The True Justice

 Here’s what some notable Christians have had to say about crime and punishment


● St. Augustine wrote: “Surely it is not without purpose that we have the institution of the power of kings, the death penalty of the judge, the barbed hooks of the executioner, the weapons of the soldier, the right of punishment of the overlord, even the severity of the good father. All those things have their methods, their causes, their reasons, their practical benefits. While these are feared, the wicked are kept within bounds and the good live more peacefully among the wicked. … It is not without advantage that human recklessness should be confined by fear of the law so that innocence may be safe among evil-doers, and the evil-doers themselves may be cured by calling on God when their freedom of action is held in check by fear of punishment.” [1]

● St. Thomas Aquinas observed that “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection itself of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. … As to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear.” [2]

● Erasmus wrote that “there is not, nor ever was, nor ever will be any man who does not need mercy.” But in citing the example of King David, who had Uriah killed so as to take Bathsheba for himself, Erasmus affirmed the ruler’s responsibility to mete out punishment: “David committed murder and adultery, two deadly offenses. Either of these is more heinous when committed by a king, since it is his duty to punish these crimes in others. The more impudently princes sin among men, the more seriously they offend God. David carried a sword for the purpose of punishing murder and then committed murder himself. Adulterers were handed over to him to be stoned, and he himself compelled a woman to adultery.”

Erasmus contrasted God’s forgiveness of sins in the hereafter with the duty of temporal rulers on earth: “It might be called clemency if [the king] pardoned a murderer once. But if the man committed murder ten times or even more and the king pardoned him each time, then the people would cry that the king’s clemency was inordinate, since it impaired the force of the law and encouraged sin by the impunity it allowed.” [3]

● Referring to Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”), Martin Luther wrote: “A murderer forfeits his life, and it is right that he should be killed by the sword. And if something prevents the law being enforced, or if the sword is dilatory and the murderer dies a natural death, that does not prove Scripture wrong. … It is the fault of men if God’s law is not carried out, just as other commandments of God are not obeyed either.”

Luther affirmed that Christ’s warning to Peter at Gethsemane Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) “is to be understood in the same sense as Genesis 9:6: ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood etc.’; there is no doubt that Christ is here invoking those words, and wishes to have this commandment introduced and confirmed [in the New Covenant].”

Luther commented further: “If all in the world were true Christians, that is, if everyone truly believed, there would be neither need nor use for princes, kings, lords, the Sword or law. What would there be for them to do? Seeing that [true Christians] have the Holy Spirit in their hearts, which teaches and moves them to love everyone, wrong no one, and suffer wrongs gladly, even unto death. … A man would have to be an idiot to write a book of laws for an apple-tree telling it to bear apples and not thorns, seeing that the apple-tree will do it naturally and far better than any laws or teaching can prescribe. … But since no man is by nature a Christian or just, but all are sinners and evil, God hinders them all, by means of the law, from doing as they please and expressing their wickedness outwardly in actions. …

“If someone wanted to have the world ruled according to the Gospel, and to abolish all secular law and the Sword, on the ground that all are baptized and Christians and that the Gospel will have no law or sword used among Christians, who have no need of them, what do you imagine the effect would be? He would let loose the wild animals from their bonds and chains, and let them maul and tear everyone to pieces, saying all the while that really they are just fine, tame, gentle things. But my wounds would tell me different. … Before you rule the world in the Christian and Gospel manner, be sure to fill it with true Christians. And that you will never do, because the world and the many are un-Christian and will remain so, whether they are made up of baptized and nominal Christians or not.” [4]

● John Calvin observed that “in many hearts a concern for what is right and just grows cold unless honours are assigned to virtue; and the depravity of the wicked cannot be checked except by severity and the knowledge that they will be punished. And these two are included in what the prophet says (Jeremiah 21:12 and 22:3) when he commands kings and other superiors to render judgement and justice. For justice means placing the innocent under one’s protection, cherishing them, safeguarding them, defending and delivering them. And judgement means taking a stand against the effrontery of the wicked, repressing their violence and punishing their crimes. …

“The true justice, then, is to pursue the evildoers and the unrighteous with drawn sword. If [rulers] sheath their sword and keep their hands unsullied by blood, while the wicked roam about massacring and slaughtering, then so far from reaping praise for their goodness and justice, they make themselves guilty of the greatest possible injustice.” [5]

● Désiré Cardinal Mercier became a hero to the Belgians during World War I, when his country was subjected to a deliberate policy of terror by the invading German army. The German commanders in August 1914 hoped this schrecklichkeit would speed their passage through Belgium and thus ensure quick victory over France on the Western Front. Two years into the war, Cardinal Mercier spoke these defiant words from the pulpit of the cathedral in German-occupied Brussels:

“Whatever may be our sufferings, we must not wish to show hatred toward those who have inflicted them. Our national unity is joined with a feeling of universal brotherhood. But even this feeling of universal brotherhood is dominated by our respect for the unconditional justice, without which no relationship is possible, either between individuals or between nations. And that is why, with St. Thomas Aquinas, the most authoritative teacher of Christian theology, we proclaim that public retribution is commendable.

“Crime, violation of justice, outrage on the public peace, whether enacted by an individual or by a group, must be repressed. Men’s minds are stirred up, tortured, uneasy, as long as the guilty one is not put back in his place, as the strong, healthy, colloquial expression has it. To put men and things back in their places is to re-establish order, readjust the balance, and restore peace on a just basis. Public retribution in this sense may distress the affected sentimentality of a weak nature; all the same, it is, says St. Thomas, the expression and the decree of the highest, the purest form of charity, and of the zeal which is its flame. It does not make a target of suffering, but a weapon wherewith to avenge the outrage of justice.

“How can one love order without hating disorder; intelligently wish for peace without expelling that which is destroying it; love a brother, that is to say wish him well, without desiring that willingly, or by force, his will shall bend before the unalterable edicts of justice and truth?” [6]

● In 1940, C.S. Lewis carried forward Cardinal Mercier’s argument: “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities … but pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not ‘answer,’ that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe.

“A perception of this truth lies at the back of the universal human feeling that bad men ought to suffer. It is no use turning up our noses at this feeling as if it were wholly base. … Some enlightened people would like to banish all conceptions of retribution or desert from their theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by so doing they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it? And if I do deserve it, you are admitting the claims of ‘retribution.’ And what can be more outrageous than to catch me and submit me to a disagreeable process of moral improvement without my consent, unless (once more) I deserve it?” [7]

Of Christ’s command to turn the other cheek, Lewis asked, “Does anyone suppose that our Lord’s hearers understood him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim? I at any rate think it impossible they could have so understood him.” [8]

And in Mere Christianity, he wrote: “Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment — even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace.” [9]

'The True Justice' is an excerpt from Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, available at Amazon.com or directly from Fielding Press.


[1]  Augustine adds: “What more hideous than a hangman? What more cruel and ferocious than his character? Yet he holds a necessary post in the very midst of laws, and he is incorporated into the order of a well-regulated state; himself criminal in character, he is nevertheless, by others’ arrangement, the penalty of evil-doers.”     ———Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, XLIV, 413-414, LXIII, 155, quoted by Herbert A. Deane in The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, pp. 138-139, 141-142. [back]

[2]  While arguing against the pacifist interpretation of Matthew 26:52 (“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”), Aquinas quoted Augustine — “To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority” — and added: “On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to take the sword, but to use it as commissioned by another, and so it does not deserve punishment.”     ———Summa Theologica (Part I of Second Part, Q. 95:1; Part II of Second Part, Q. 40:1), Great Books of the Western World ed., v. 20, pp. 226-227, 578. [back]

[3]  Citing both the Old and New Testaments, Erasmus pointed out that God’s mercy to sinner’s souls is often coupled with correction, with earthly misfortunes, and sometimes even with death.     ——— “Concerning the Immense Mercy of God” (1524), The Essential Erasmus, pp. 231-235, 240-242. [back]

[4]  Luther concluded: “How the secular Sword and law are to be employed according to God’s will is thus clear and certain enough: to punish the wicked and protect the just.” And he wrote that while true Christians don’t need the sword for themselves, they submit to it and even wield it for the sake of others: “The Sword is indispensable for the whole world, to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked. And therefore Christians readily submit themselves to be governed by the Sword, they pay taxes, honour those in authority, serve and help them, and do what they can to uphold their power, so that they may continue their work, and that honour and fear of authority may be maintained. … And therefore if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, court officials, judges, lords or princes, and you find that you have the necessary skills, then you should offer your services and seek office, so that authority, which is so greatly needed, will never come to be held in contempt, become powerless, or perish. The world cannot get by without it.”     ——— “Von Weltlicher Oberkeit,” Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, ed. Harro Hopfl, pp. 7-15. [back]

[5]  Calvin summed it up: “The Law of God prohibits killing. But in order that murders shall not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts the sword into the hands of his ministers, to be used against all murderers.”     ———”On Civil Government” (Book IV, Chapter 20 of Institutio Christianae Religionis), Luther and Calvin, pp. 60-62. [back]

[6]  The German terror campaign in Belgium is detailed by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, pp. 173-174, 313-318. Of Mercier, historian Houston Peterson writes: “During the four years of German occupation King Albert remained with his army, and other Belgian leaders languished in prison or exile, while Cardinal Mercier, serene, unbending, defiant, upheld the spirit of his people. No nobler drama came out of the first World War.”     ———Peterson, op. cit., pp. 702-704. [back]

[7]  Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pp. 93-94. [back]

[8]  Lewis, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” The Weight of Glory, pp. 49-50. [back]

[9]  Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 106. [back]

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Copyright © 2006 by Karl Spence. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/10/11 20:58:25 -0500.