When Violence Replaces Justice

It seems that those responsible for the most recent criminal acts of violence in Ferguson have fallen into the all too familiar human mistake of substituting violence for justice. The aftermath of an initial act of violence (which appears to have been an act of legitimate self-defense) has bred more violence, as violence often does. The resulting public debate has included positions ranging from those who believe that Michael Brown’s death was purely an act of justice, to those who believe the use of violence is necessarily unjust; always and everywhere. The necessary question is, can violence be just? And, if so, why is it usually not?

A category mistake Christians often make is to presume that violence is intrinsically evil. Thomas Madden of St. Louis University reminds us that Jesus himself did not condemn the possibility of using violence in the way modern anti-violent ideologues tend to suggest. Madden writes, “on the matter of violence Christ was not as clear as pacifists like to think. He praised the faith of the Roman centurion but did not condemn his profession. At the Last Supper he told his disciples, “Let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors.”

Madden goes on to note the Apostolic and Patristic evidence for the acceptance and even endorsement of qualified just uses of violence, for instance Paul’s statement about the person in authority who is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4), and Augustine’s early formulation of just war theory. Madden concludes, from a historical perspective, “For Christians, therefore, violence was ethically neutral, since it could be employed either for evil or against it … the concept that violence is intrinsically evil belongs solely to the modern world. It is not Christian.”

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Theoretically, violence can be used in just ways. It can be used to preserve justice (e.g. as a defensive measure against a threat to life and human dignity) and even to restore it after it has been lost. The Crusades, for example, have long been reflected upon by theorists considering whether or not violence in the name of justice (and of course religion) can be a legitimate option. In his book Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson points out a unique religious aspect of the Crusades not often discussed. Commenting on the proclamation of the first Crusade by Urban II at the Council of Claremont in 1093, Dawson suggests that the Pope “called upon the peace-breakers and men who lived by the sword to win pardon for their sins by becoming soldiers of Christ and shedding their blood in the service of Christendom.” In other words, men who had the human inclination to violence, part and parcel with its tendencies to abuses of justice, were given the opportunity to purify that inclination with sacrificial service. Dawson goes on to say:

So long as the Crusades continued, the unity of Christendom found expression in a dynamic militant activity which satisfied the aggressive instincts of Western man, while at the same time sublimating them in terms of religious idealism. Thus the Crusades expressed all that was highest and lowest in medieval society…. Each of the great world civilizations has been faced with the problem of reconciling the aggressive ethos of the warrior with the moral ideals of a universal religion. But in none of them has the tension been so vital and intense as in medieval Christendom and nowhere have the results been more important for the history of culture (151).

Dawson’s position logically implies that violence can only be used justly in a society which values justice. In opposition to the common claim of pacifists that violence cannot coexist with religion, Dawson’s observation suggests the opposite: violence can only exist justly within a religious context.

The problem is, as with all of our fallen tendencies, is that we can’t quite sort out the good and the bad of it all. We turn to violence when we ought not, and we fail to bear the sword when it might be necessary to do so. Our inclination is to use violence when we encounter injustice; an inclination which is not necessarily wrong in itself. However, our mistake often comes when we try to replace justice with violence, sometimes by concealing injustice with violent reprisals. The recent police shooting in Ferguson is a contemporary example. An angry mob was gathered to protest what they perceived as injustice, and they used unjust violence in a futile attempt to “get even.” This and other violent responses have been fueled not only by the original event of Michael Brown’s death, but latently by the desire of the angry mobs to conceal the guilt of those who, like Brown, have been targeted by the Ferguson police department. Which came first: a police department who has paid most attention to a specific demographic, or a specific demographic who has been most deserving of attention from the police? The guilty chicken seems to indicate a likewise guilty egg. Revenge is rarely a restoration of justice—it is more often a substitute for it. And it has been this way since the beginning.

The context of the first act of murder recorded in Scripture is the rivalry between Cain and Abel. Scripture tells us that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Genesis 4:4-5). The simple way to read this is to assume that there was no problem with Cain before this incident, and that his anger was purely a result of Abel’s favored offering. Another way to read this, however, is to consider that the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice signified a pre-existing problem with his relationship to both God and Abel, not necessarily any deficiency in the sacrifice itself. God did not “receive” (which implies gain) either of their sacrifices, but he “accepted” the sacrifice of Abel (i.e. he deemed it worthy of salutary merit). An interesting way to read the story is to consider that the sacrifices made by the brothers were to be given not directly to God, but instead indirectly to God through the medium of one another. Giving to each other, in Judeo-Christian tradition is giving to God (see Matthew 25:31-46). The rejection of Cain’s sacrifice indicated that he had not done justice to his brother. His unrighteousness caused his unfavorable sacrifice, not the other way around.

Cain reacted with violence in an attempt to protect his own inability/unwillingness to sacrifice justly by getting rid of the person who had exposed his defect. He killed Abel not because he was jealous, but because he felt that the elimination of Abel would somehow reconcile him with God. Abel’s accepted status was the indicator of Cain’s dysfunction; without Abel’s presence Cain would have, presumably, been able to conceal his own unworthiness, at least in his own mind. For this reason he may have considered Cain not as an overachieving brother of whom he was jealous, but instead as an accuser who stripped him of innocence and saddled him with guilt injustly. He may have even been able to convince himself that God would be pleased if Abel was eliminated.

Throughout history, when we have been unwilling or unable to offer the sacrifices God asks of us we have turned to rivalry and violence. Instead of sacrificing for one another, we sacrifice one another. Instead of admitting our own guilt, we place guilt on others. We see this time and again in Scripture. Luke tells us that “Saul laid waste the Church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). Why? Perhaps, at least in part because “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.” The faithful who mourned the unjust stoning of Stephen, to which Saul was consenting (Acts 8:1), reminded Saul of his guilt. Attacking the Church was not just Saul’s attempt to be faithful to the Torah, it was his attempt to restore and protect his own feeling of righteousness. Our Lord Himself was condemned to death by contemporaries infuriated by his public exposition of their own hypocrisy. He made them feel guilty, when they wanted to appear innocent. The Resurrection was not just an exhibition of Divine Power, it was an exhibition of Divine Justice. Jesus’ rising from the dead taught us not only that God overpowers death, but also that Jesus was innocent of the charges hurled against him by his accusers.

Innocence, not revenge, undoes violence. In a world that refuses to admit objective justice, the innocent can be put forward as guilty by the guilty, as long as the guilty are loud and ubiquitous enough.

In a sinless world, violence would not be necessary, nor would it be found appealing or satiating. In a sinless world, violent impulses would not be part of our experience. In the sinful world in which we live, however, violence can be and must be redeemed. Like our other tendencies, tainted by sin, we have the responsibility to use it with extreme caution, and only for the cause of justice. In doing so we just might find redemption rather than condemnation.

(Photo credit: AP / Jeff Roberson)


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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