You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
~ Mt 5.43-48
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
~ Ro 12.14, 19-21
The violence of our contemporary world is sustained by the mythic discourse of protection. That is to say, violence is routinely justified as a means of protecting the vulnerable, and, in particular, protecting those whom we love. Thus, troops are mobilized and forcefully cross international (and other) boundaries, not because said troops are “going to war” but because they now operate as international “police” forces. In contemporary discourse, a basic (shall we say “ontological”?) shift has occured in the nature of armies. The armies of the dominant global powers are no longer aggressive forces trained for terrorism and conquest. Rather, they are defensive forces trained to implement, and police, “the peace.”
Of course, there is nothing new about this discourse. Empires have always waged wars for the sake of peace, and, in retrospect, we have been able to see that, time after time, it was these wars which were the greatest obstacles to peace. History has taught us that empires that promise peace through violence are, inevitable, the primary agents of the perpetuation of violence in the world.
Still, it is amazing how easy it is for us to understand this about the past, while simultaneously failing to see how we are being manipulated in the present.
Be that as it may, it is worth noting how the discourse of protective violence also operates closer to home, within our own justice systems. Take, for example, those who are in favour of capital punishment in cases of violent or especially heinous crimes — and let's take the example that is most despised in our society: those who have sex with children. Many Christians support death sentences for pedophiles.
Of course, Christians who are in favour of capital punishment in these cases, generally don't justify their position on the basis of vengeance. That is to say, while the families of the survivors (or “victims”) may desire vengeance, the general Christian public is a little more suspicious of vengeance. In theory, we recognize the dangers of vengeance and we recall the inability to see clearly, or respond appropriately, that frequently arise when we've been wronged. Furthermore, we remember the example of Jesus and the injunctions of Paul, and we think, “yes, although we would never blame the families for desiring vengeance, perhaps it is best if we leave vengeance to God.” So, yes, let us confess our desire for vengeance — indeed, let us fully work through that desire, rather than repressing it — but let us distrust vengeance as a motivating force, and let us distrust our ability to see clearly while we are under the influence of this force.
But what of justice? And not only justice but what of protecting the vulnerable? What of ensuring that others will not suffer at the hands of those who commit such acts? This, then, is where the general Christian public becomes attracted to capital punishment. Yes, perhaps we should never kill others based upon feelings of vengeance, but perhaps we should kill others in order to protect the vulnerable (children, in this case) and in order to protect our loved ones (our children, in this case).
Of course, this form of justice is somewhat suspicious. It risks being little more than an act of pre-emptive vengeance. Here it is worth recalling the example of military action. In our day, we have seen the ways in which pre-emptive military campaigns have been waged by some nations in order to prevent other nations from developing the ability to wage war. In general, we have also seen how artificial such pre-emptive reasoning tends to be. Or, stated differently, we have seen that pre-emptive wars are immoral wars. Indeed, I think that all pre-emptive forms of justice risk falling into the same artificiality and immorality. I do not believe that pre-emptive acts of violence are ever justifiable.
However, I think that there is an even more fundamental reason why Christians should refuse to support the death penalty, or any other type of killing that is premised upon the discourse of protection (here I will leave aside references to the biases, incompetence, and corruption that exists within our judicial system — such injustices have been well documented elsewhere and, although such injustices alone are reason to reject the death penalty, I'll leave it to the discerning reader to explore the research on these things). The primary reason why Christians should not support the death penalty in particular, or protective violence in general, is because we are called to love our enemies.
Here it is absolutely essential to recall that our enemies include the enemies of our loved ones. Stated in an overly simplistic manner, the discourse of protective violence runs something like this: “If you hit me, I'll turn the other cheek; If you hit my wife, I'll fuck you up, motherfucker.” The discourse of protective violence rests upon an artifical distinction between “my” enemies, and the enemies of my loved ones, or of the vulnerable. I tell myself that I am committed to forgiving and loving my enemies, but I fail to see that those who hurt my loved ones, or those who hurt the vulnerable, are my enemies. The enemy of my loved ones, the enemy of the vulnerable, is the enemy who I am called to love.
(Some of us tend to forget this because, coming from places of privilege, we have never really encountered anybody who merits the label “enemy”. We think loving our “enemies” means being nice to the guy who picked on us in highschool because we didn't swear or something like that. Thus, when we discover that one of our dear friends has been violently abused, we don't think of the abuser as the “enemy” whom I am called to love; we think of the abuser as a subhuman monster that should be destroyed — “enemies”, after all, are like that guy who picked on me, and so people who do horrible abusive things must belong in a different category altogether!)
With this realisation, those who wish to engage in any act of violence, “protective” or otherwise, must demonstrate that that act of violence is an expression of love for both the vulnerable and the enemy. Indeed, I believe that it is precisely this realization that led to the nonviolence of Jesus, and of the early Church — this is why the early Christians were told that they could not become soldiers, and this is why they allowed themselves (and, nota bene, their loved ones!) to be killed by their enemies. Once we realize that we are called to love our enemies, then we must simultaneously realize that we cannot kill our enemies.
Thus, if Christians are to live as a peace-able people today, if Christians are “to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect” (which means that they are to love as their heavenly Father loves), then the primary challenge which we must confront, deconstruct, and reject, is the mythic discourse of protective violence.
This is truly where the rubber meets the road in our faith, for the most trustworthy gauge of how seriously we take our faith is not how we respond to those who abuse us, it is how we respond to those who abuse our loved ones.