First post: Nonresistance: A Personal Background
Previous post: Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 6)
Violence is, in essence, a response to sin. God gives us two patterns of response in Scripture: Violence can be a consequence for sin; and violence can be a defense against sin. In this post we’ll consider the first case, and we’ll follow with the second case in a (hopefully) timely manner.
The Bible’s teaching on retribution is simple:
- Vengeance belongs to God alone, not to us as individuals (Deuteronomy 32:35).
- God has chosen governments to be His agents to execute that vengeance on earth (Romans 13:4).
- This vengeance is to be proportionate to the offense committed (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24,:20 Deuteronomy 19:21).
This is the basic foundation of retributive justice. In this context, violence is given as the moral duty of the government, as an agent of God’s justice. But there are limits given, within which the violence is permissible – outside of those limits, the violence becomes unjust and wrong.
Retribution cannot be dished out willy-nilly at the whim of whoever happens to be in charge. For a punishment to be meted out, a plurality of witnesses must testify against the accused. One person (or, in the case of modern forensic evidence, one thread of evidence) cannot condemn a person to judgment (Numbers 35:30).
Further, the government officials are to investigate the matter and examine the witnesses thoroughly (Deuteronomy 19:18). False witnesses are to be dealt with severely – they are to be given the punishment they wanted to give the accused (Deuteronomy 19:19).
“Let the punishment fit the crime.” This is a basic principle of Biblical retributive justice. The severity of the punishment should match the severity of the crime. In Biblical terms, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
That’s not to say that punishments must be exactly the same as the crime. Alternative fair punishments, such as fines, may also be viable options (Deuteronomy 22:19). The specific equivalence of the punishment is left up to the discretion of the judges.
Governments have been given the authority of life and death, symbolized by the sword (Romans 13:4). This applies both to their own citizens and to foreigners in their land (Deuteronomy 24:17).
Individuals acting without this authority are guilty of criminal violence. Only individuals acting in a capacity as an official of the government – whether they be police, soldiers, judges, Congressmen, presidents, or kings – can have this authority. This means that the Bible condemns “vigilante justice,” individuals taking the law into their own hands to right perceived wrongs.
But as we’ve seen, there is no concept in the Bible that it is inherently wrong for someone (Christian or otherwise) to act in the capacity as an official of the government.
Next post: Nonresistance: Conclusions (Part 2)
In the next post, we’ll finish up our summary with the second case – violence as a defense against sin. In the mean time, are we missing any important Scriptural passages that impact our conclusions?