When Middle-Eastern Christians are beheaded for their faith, when men, women and children are killed in the streets of France, when ancient holy sites are reduced to rubble — something deep in the human heart cries for revenge.
In recent months our digitally connected world has witnessed unmentionably vicious terrorist attacks that have ripped innocent lives from our neighborhoods and city streets, here and abroad.
In the midst of these atrocities, Christ’s words recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew seem nearly impossible to comprehend: “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.”
How do we pray for those who callously destroy our loved ones and terrorize our very way of life? Christ’s command seems contrary to our desire that justice to rain down like water upon those who murder, rape and pillage.
In truth, Christ is imploring us to not give in to an impulse that can cripple and ultimately destroy our faith. He is asking that we maintain a peace of heart and denounce murderous anger and hatred of the other.
Why? Because Christ does not hate these people. He died on the cross for them and he will forgive them all their crimes if they but earnestly repent and turn from sin to follow him.
“If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. “It is a mortal sin.”
In the Gospels, the Lord says, ‘Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.’” And yet, Christ’s teachings are not intended to negate the means for maintaining justice.
“To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit, but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution to correct vices and maintain justice,” the Catechism affirms. The distinction here is between revenge and justice. The former aims to quench one’s hatred of the other. The latter seeks to bring peace in the land and salvation to souls.
But in order to establish peace, a society must safeguard “the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity,” the Catechism states.
The church recognizes that in order to safeguard such peace we must, at times, take up arms. In doing so there are grave moral considerations. The church has long taught that war must be a last option because of the “evils and injustices that accompany all war.”
Nevertheless, the church also recognizes that nations have the “right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”
Giants of the church — first Saint Augustine in the 4th century and then Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th — reflected on the teachings of Christ and laid the foundations for what is still the basis for Just War Theory.
This includes the idea that the “damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain,” according to the Catechism. And all other means of ending violence “must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.”
Once a nation goes to war there must be a strong prospect of success and the “use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
As leaders in Europe, the Middle East and here in the United States respond to these heinous acts of terror, we must pray for solutions that are rooted in justice rather than revenge.
The Catholic Church, praying over and reflecting for centuries upon the words of Christ brings the wisdom of ages to our current troubles. It is wise to keep in mind these words, lifted from the Catechism.
“Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until Christ comes again; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and these words will be fulfilled: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
This is our ultimate hope. Until then we work towards justice, but never a revenge that poisons faith.