A few months ago, a friend of mine (a faithful Catholic) posted something to Facebook. It was a quote from a politician in Europe calling for swift and disproportionate retribution for the latest atrocity committed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The quote advocated that the world begin to target the families of terrorists with tactics of terror, such as kidnapping and maiming and public murder. I rebuked my friend, telling him that while it is understandable that he feel anger and a desire for justice after someone commits such an evil act, supporting such a response was EVIL and un-Christian, even sinful. He apologized and removed the post.
A few weeks later, there was the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California and I heard other people expressing wishes that the dead terrorists were burning in Hell. I heard the same sentiments last week after the terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida (with the addition that the victims “deserved” their deaths because the victims were involved in certain grave sins themselves). I don’t know how many times I have heard people express a hope that perverts be abused in prison, those who harm police be mistreated in custody, that criminals be killed by police in standoffs, that murderers be swiftly executed. Responses like this to evil sicken me almost as much as the initial atrocity, and they should sicken any Christian heart. Wishing evil on sinners is the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ taught us.
Like I told my friend, I understand the hunger for swift and exact justice. The desire for justice is a good thing, it is a reflection of the Image of God (who is the just judge), in us. However, like so much of humanity, that desire for the scales of justice to balance is wounded by sin, and we all have a dark impulse to go beyond the bounds of justice and to resort to vengeance. God gave the Jews the law “an eye for an eye” to temper this impulse by setting a limit on retribution for evil: no more than the original harm. However, Jesus taught us the more perfect way of mercy. We are to forgive as we wish to be forgiven, we are to pray for our enemies, we are to prefer being struck twice than strike back once.
That is not to say we do not believe in the need for justice. Those who do evil need to be opposed and their ability to threaten the innocent must be definitively ended. Christians may be called to turn the other cheek, but we do not have the option of turning other people’s cheeks; we have an obligation to come to the aid of the victimized with all our might. However, to take a sick and vengeful glee in that solemn duty, or to wish additional evil on the evildoers, or to treat them as less than human, or to pretend a personal vendetta is justice are all sins.
So when the next terrible thing happens in the world or in our community, pray for the victims, of course, but I would ask you to add a prayer for the perpetrators: Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy.
Fr. Brian Thompson