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An Eye for an Eye

By September 6, 2011August 30th, 2022Lost in Translation

One hundred ten years ago today, on Sept. 6, 1901, the 25th President of the United States, William McKinley, was shot twice by a disillusioned ex-factory worker named Leon Czolgosz. The President had been attending a function where well-wishers were greeting him at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. In an effort to meet more people and shake additional hands, McKinley had ordered the Secret Service to speed up the reception line. Czolgosz, waiting for his time with McKinley, pulled a .32 caliber pistol from his pocket and wrapped it in his right hand with a handkerchief – pretending that his hand was injured.

Even though Secret Service agents noticed the bandaged hand and suggested that Czolgosz head to a doctor, nobody protested when the assassin insisted on staying in line until he met the President. After greeting McKinley, apologizing for his “injured hand”, Czolgosz moved on, then stopped and turned around to fire two shots – the first bullet bounced off McKinley’s breastbone, and the second bullet ripped through his stomach, lodging in his lower back. Incredibly, McKinley maintained consciousness and fell to the ground after staring down his attacker. Approximately ten agents wrestled Czolgosz to the ground and subdued him, severely beating him during the process. Eight days later, on Sept. 14, 1901, President McKinley died. He had served as President since 1897.

Justice was swift in those days. On Sept. 23rd, 9 days after McKinley died, Leon Czolgosz appeared in court for the beginning of his trial. He showed no remorse, said that he had done his duty by killing McKinley and refused to talk to his two court appointed lawyers, stating that he did not believe in governments or the law. The trial lasted 8 hours and 26 minutes. He was found guilty, and his lawyers did not even contest the prosecution’s pronouncement that Czolgosz was completely sane at the time of the shooting.

To cut to the chase, on Oct. 29, 1901, less than 2 months after the shooting, and 5 weeks after the guilty verdict, Leon Czolgosz, 28, was strapped in an electric chair and electrocuted by local officials who passed alternating currents of 1800 volts and 300 volts through his body. Following the pronouncement of death after a final 5 second burst of 1800 volts, after 60 seconds of current had already passed through him, the corpse was placed in a coffin and was doused with sulphuric acid. Experts predicted that Czolgosz’s body would decompose in less than 12 hours.

There you have it – a life for a life. Swift justice; no doubt, no lingering, no stays of execution – done. This story reminded me of a very famous Bible verse, from Matthew 5:38, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But few of us know what this really means. Most of us think that this passage makes it okay to go after someone who has wronged us and exact the maximum retribution from them. But the verse really means something quite different – it doesn’t give us approval to perpetrate any punishment we want on someone else; rather, it limits the punishment that we can inflict.

In the olden days, people who had been injured set out to kill those who had hurt them. Now in the case of McKinley, or any other death, the “eye for an eye” concept reaches the maximum penalty. But consider all the lesser forms of injury and the idea was that you could do no greater harm to your opponent than had been done to you, or your family. This was a really new concept. So, if someone had robbed you, you couldn’t kill them – and this changed the way people thought. Through the ages, however, the idea of this biblical concept has been misconstrued. Really, the world was quite an ugly place – many would argue that it still is.

Hand in hand with this idea is the concept of “turning the other cheek.” This was meant as a sign of setting up the attacker to be shamed by offering another chance to be hurt. Or remember the phrase, “walk a mile in my shoes?” Biblically, we are told to walk two miles – doing more than is required to our detractors.

My encouragement tonight is to affirm that God wants us to limit our negativity toward one another. We are to be tolerant and models of behavior for those who do not know God, or His Son. And my prayer is that when you want to overreact to a situation, you will take a step backward and assess the situation from a more Christ-centered perspective. Perhaps you will be able to limit your response; and not try to decimate your opponent. After all, isn’t the model of behavior that God would ask of us? Have a great day!

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