For the past few weeks I have been somewhat obsessively listening to the George R.R. Martin fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. These stories are set in a medieval type world of kings and kingdoms, full of intrigue, sensuality and sword-play and with a little of the supernatural thrown in for good measure. I liken them, in some ways to a soap opera with swords. That said, these books are completely absorbing and have developed a huge fan-following, spawned role playing and video games and have been made into an HBO series called Game of Thrones named for the first book.
I think I was in the middle of the third book, A Clash of Kings, when I began to prepare for a bible study on Matthew 5:38-48, which begins, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist and evildoer.” Jesus goes on to list several examples: turning the other cheek, giving the shirt off your back and going the extra mile. This is a text I love and love to teach, ever since reading Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers and his interpretation of these texts as a radical exposing of evil through non-violent resistance.
The two things I was immersed in could not have been more in opposition in their approach to the world and the response to one's enemy. Jesus refers to the lex talionis, that famous law, found several places in the Hebrew Bible that espouses that the punishment should match the crime. Leviticus 24:19, for example says, “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” The philosophy of the Lanaster family, a prominent 'house' in the Martin's novels, is summed up by what seems to be their family motto, “a Lanaster always pays his debts." 'Paying debts' falls firmly into the lex talionis mode of justice. These words are usually quoted when referring to one wronged or harmed in some way and understood to mean that the perpetrator of harm against a Lanaster should expect and equal punishment in return: death for death.
The Song of Ice and Fire surely sees no end of death upon death upon death. I learned the lesson of not getting attached to any one character because heads will literally roll (or be mounted on spikes, mauled by wolfs, dipped in tar, scalded with hot oil or crowned with molted gold, etc.) Jesus, however, rejects lex talionis, opting against paying the debt of violence with further violence. He goes on to say that God considers all persons equally. The noble family does not inherently have more 'right' to justice. One person is not better than another. God "makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
In some ways, in spite of the perpetual violence, Martin takes a kind of ‘God eye view’ of his world. We hear the story from the point of view of many different characters and in many voices. Tough little Arya goes to sleep each night reciting the names of the people what she wants to see dead for the unjust and violent treatment of her or her family, but in other chapter we learn of the injustices done some of these same people that cause them to act out of their own fear and lust for vengeance. By hearing the story from each point of view, it becomes evident that no one is wholly and purely good nor evil.
In spite of the multi-faceted view of the world and it’s inhabitants, the world created by Martin remains (at least by book 5) a ‘storm of swords.’ When I read books like this that perpetuate the notion that war and the sword will bring the only true justice I continue to harbor that unrealistic hope that the characters will somehow find redemption in love rather than brutality. In fiction, however, at least in fantasy fiction where there is no non-violent love embodied in Christ, and no grace-filled God who welcomes all with equal compassion, there is no real motivation for rejecting violence. Lex talionis is all there is. In real life, I am motivated to repay love for evil, not because it will ‘work’ (although creative non-violence can be an effective tool) but because I am a disciple of Christ who has nothing to fear from violence and death.
The Song of Ice and Fire is really entertaining fantasy series and I will jump on the next book in the series when it is released next month. I don’t take my life lessons from it but I will continue to enjoy the way it has made me think about my own dedication to non-violence and be glad that my own life is not a fantasy.