Can Justice Be Done?

Daniel Baird wonders:

The trouble with retributive justice is that a literal reading of the “eye for an eye” passage leads to morbidly comical conclusions and boundless forms of cruelty. In many situations, it is not even clear what an appropriate equivalent means: one rabbi noted that if a blind man puts out someone’s eyes, it is impossible to blind him in return. In the case of extreme crimes, such as Bernardo’s or Breivik’s, or horrors as immense as the Holocaust, no punishment could compensate for the victims’ suffering. Jesus’ direction “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” is not so much a criticism of the rabbinical courts of the Second Temple period, which were notably humane (crucifixion was a Roman practice, and capital punishment was used sparingly under the Pharisees). Rather, it was a way of pointing out that retributive justice can devolve into vengefulness as destructive as the crime itself.