Coming to Terms: Justice and Revenge

by Catherine Fournier

Catechism of the Catholic Church 1807: Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the "virtue of religion." Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equality with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentions in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. "You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." "Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven."

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2262: In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, "You shall not kill," and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.

An old 'Family Circus' cartoon makes the rounds of playgroups, school newsletters and mother's groups every few years. The caption reads, "Mom! He hit me back!" We - mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers - always laugh. We've seen this outraged indignation before, in our children and in ourselves. We laugh because we've felt this frantic desire for revenge and know how demanding it can be.

What we see in "He hit me back!" is the immature view of the child, who still believes that the world and all the people in it owe their existence to him. A (naturally for his age) self-centered three year old does not understand that his blow to Johnny's arm is as real, as painful and as unjust as Johnny's blow to his leg.

But "He hit me back!" is also the cry of the tribal identity. We all have a very strong tendency to see our own community as "us" and everyone else's as "them." It is this tendency that excuses slavery, rigid class systems, discrimination, genocide and a host of other evils. Slaves, peasants, women or other races are not seen as deserving the rights of the fully human "us" and so are exploited or murdered.

But Christ taught that we are all "us." Created by God, born of a human mother, possessing a human soul. We are all us. We are all sons and daughters of God, heirs to the heavenly kingdom. Men, women and children, black and white, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Buddhist, elderly, unborn, disabled and abled, the message was - and still is - for all.

And because of this, we - the plural of us - all deserve the same consideration and respect, the same rights, the same treatment. In other words, we deserve justice. We deserve justice from each other because we receive it from God.

Justice is fulfilled through law. Law is formed in anticipation of offenses, not in response to a specific incident. This foresight allows justice and law to be unbiased, objective and consistent.

God's justice is dispersed through natural law, moral law and divine law, in the teachings of the Church and in our own faith lives. It is impartial (He loves us all!) and objective. It sees what is necessary for reparation and exacts it, no more and no less. It is also patient, always ready to accept apology and offer another chance. God's justice can also be mysterious, operating on a spiritual rather than physical level and with a time scale we do not understand.

Returning to each other what God has given to us, human justice also aims to be impartial and objective in its actions, to take sufficient and legitimate action commensurate with the seriousness of the offense. Written in constitutions and law books, exercised in the courts, and in national, community and family life, it bases itself on tradition, history and the culture's moral standards. If physical force is judged necessary to defend innocent persons, the family or the state, the role of law both ensures that necessary protection and keeps it within reasonable limits.

Human justice is not perfect as God's justice is perfect. It didn't always recognize women or blacks as "persons," for example. It occasionally imprisons the innocent and acquits the guilty. Free speech, appeal courts and houses of government exist to answer these mistakes, to regulate and refine human justice when necessary. Still, human justice and law seeks (and largely succeeds) to discipline and restrain criminals, protect and preserve society, and settle disputes in an objective and unbiased way.

Revenge is very different. It is subjective and personal, lawless and arbitrary, often violent and destructive. It divides humanity into "us" and "them" in order to allow itself special privileges and deny the other equal consideration.

Revenge doesn't trust justice and law to adequately judge and punish the perceived offense. It deals out its own punishment. And since human justice acts in the trust of God's justice to serve His children, revenge, by denying law, mistrusts and denies God's justice. This was Adam and Eve's sin, the sin of disobedience and Cain's, of thwarted pride.

Revenge is perpetual and ultimately unsuccessful. In its fruitless search for satisfaction, for peace without God's justice, revenge perpetually drives itself to greater and greater extremes. Blood feuds and tit-for-tat terrorism lead, all too often, to full scale war and the destruction not only of the enemy but of oneself as well.

Taking personal action to punish a real or perceived crime, be it smashing Johnny's castle because he stole your truck or attacking the nation who has - legally, with the cooperation of your government - stationed soldiers on your soil, is revenge. Attacking an entire group or nation for the actions of a few, claiming, "If you're not with "us", you're with ("them") the enemy and we're against you," is also acting in revenge.

But in the heat of "anger, hatred and vengeance" revenge is easily confused with justice. We need to look at the fruits to discern the difference.

Is this action lawful? Is it in legitimate defense of the innocent? Is it within reasonable limits? Will this action harm the innocent because of their association or proximity to the offender? Will this action enrich the human dignity of those involved or diminish them? Will this action serve to end conflict or perpetuate it? If we suspect that the fruits of an action will be bad, we must reject it and seek a more just solution, one that recognizes and obeys God's justice rather than our human desire for revenge.

There is another reason we laugh at that Family Circus cartoon, the reason it survives to circle endlessly through the world of toddler's and their care-givers. We laugh because we know how important it is that we teach our children to reject revenge and seek justice. We know how hard - and how essential! - it is to learn.

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