Violence, Justice and Virtue

I often talk about violence and justice on this blog. I write about peace, pacifism and how I think war is a disservice to the Gospel. But what I often fail to mention is why I argue the position I argue. I flesh it out here as best I can:


1: Every action committed by Christians happens in the context of God’s work to reconcile and redeem the world through the work of Christ operating in and through the Church.

a. See 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 [God] reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the dikaiosyne [justice] of God. (NRSV, Modified, emphases added)

b. The word diakosyne can mean righteousness, and is almost always rendered this way when  translated into English. However this rendition misses the way that Paul is envisioning the active power of the ministry of reconciliation and its relation to what we call justice. It is through God’s reconciling work, and our work of reconciliation on God’s behalf, that we become a community of justice. It is

c. This means that when we think of violence or war, or self defense, we have to think of them within the framework of this story and either contributing to or detracting from the final outcome. Because God has asked us through Christ to be the manifestation of His very own justice.

2: Christians can contribute intelligently by insisting that when Christianity is conceiving of justice it is done within and for this context. For Christians, reconciliation is the meaning of Justice.

a. Christians must insist that acts of justice are patient and seek permanent solutions to the problems that we face, instead of reactionary, justice must be reconciliatory.

b. Christian justice is not synonymous with secular justice, and we do not hold secular states to Church ideals, but we do ask the Church to be the leaven in the world, making justice happen in various places.

3: Within the story of Christianity, Justice is not isolated. Justice belongs with the other virtues, namely Faith, Hope and Love.

a. When we talk about pacifism and justice and violence, we must conceive of a “faithful justice” from within the Church that has application to all others.

b. The wrongs of the universe cannot be righted through coercion, but we can’t sit idly by either.

c. We must be patient, because real justice is all about reconciliation. This action requires a holistic view that consolidates not only justice but virtues as well. If we believe that God is the Just-Judge, we must accept taht judgment is an outworking of the virtues and attributes of God.

d. The ministry of reconciliation and the justice of God an only be embodied by a people already shaped by the communal practices of faith, hope and love. If God is supposed to be making an appeal to the world through the Church, the only way this can happen is through people committed to embodying justice through the virtues that already shape their common religious life.


Here are practical pictures of what I’m talking about:

In Ibillin, Palestine, 1966. Fr. Elias Chacour pastors a congregation of Christians divided by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the Palm Sunday Eucharist Fr. Chacour locks the doors to the church and challenges the congregation to kill each other or reconcile. After an awkward moment, an Israeli police officer stands up and asks for forgiveness, there was reconciliation and justice was made present to those people. (This event is cited in the book Embodying Forgiveness)

Now, this is not ideal, nor is it a full manifestation of the kingdom, but we have to begin to make room for reconciliation as a form of justice between parties as Christians. This can only be done with patience and the sometimes ugly practice of harming the gospel’s cause because we are only given two evils. So long as we recognize violence as shortcoming rather than necessity or logical choice we have room to allow for what Catholicism allows. Just war, a regrettable but sometimes tenable position, and pacifism, a more ideal but sometimes untenable position which is at various times compromised by ideologies before protecting neighbors.

The other is St. Francis of Assisi who appealed to the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil, begging for peace, and asking for an end to the war. He did not protest, or picket or debase graves and funerals, he sought to be the justice he sought. Too often we talk about justice, or social justice but we wish to put the onus of responsibility on others. For Christians Justice is always a manifestation of the Church’s vocation and it must happen through me.

In short, we must be persons of justice. Justice only happens if we are willing to love our neighbor and defend them against harm, and to love our enemies such that if we must use violence it causes us great sorrow for the gospel and for their sake.


I know this isn’t a complete list, or a comprehensive “why” but these are just some more thoughts on the matter. Hope they have helped a bit.


3 thoughts on “Violence, Justice and Virtue

  1. The sticking point is 2(b) of your outline. No one worth taking seriously thinks that the Church, as a community of Christians, should wage wars, punish lawbreakers, or inflict the death penalty. The only interesting question is whether the state can or should, even if some representatives of the state and voters in the state are Christian people. The answer to that question depends on how tightly you draw the nexus between Church and state. For most political positions, that nexus is conveniently drawn however tightly or narrowly is necessary to reach the desired outcome. The secret to promoting a legitimate theory of war, punishment, or the death penalty, is to promote a legitimate theory of church and state interaction.

    Be careful before you respond that justice is justice, and that the state is only in the right when it does the law of Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes a distinction between the two. It recognizes that the state has a duty to punish criminal behavior, 2265, and even goes so far as to say that the state’s punishment can be expiation for the criminal who willingly accepts it, 2266. The Church could never claim that right. Also, if you want something to ponder, compare paragraphs 2262 with 2264. Note that the rule in 2264 is almost identical to the civil law of tort and the criminal law in most states. Also notice that the language about the death penalty in 2267, especially the first sentence, is not as pacifist as some would hope. The point I am trying to make is that, until you address the issues of church and state head on, those who disagree with you will always use the distinction as a way to avoid your conclusions about war.

  2. Richard, I had the exact same thought as I wrote this last night. In terms of the Church-state thing. I guess I’ll just have to keep digging, but I uphold the Church’s teaching and am not trying to undo just-war or pacifism. I have changed to uphold both, but I am trying to do so clearly in favor of pacifism.

    In any case, you’ve pointed out the heart of the matter. Thanks, I always like when you comment.

  3. Francis of Assisi on Muslim occupation and defending the Faith:

    Sultan Maleek Al Kameel:

    “Your Lord taught in his gospels that evil must not be repaid with evil, that you should not refuse your cloak to anyone who wants to take your tunic, etc. (Matthew 5:40): All the more Christians should not invade our [“our“?] land!”

    Francis of Assisi:

    “It seems to me that you have not read the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in its entirety. In fact it says elsewhere: “if your eye causes you sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5 , 29). With this, Jesus wanted to teach us that if any person, even a friend or a relative of ours, and even if he is dear to us as the apple of our eye, we should be willing to repulse him, to weed him out if he sought to take us away from the faith and love of our God. This is precisely is why Christians are acting according to justice when they invade the lands you inhabit and fight against you, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and strive to turn away from his worship as many people as you can. But if you were to recognize, confess, and worship the Creator and Redeemer, Christians would love you as themselves instead.”

    Verba fratris Illuminati socii b. Francisci ad partes Orientis et in cospectu Soldani Aegypti“, Codex Vaticanus Ott. lat. n. 552. [“Volume III of Saint Francis Early Documents: The Prophet”, page 799.]

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