When confronted with repugnant crimes against other people – especially those we care about – is it right to take matters into our own hands and violently repay those who have wronged us or those we care about? Is there a particular answer to this question that we can call biblical?
I thought the answer to this question was obvious. It should be. At the risk of over-dramatising, It really grieves me that there is even disagreement among sincere Christians on the right answer to this question. There shouldn’t be. Don’t get me wrong – I think that if an action is immoral then it is immoral for us all, whether we are Christians or not. There isn’t a separate set of moral facts for Christians. But Christians, it seems to me, have – in addition to the moral resources that everyone else has access to – moral teaching in Scripture and a clear call to pursue a holy life that should cry out to them that this way of acting is wrong. Until quite recently I acted on the assumption that committed Christians of the non-crazy sort would all immediately answer this question the same way. However, a recent discussion drove home again for me the fact that there exists a culture among some evangelicals (and among people in general, for that matter) that is deeply wedded to the notion of a personal right to violence as the default reaction to evil. At the risk of stereotyping, these people tend to be men rather than women, and they tend to be American. I make no judgement just now about why this is the case, but that is my anecdotal experience. As I have made quite clear in the past (and will again in the near future when I interact with the work of Preston Sprinkle), I am not a pacifist. Setting aside the question of whether or not force against others is ever justified (I maintain that sometimes it is), let me lay the groundwork by re-tracing the steps that prompted me to make these comments, to minimise misunderstanding.
Here’s the scenario that I was presented with, based on a news story: A father enters his son’s room and sees a young man – a man known to the family – sexually molesting his son. Immediately incensed, the father rushes in, grabs the young man and throws him to the floor. The young man knows that the gig is up and he does not flee or fight. He has no chance of winning against the father in a fight, and both he and the father know it. The father knows that there is no longer a threat to his son, but he is so angry that he does not care. He kicks and punches the man on the floor until he is badly battered, lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood. He then phones the police and tells them that he has beaten the man unconscious for them and they can come and collect him.
There is no question as to whether or not the father knew that the man was guilty. He was caught red-handed. All parties to the discussion are agreed that the man did not bash the offender this way because it was necessary to defend his son. On this occasion the threat to his son was defused fairly easily and quickly (in fact my interlocutors believed that the mere presence of the father would have been enough to remove the threat of further harm to his son). All parties to the discussion agree that the man kicked and punched this man on the floor knowing that the man was now no significant threat to anybody, and that the father did this in order to exact revenge. The father was paying this man back for what he did.
These are the facts accepted by everyone who took part in the discussion that prompted me to write about this. For that reason I have not provided a link to the news story, because if I did that then some readers might be tempted to read it and piece together their own different interpretation of the facts (as implausible as I think other interpretations are). The moral judgements that took place in this discussion were all made on the basis of agreement on the facts as I have described them. One last introductory remark: I want you to disregard what the police may have thought of the father’s actions and how they responded to them. I am not interested in their assessment. I am interested in my assessment (and yours, if you want to share it). The police do not do my moral thinking for me (a scary thought!) and I am taking for granted that they could simply have been wrong about whether the man’s actions were morally justified – and certainly about whether or not the man can claim biblical justification for his actions (imagine a world in which we typically deferred to the police on matters of biblical hermeneutics!).
The remarks that my Christian friends were making about the father’s actions included (yes, these are real examples):
- “100% morally justified.” (This was a sentence, lest you fear that I am shortening it and leaving out something important.)
- “Did he beat the man because he was angry and wanted to exact vengeance? Absolutely… And I firmly believe he was justified in doing so, in the eyes of God and man.”
- “I believe it was necessary from a moral and judicious aspect.”
- And from the same person as the previous quote: “I think in this situation, the mere threat of violence or simply the dad’s presence would have been enough to stop the rape from happening.” [Note: in the interests of clarity, the news stories are describing the offence as sexual molestation.]
- In defending the actions of the father under these circumstances, one said: “There is a strong Biblical case to be made for personal vengeance in certain circumstances.”
We are not talking about a right to defend. We are talking about using violence against people in order to get revenge, to pay them back for what they did. It would be a case of serious misrepresentation to reply by arguing that we may use force to defend others.
So let us have no misconceptions about what was being alleged, and no attempt to water it down. We are not talking about a right to defend. We are talking about using violence against people in order to get revenge, to pay them back for what they did. It would be a case of serious misrepresentation to reply by arguing that we may use force to defend others. The claim with which I was confronted, by a couple of fellow Evangelical Christians, is that the father’s actions in beating this man to a pulp were completely justified because it was right for him to seek personal vengeance. His actions were morally necessary even though they were not at all required to defend the man’s son from any harm. Moreover, this course of action, so the claim went, is supported by the teaching of the Bible.
In order to strip away other possibly distracting issues, let me add this: I agree entirely that it is understandable for the father to have reacted this way. We are animals with hormones, and the immediate reaction would quite naturally have been to get angry and attack. I agree with a commenter who said that it would have required a tremendous effort for the father to have not reacted with violence. Given the way a lot of people are wired, that is undoubtedly true. None of that is in question. I even think that a father who acts in this way – although he should be prosecuted – should be shown some leniency precisely because his actions are understandable. Some readers may remember that back in June 2009 I made it clear that I think the partial defence of provocation should exist in law. I should also add that I and my interlocutors were Christians, and we all agreed that we should hold (and act on) the view that is most consonant with the teaching of Scripture, without abandoning the guidance of reason in doing so.
We are animals with hormones, and the immediate reaction would quite naturally have been to get angry and attack.
Alright, the groundwork is laid. Now here is the difference of opinion: I maintain that it is wrong to take matters into our own hands in scenarios like this one and to seek private, violent vengeance. I do not think that it is wrong to use the force required to defend people, and I agree that it will sometimes be difficult to measure the use of such force. But in a situation where our intention is to get revenge and to use violence to pay back those who have wronged us or others, then we are acting sinfully (or if you prefer, immorally). My interlocutors maintained – and said that they had strong biblical support for maintaining – that it is right to pursue private vengeance, using violence to repay those who have wronged us or others quite apart from whatever judicial remedies might be available to us in society. I had assumed, perhaps naively, that committed evangelical Christians would all denounce this point of view. Given that I was wrong about that, I may also be wrong about how widespread this view is “on the ground,” so to speak, although in the literature on Christian ethics the view is virtually unheard of. That is why I’m writing this (and not just because of a disagreement with two people – although a larger number of people agreed with what I was saying).
The actual biblical evidence can be summed up pretty succinctly, so I’ll do that, adding some comments of my own, and then I’ll consider an attempted rebuttal (one that was raised in the discussion that prompted this article).
Do not avenge yourselves: A divine prohibition
Defending others or yourself is not revenge and is not addressed here (and I have no doubt that it is permitted), but avenging yourself – seeking retribution – is simply and directly prohibited.
In Romans 12, St Paul instructs his readers, “beloved, do not avenge yourselves but give place to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’.” Defending others or yourself is not revenge and is not addressed here (and I have no doubt that it is permitted), but avenging yourself – seeking retribution – is simply and directly prohibited. Instead of seeking revenge, we should allow a proper place for wrath. In light of the context (as Paul mentions wrath again in chapter 13, see below), many translations here read something like “give place to the wrath of God” (e.g. NRSV, ESV, NIV, ), even though “of God” is not translated from anything in the Greek. You might think that this means that we should let the matter rest until the day of judgement in the possibly distant future. This is an implausible meaning in context partly because it is not, contrary to many translations, “the wrath of God” that Paul refers to, but simply wrath, for which there is a proper time and place (see the next point). Most importantly for now, whatever “wrath” refers to, the command is that we do not take vengeance. We are reminded that there is a way for such matters to be dealt with, and we should leave room for that, rather than sticking our own fist (or gun) in.
God’s agent of wrath: Justice is rational, measured and public
In Romans 13, Paul offers some insight into what he meant in the previous chapter when he forbade his readers from avenging themselves, requiring them to give place to wrath. In chapter 13 verses 1-7 Paul calls people to respect the authorities, saying:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due. (NRSV)
The civil authorities are said here to be God’s agent of wrath. The Greek word for wrath, orgē (ὀργή), is the same word used in the previous chapter where readers are instructed to not avenge themselves but give place to “wrath.” This is possibly why so many translations read “wrath of God” in chapter 12, anticipating that Paul here says that the governing authorities are God’s servant to carry out wrath. It is unlikely, therefore, that in referring to our obligation to give place to wrath, Paul meant to refer to the day of judgement. Instead, Paul was referring to the means of administering justice that God has appointed, rather than private acts of vengeance that we carry out on our own behalf (or on behalf of our friends or family). The civil authorities, say Paul, do not bear the sword in vain, but instead because they are an institution appointed by God to punish offenders.
As Paul knew only too well, the civil authorities crucified Jesus, the paradigm of the innocent victim.
Naturally, this should not suggest that Paul thought that civil authorities are infallible. As Paul knew only too well, the civil authorities crucified Jesus, the paradigm of the innocent victim. Similarly, Paul knew that private individuals are fallible. Indeed, if justice resided in the private hands of a million individuals, we would have a million different standards of justice and retribution – a million different temperaments, some naturally peaceful and some aggressive and violent, a million different assessments of degrees of guilt, a million different levels of size, strength and ability to mete out physical payback and so on. And here is one of the virtues of public justice: It is meted out by a standard that, however fallible, is much, much more consistent than would be justice dished out at the hand of every individual who thought they or somebody else had been wronged (yet another determination that is made by a public process rather than a private reaction).
Were they guilty? What exactly did they do? Says who? … These questions and many others are the reason that justice is subject to a public process.
Justice is public. Some of us have had the sickening experience of watching amateur footage of police or military taking matters of justice into their own hands, resulting in the sound of a gunshot as the accused lay cowering on the ground, as the camera is forced to turn away momentarily. Were they guilty? What exactly did they do? Says who? How can we have any faith that the claim is true? How do we know you didn’t coerce or bully somebody into corroborating your story? Did they really say what you claim they did? Who should we believe? These questions and many others are the reason that justice is subject to a public process. Even if you cannot bring yourself to show concern that everyone else is granted open and public access to justice, the most self-interested of people still have a reason to maintain that justice must be public, rational and measured: One day it could well be you on the stand, accused of something you did not do. Instead of ending up face down in a ditch with a bullet in your head while your killer maintains that he was just getting the payback he was owed (when in fact you’re as innocent as a newborn babe), you, surely, want your case to be heard by an impartial audience. But even if you’re not moved by such considerations, accepting the Christian faith and the teaching of Scripture doesn’t leave you with any choice (other than the choice of simply rejecting Christian teaching).
Two or three witnesses: It doesn’t matter if you catch them red-handed
I recall a different discussion on a similar (but not quite the same) case where I referred to the offender – a man who had been caught in the act – as the “alleged offender.” More than one person took umbrage at this. How could I call him this? He was caught! Similarly in the most recent discussion, I was told that since the father had caught this man in the act, there was no doubt, and hence nothing stopping him from rightly carrying out private retribution. As we’ve already seen, anyone who takes the teaching of Scripture seriously certainly does have something stopping him (and yes, it usually is a male who thinks and acts this way so I say “him” quite deliberately). But Scripture also has a direct answer to this claim to private vengeance on the basis of certainty.
This time we’ll turn back to the Torah, the body of law of the ancient nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy 19 there are some regulations for public trials. Verse 15 is a particularly well-known requirement for witnesses: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” (NRSV)
One person’s testimony is not enough.
Even if a person is an eyewitness – they were right there when the crime was committed – they do not have the automatic right to dish out vengeance, no matter who the offender is and no matter who the victim is. Instead the matter had to be brought before a judge, and their testimony had to be weighed along with any other evidence, and in fact that person’s testimony by itself was inadequate to bring about a conviction. This is a bitter pill of public justice for some people, no doubt, but there it is: One person’s testimony is not enough. In our day and age when other means of investigation are available to us, this law might have been written differently. Fingerprints, security camera footage, DNA evidence and so on – all of these things can be used in place of eyewitness testimony now. Nonetheless, the point here is that even if you can personally be absolutely sure of the guilt of the accused, all of the evidence must be brought to bear in a trial, your own certainty being inadequate on its own. If you decide on the spot, as the witness to the crime, that you are going to take vigilante action and repay the offender (remember, we are not talking about acting to defend the victim), then quite obviously you would be circumventing this process. If you are allowed to so act, then what is to stop another killing you when you are innocent, only to claim that they were carrying out vengeance (a claim, obviously, that you would no longer be in a position to rebut). We want the legal protections afforded by passages like Deuteronomy in our own case, and like it or not, the public process for justice to be done applied to all equally, whether they were innocent or guilty.
Killing in broad daylight: Death for Vigilantes
There are two broad types of law in the Torah: Apodictic law and casuistic or case law. Apodictic laws are written as prescriptions, like “You must not kill” or “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Casuistic laws, on the other hand, teach by example. “If somebody were to do this, then this is how you should respond.” The law cannot include every possible scenario in life that you might encounter, so the community is supposed to look at the principles at work in the examples offered as cases and apply those principles to other cases.
One pertinent example of a casuistic law is in Exodus 22:2-3. “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.” (ESV) In other words, if a thief breaks in at night and in the scuffle he dies, then the benefit of the doubt is given to the homeowner, but if it happens during the day, then the case is treated as an unjustified homicide. No doubt we are expected to take further details into account, but there’s an important principle here. When somebody breaks in at night, the situation is potentially much more risky, you can’t see what you’re doing, you might be unsure how many people you are confronted with, and you might not even intend to kill anybody. You can be pretty sure that whoever is in your home in the middle of the night means you harm.
In the daytime, however, things are different. It would then be much more difficult to claim that you accidentally killed somebody. It would be much easier for you to escape if need be. The situation is inherently less dangerous, so any act of force on your part will need to be considered on its merits. One thing is clear, however. The mere fact that a person has broken into your property does not warrant you attacking them (but again, the question of what you can do if they attack you is another matter). If you attack him under these circumstances and he dies, you are a murderer.
But what about: Looking for a loophole to put my fist through
Unmoved by my appeals to these biblical passages (although my appeals were made in fewer words than they are here), one of my interlocuters assured me that the Old Testament supported the stance that it is right to seek private vengeance on wrongdoers in situations like this. So I made a request: Show me. I asked for an example where a person is a member of a society where there is a judicial remedy available to them (in particular, the nation of Israel whose laws we have a record of), but where they took vengeance in a private capacity, and the action receives clear approval. As we have already seen, the Old Testament law appears to come down firmly against such actions.
This interlocutor fell silent on that point, opting not to offer any examples. I believe I know why, but there may be other reasons. But another took up the challenge and offered several names: Phinehas, Jael, and Samson. These examples, I was told, disprove my general claim about vigilante actions. But a cursory examination of any of these cases shows that they fall well outside what we are looking for. None of these is an example of a person finding out about a person committing a crime, and instead of taking the matter to the courts, taking private vengeance on the wrongdoer. Let’s look at them in reverse order:
First, Samson. Samson was captured by the Philistines. He was a prisoner in enemy territory, not in Israel. What legal remedy was available to him? You can read about his death in Judges 16:23-31. He had been blinded by his enemies, and the Philistines would treat him as a public spectacle. Famously, Samson used his great strength to bring down the pillars of the building, killing himself and many Philistines too. There is just no comparison here to a person who observes a crime and steps in to personally punish the criminal. This, if anything, is an act of war. Treating this as a model for civil justice is absurd, any more than a plot to assassinate Hitler should be mirrored in the way we carry out civil justice.
This is clearly not a case of somebody discovering a crime within their society and then taking personal vengeance rather than taking it before the court.
Next, consider the case of Jael in Judges chapter 4. For context, a foreign King, Jabin of Canaan, had oppressed the Israelites for about twenty years. They would have been at war with him, but in effect, he and his army (under a commander named Sisera) had them under his thumb. Deborah, a judge in Israel, planned with Barak to gather an army and draw out Sisera’s troops for battle. Sisera fled his chariot on foot. Jael, married to a Kenite (a non-Israelite) was able to deceive Sisera into think thing he was safe in her tent, where he hid and fell asleep. Jael then drove a tent peg through his head, killing Israel’s enemy. And so (verses 23-24), “on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.” You can predict already how I will respond to this example. This is clearly not a case of somebody discovering a crime within their society and then taking personal vengeance rather than taking it before the court. Indeed, there is no court before which a case like this could have been taken. This is war, Israel attacking the oppressing army, and Jael was acting for the Israelites in killing the commander of the enemy army.
And lastly, the example of Phinehas. In Numbers chapter 25, when the Israelites were still being led by Moses and had not yet entered the promised land, they stayed at a place called Shittim. There, the men of Israel began to have relationships with the women of Moab, and actually started to worship their gods, primarily Baal. According to verses 4-5, God commanded Moses and Moses ordered that anybody who had “yoked” themselves to Baal should immediately be put to death. This was religious contamination, and God gave a directive that it be stamped out immediately. Phinehas, a man of the priestly line (a grandson of Aaron) spotted a foreigner, a Midianite woman, and an Israelite man, and followed them back to their tent, where he carried out Moses’ instructions and killed them with a spear (verses 6-8). This is an interesting case, because yes, Phinehas acted as an individual, but in fact that is precisely what God commanded on this instance – a fairly unique instance at that. So this was not a case of a man responding to an offence that would appropriately be handled by the courts, taking matters into his own hands. This was a period of Israel’s history – in her infancy – when she had not yet entered the land and although she had been given laws, she was still also being lead directly by one man, Moses, who gave instructions to the people.
If we try to use any of these examples to overturn the principles that we saw earlier about civil justice, we fall victim to a fundamental (but common) confusion, namely confusion between description and prescription. Description just tells us what happened. It may have been commanded by God, it may not have been. It may have been moral ideal, it may not have been. It’s a record of events, not a set of rules. Prescription on the other hand has a normative force – that is, it tells the audience how to live. It provides rules or principles. This is the role of law, or of the epistles of Paul and other Apostles, or the teaching of Jesus. Confusing these two categories can have truly bizarre results. I recall reading in a book about marriage of a man who walked around the woman he wanted to marry seven times. After all, the Israelites marched around Jericho seven times and then the walls fell down, so surely the walls of this woman’s heart would crumble! Even if we overlook the interesting (!) allegorical method of biblical interpretation, you get the point. That story isn’t there to tell us how we should do anything. It’s just there to tell us what took place. On the other hand, a commandment like the one found in Deuteronomy 20:19-20 certainly does have application to situations in which nations may find themselves:
If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.
True, when nations engage in warfare today they don’t tend to use wooden siege machines, but there’s a clear principle here about not destroying the ability of the land to produce food because of your cause against the enemy. This is what a prescription looks like.
As it turns out, we don’t need to rely on descriptions of events and our ability to discern principles that apply to our own situations when it comes to what the Bible has to say about taking private vengeance (although no doubt there are some narratives that can inform us of important principles). This is a situation to which Scripture speaks directly and clearly, giving instructions that any of us should be able to understand. Do not take vengeance into your own hands. Justice is public. Even when you are personally certain of another person’s guilt, that does not set aside the public, orderly and transparent way in which justice must be carried out.
Keep a leash on your hormones, fellas. What you might think is your personal liberty and right as a chest-beating man retaliating on behalf of those who it is your job to protect, what you may actually be is a proud man who doesn’t want to set aside his ego and definitely doesn’t want God to interfere with his anger and love of violence. If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, then ideally you’ll willingly embrace what Scripture says and work on your character until you love it. But if you’re not there yet, you’ve got to swallow it and submit anyway. Suck it up, tough guy.
As it turned out…
Now that I’ve set out the version of events that all parties to the discussion agreed to and offered what I think is a clearly biblical perspective on the issue of private vengeance, let’s return to the original act of violence that sparked this discussion in the first place. When somebody first provided me with a link to the news story about the father’s attack on the young child molester, this detail wasn’t included. But my friend Peter Grice (who was not one of the parties with whom I disagreed) later provided a link to this version, which included more information (including the fact that the father actually intended to kill the man):
Jason Browning, 35, said he wanted to kill Raymond Frolander when he allegedly caught the 18-year-old naked with his son.
After beating Forlander to a bloody pulp, Browning told WKMG he went into the kitchen to get a knife.
“My son is the one who stepped in front of me and stopped me,” Browning said. “My son saved his attackers life, so who’s really the hero in this situation?”
As I said to Peter at the time, the situation reminded me of Isaiah’s prophecy: “A little child shall lead them.”
For your listening pleasure: Living Sacrifice, “Local Vengeance Killing.”