Massive, Disproportionate Retaliation

A neglected Catholic poet of the 1970s, Kinky Friedman, wrote movingly of the Resurrection in a tender Easter ballad — frequently used at conservative Novus Ordo parishes as a post-Communion hymn — which concludes with this envoi:

Oh, let’s get high on Jesus, high on Jesus,
They tried to put His body under ground.
Flashing high on Jesus, high on Jesus,
But friend, you just can’t keep the good Man down.

Try as we might. And we’ve been making a noble effort since roughly 33 A.D. As I’ve written before in this series on the “areas of life where Jesus spoils our fun,” there are moments in the life of any believer when he’s tempted to shoulder the stone and hermetically seal the Tomb.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The natural man, the unregenerate man — the seedy, potbellied homunculus each of us quietly treasures as his deepest and truest self — is far from thrilled at the prospect of safely buried Messiahs popping up out of the ground and giving us orders, then flying to Heaven. (“Why seek you the living among the dead?” Who was seeking? Can I see a show of hands?) On the one hand, we feel a certain excitement at the prospect that each of our actions will have an eternal significance. There is just one problem with that.

It seems to imply that . . . each of our actions . . . will have an eternal . . . significance.

As we think those actions over — especially that one and that one, sheesh — the silence of the grave and the infinite void sound better and better. The only part of the Last Judgment we might enjoy is the wholesale exposure of everyone else’s sins. With the proper editing, that’s a movie I want to see — like a Quentin Tarantino flick that lasts for thousands of years.

So far we’ve covered Jesus’ busybody meddling with our easy-going lives, and his hobby of playing “spoiler” in the bedroom — like a big, smelly Labrador that insists on sleeping between us. But he’s just too cute to kick out. And anyway, He’s omnipotent.

This week we come to a passion that is much more engaging than simple Sloth, and which has a signal advantage over Lust: Instead of forging new relationships and sometimes (blech!) new people, this one typically ends them — sometimes with a really big BANG, and lots of shiny shrapnel.

I speak, of course, of Wrath. That’s the best word the moralists could find for this experience, but the term is slightly confusing. If we stick with the name, it sounds like the only “deadly sin” that the Bible attributes to God. Now I’m no Evangelical, so I don’t spend time reading the thing, but I’m pretty sure that none of the executive summaries of Scripture I’ve heard once a week at Mass ever mentioned the “Greed” or “Gluttony” of God. I suppose I could check for myself (see “Sloth”), but that would entail the danger of private interpretation of Scripture. And as the Church’s theologians of ecumenism point out, we all know what that leads to . . .

You guessed it — handling snakes. So I’ll leave the job of reading and explaining those puzzling Jewish books to those celibate Filipinos, thanks very much.

Still, I’m guessing that the human authors of the Old Testament didn’t mean to suggest that God’s anger was ever “inordinate,” in the sense St. Thomas means it when he distinguishes good anger from bad. This helps when we come to “hard sayings” in Holy Scripture, like:

Fair Babylon, you destroyer, happy those who pay you back the evil you have done us! Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock (Ps 137:8-9).

Sentimental liberals try to explain such verses away, but I’m guessing those little Babyls were precocious. Maybe somebody told them they were “gifted.” Hence the popular bumper sticker, which I put on my minivan right above the Jesus Fish: “My Psalmist Smashes Your Honor Student Against a Rock.”

No, Wrath in the sense that won it a coveted place in the Seven Deadlies must mean something different. Aquinas follows Augustine when he teaches that anger at actions can be perfectly justified — depending on the cause — even virtuous. But rage directed at people is off the menu: Hate the sin, love the sinner.

Which gets things exactly backwards, of course. It’s hard to hate something as abstract as a “violation of justice” or “contravention of the positive law,” especially if you’re busy trying to spray the perpetrator with Christian love.

And anyway, in many cases the sin is a whole lot sexier than the sinner. It’s the part with which we can sympathize — it might even be an old friend. You needn’t hate Sloth in general to loathe the pudgy bureaucrat behind a wall of bulletproof glass — I’m talking postal employee here — who seems every 30 minutes to go “on break” thanks to “union rules.” In fact, it might very well be Sloth on your own part that makes you hate so much to stand in line. Likewise when we retch at other people’s Public Displays of Affection. “Get a room!” may be the fruit of sincere, offended modesty — or the growl of a dog whose nose is pressed at the butcher shop window.

I suppose it’s possible, for exquisitely holy folks, to seal off in separate compartments the person who commits an extraordinary evil from the act that he commits. But I’m not sure how it works in practice. The Authorities don’t arrest a murder and throw it in jail for 40 years; they lock up the guy who committed the crime (or, at least, someone whom eyewitnesses think resembles him closely enough as not to make much difference). When we fight in self-defense, our instincts drive us not just to stop the assault but to level the guy who started the fight — and leave him something to remember us by every time he looks in the mirror.

Now, it’s true that when a country engages in war, the Church’s Just War teaching prescribes that we avoid needless or disproportionate destruction rained down on civilians. Happily, lay strategists who respect our Christian traditions have learned to work within its strictures, explaining that we will never employ more nuclear weapons than are strictly necessary to reduce our enemy’s continent to an uninhabitable waste land. Just in case they get any ideas.

As I note in my other reflection on Wrath — including detailed recollections of exemplary acts of revenge — there are many useful insights we can draw from Cold War nuclear policy for our everyday lives in society. The key one, for me, is Massive Disproportionate Retaliation. Here’s my apologetic for this strategic doctrine:

If somebody screws with you, and you let him get away with it, what lesson are you teaching him?

. . . The lesson that crime really pays. You’re encouraging him to go forth unto others and do likewise. Is that fair to his next victim? And if you don’t retaliate, aren’t you tempting the wrongdoer to do it again? Which means you’re serving as a near occasion of sin.

You may do as you like, but I don’t want something like that staining my conscience.



  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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