship between parents and children, that’s how parents understand what they’re doing when they punish their children.

They don’t think of themselves as paying back. Johnny, you did something wrong, and it’s important for me, and for your moral character, that I reprove you.

Let’s just suggest that this kind of reproof is a form of discipline, or formation,

Yes yet without the punitive aspect.



Without the punishment,

Yup without getting back,

Yup. Without getting back. or without getting even.

So, you might want to call it punishment in some cases, but it’s not retribution. It’s not payback.



Evan: Yeah.

I think that’s what Jesus says and Paul says all the same thing in Romans 12.


And you’re right in justice and love, if we’re addressing injury has any place at all, in the moral order, God will do it.

Nicholas: Yes.

Leave it to God.

Paul says, “If there’s to be vengeance, leave it to God”.