In my 9-11 ruminations last week, I asserted that the retributive dimension of the just war tradition is indispensable to humanity. Such a robust claim requires a more substantial defense than is really doable in a post, but I’ll have a go at a modest start. In the 9-11 essay, I suggested that retribution is good in part because meting out deserved punishment furnishes society with certain kinds of protection. These include physical protection—through the restoration and maintenance of just order—as well as moral protection–through helping promote not just justice but also by cultivating in individual members of society a just character, one oriented toward the giving of each their proper due. To cultivate such a character is good for many reasons, chief among them is that it reflects the character of God.
To reflect the character of God is to flourish as human creatures, for human beings were made in the image of our Maker. This Image—this Imago—defines human nature and, as a consequence, human obligation as well. This Imago involves displaying the various attributes of moral character such as holiness, righteousness, and wisdom, as well as the components of moral vocation such as the exercise of dominion—providential care over creation. This includes a judicial dimension. God, upon bringing creation into existence, judged it to be good, imposed upon His human creations certain responsibilities and constraints, proceeded to pronounce judgment against these creatures when they shirked those responsibilities, and administered proportionate punishment for doing so. But He never revoked the Imago nor its attendant responsibilities.
Consider especially that section of Genesis, a short time later, in which Imago and retribution are explicitly brought together: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” This blood-for-blood retributive demand forms the lex talionis, or the law of retaliation–sometimes paraphrased as the law of the tooth, in a nod to both its Babylonian and Pentateuchal origins. It’s argued, I think rightly, that this appeal to the image of God is made not to explain why murder is such a heinous crime—which it is—but to explain why it is by man that the murderer’s blood shall be shed. Human beings, being image bearers, are to bear the burden of righting wrongs—that is, of wielding the sword for the sake of retaliatory justice. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul extrapolates on this in his insistence that the God-mandated duty of the public authority to requite good and evil is the fundamental function of the state.
Not everyone—including an ever-increasing number of Christians—is entirely down with this. In a provocative and thoughtful essay, Esau McCaulley—a Wheaton College professor of New Testament—ultimately opposes the retributive act. His launch point is President Biden’s bullish and ill-advised words following the Kabul airport attack that killed north of a hundred people, including 13 Americans, and wounded scores more. The President, his dander rightly raised, declared to the perpetrators: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
McCaulley acknowledges the basic logic of the president’s sentiment. “Acts of evil demand justice,” McCaulley admits. With a grandfather who served in WW2 and a wife with more than 15 years active duty and reserves, McCaulley brings personal weight to his recognition that “no one can watch caskets draped in the American flag return home to weeping family members and final salutes from fellow troops and not be stirred.”
Nevertheless, McCaulley fears the cancerous turn that the kind of anger Biden invoked and the desire for—what McCaulley calls—”revenge” can take. He’s not without cause. The seemingly inexcusable intelligence and command failures that led to the tragic RPA attack in response to the Kabul attack is a terrible case-in-point. For justice to be virtuous it must be meted out in the right degree, against the right people, for the right reasons, and with the right intention. McCaulley is also right that “our desire for justice can quickly turn into hatred…the innocent…become no different from our true enemies.” But while this is true, it remains equally true that abuse of a thing does not abrogate its proper use. There remains a case, and a good one, for retribution. It has everything to do with love.
It’s important to recognize that Paul’s description of good government—and the good of the magistrate’s sword—is found sandwiched between a wider discussion of love. Recall that his disquisition on love that is without hypocrisy begins in Romans 12:9, where he mandates that we “cling” to what is good and “hate” what is evil. Both are strong terms. “Cling” is used elsewhere in scripture in reference to sexual union. Our love of what is good is to bear a similar passion and intimate intensity. The term for “hate” is equally strong, conveying the idea of utter abhorrence. Our love risks hypocrisy if we don’t abhor evil. Again, the judicial component of the Imago has come into view: love discriminates, it judges, and it endorses as well as condemns. Paul appears to break away from his discussion of love as he moves in the 13th chapter to his views on government. But he picks up the theme of love explicitly again in 13:8 with his exhortation to “love one another.”
Curiously—though surely not coincidentally—Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of war in his magnificent Summa is famously found within his discourse on love. Both Paul and Aquinas choose to discuss “the sword” within their teaching on love. Why? Well, among much else, when confronted with an injustice, love cannot stand aloof. Evil is privative—it deprives a good of some measure of its essential goodness. Because an evil diminishes goodness, love, because it is love, will hate evil because it diminishes goodness. Clear-sighted love necessitates requiting injustice with an eye toward the restoration of justice. This is why I do not endorse McCaulley’s too-close alignment of justice-seeking with a “desire for revenge.” Retribution is simply not the same thing as revenge.
To get at the difference, let’s turn to an analogy. When we talk about just war, we continue to emply two phrases out of the medieval lexicon:: jus ad bellum and jus in bello. In the medieval usage, bellum refers to any use of armed force, internally or externally deployed for public good and, crucially, by a sovereign ruler—as no one else is permitted to initiate it. The opposite concept is deullum, the use of force on private authority and presumptively for private purposes. No one in the middle ages would have had a problem distinguishing the principle meaning of either term, nor that bellum could be just or unjust depending on the specific case. Duellum,on the other hand, could always only be unjust. Significantly, the distinction between duellum and bellum corresponds to St. Augustine’s understanding that the service of private ends for private persons manifests cupiditas—wrongly directed, self-indulgent love—while the other-centered deployment of force to serve public goods manifests in caritas—or rightly ordered love rightly directed. Suddenly, the love sandwich in which talk of government and war is set makes sense.
Similarly, the difference between retribution and revenge is that with retribution the spur, or the drive, is a desire for justice fueled by indignation at what evil has done to goodness. Revenge, on the hand—or claw—is driven by resentment and a desire to see the evildoer suffer. Retribution—philologically derived from a root meaning to “bring back” or “to exchange”—is measured and proportionate. Revenge is happy to wreak havoc and to see the enemy suffer if for no other reason than simply the suffering itself. As the philosopher J. Budziszewski writes, retribution “answers injury with injury for public good” while “revenge…answers malice with malice for private satisfaction.”
Because it is measured according to the offense, retribution manifests at the appropriate point along a spectrum ranging from the simple expression of opprobrium to restraint, and, as the offense increases, to punishment, to threat of force, and ultimately to lethal restraint. Everything hinges on the choices made by the offender. But because retribution is plotted on a point determined by the gravity of the offense, it’s not entirely clear why too little retribution is any better than too much. Both mar justice, if in opposite ways. In any case, Biden is right to insist that those who blew up the innocent in Kabul should be punished for doing so. Against sufficiently grave evil, punishment is simply the manifestation of retribution, it is how retribution requites evil. To requite—to make an appropriate return for something—is simply what justified punishment does. Without such just punishment, evil cannot be requited at all.
Through it all, love, working through the retributive act, works toward human flourishing in three important directions. First, retribution serves the flourishing of the innocent victim in a rather obvious way, through rescue. But it also serves the victim by demonstrating their worth—in this way, ancient blood feuds—later, vendetta or kanly—while terribly imperfect and exhibiting the kind of malevolence that McCaulley rightly deplores, nevertheless primitively foreshadowed just retribution and were, in that sense, partially on to something. To not requite injustices perpetrated against our innocent neighbors is, in most cases, to hold them—intentionally or not—in contempt. Retributive justice, constrained by the Hebraic soul, brings the latent, hamstrung insights of vendetta to loving fruition. Secondly, retribution promotes the flourishing of the retributive agent by inculcating in them a hunger for justice and, done rightly, forms in them just habits. Perhaps more surprisingly, third, retribution contributes also to the flourishing of the aggressor by calling him to account, by declaring his actions unjust, and, through punishment, focusing his mind toward contemplation of his wrong, and, ideally, toward repentance, restitution, and, perhaps, to reconciliation.
While these are noble hopes, McCaulley might still insist the dangers are too great. Budziszewski answers the caution this way and I can do no better:
I have heard it asked by fellow Christians, “How dare we play God? How dare we wrest into our own hands the divine prerogative of life and death?” … My answer is that we dare not. We dare not wrest into our own hands any of the divine prerogatives of justice, whether the deprivation of life, of liberty, or of property. No, we dare not wrest into our hands any powers over our fellow men. But if God puts such powers into the hands of those who hold public authority—what then? Does this not alter the picture? How dare we jerk our hands away, hide them behind our backs, refuse the charge.
The point where I think McCaulley is right concerns Biden’s assertion that “we will not forgive.” I’ve already been at some pains to point out that retribution aims, ultimately, at reconciliation. Just war is, in one sense, a first step in the process of forgiveness. But this is not–it must not be–a unilateral choice on the part of the victim. The victimizer gets a say, and his vote had better be respected. Some people aren’t ready to be forgiven.
To be sure, there are times when it is imprudent to pursue the full measure of justice. To do so, history shows us, sometimes only makes a great many things much worse. At other times, charity might spectacularly intervene and prompt us to do less to even the unrepentant aggressor then they deserve. But when we do so, most times, the motive is not justice. Nor is justice simply abrogated; somewhere, somehow, the claims of justice will still need to be met. The cross teaches us that. Mercy always costs somebody something. Sometimes, love judges that to be the acceptable thing.
McCaulley will go on in his essay to make a more unqualified case for unilateral mercy in his call for a “politics of forgiveness.” His vision is bold, stirring, and, he suggests, even radically revolutionary. This might be. But whatever else it is, it is also wrong. But that is a case to be made at another time.