Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Shortly after the terrorist attack on September 11, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, DC, a member of the "seamless garment network" committed to the so-called "consistent ethic of life," issued "A message of Peace, from a Christian Community." They proclaimed, "If we kill as a response to this great tragedy, we are no better than the terrorists who launched this awful offensive. Killing is killing, and killing is wrong."
Such false moral equivalence results from failing to recognize elementary distinctions between different types of force, whether lethal or non-lethal. First, an act that originates or initiates harm of one's neighbor is illegitimate violence. Second, a personal response to an initial act of violence against one's self, family or neighbor is typically called vengeance. While it may have a certain juridical character as a form of retribution, it is likely to start a spiral of violence and is prohibited by a biblical perspective. Third, acts of force by an established police and military as part of an official judicial and political system belong to a morally distinct category. Such a system makes it possible to prevent, with lethal force if necessary, the originators of violence or those who take the law into their own hands.
The "seamless garment" or "consistent ethic of life" position recognizes no moral difference between the acts of a cold-blooded murderer, a vigilante lynch mob seeking revenge, and a deputized sheriff's posse pursuing the outlaw to "bring 'em back dead or alive" (lethal force being permissible to prevent further criminal action and for self-defense). This position necessarily leads to the morally preposterous conclusion that if the U.S. kills terrorists in response to terrorist acts, then we are just as bad as the terrorists.
Absurd claims of moral equivalence aren't limited to social activists. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf agrees that "Taking a life is always the wrong thing" (Christianity Today, 9/17). But lacking the courage of the pacifists' convictions he is willing to do evil so that good may come: "If you are certain they would repeat the act, trying to stop them and in the process possibly killing them may be required." This would be "the right wrong thing." Notice that terrorists don't deserve to be punished, merely deterred. Volf considers talk hunting down and punishing terrorists "dangerous language" since it removes them from "the very community of our species."
Most alarming, though, is that Volf finds deeply troubling "the self-righteousness with which we go after those who have assaulted us and the absence of any sense that we ourselves are implicated in their act." Dismissing as "self-righteous" the American desire to justly punish Usama bin Laden and other terrorists is like saying that the desire of a rape victim or her parents to have the police find and prosecute the rapist is "self-righteous" and indicates a failure to understand that they are "implicated" in his act. This is "blaming the victim" and the victim's family.
The "seamless garment network" and Volf would do well to take a clue from Reinhold Niebuhr, who criticized pacifist appeals to moral equivalence prior to WWII with the simple yet profound observation that while we all may be equally sinners, we are not all equally guilty. Better yet, they should recognize with John Calvin that authorities are responsible before God to pursue the guilty with drawn sword. It follows that if "they sheathe their sword and keep their hands clean of blood, while abandoned men wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre, they will become guilty of the greatest impiety, far indeed from winning praise for their goodness and righteousness thereby"! Failing to pursue the terrorists and to exact retribution for their evil dishonors the God who has authorized rulers to use the sword to be "a revenger to execute wrath" on those who do evil (Romans 13:3,4).
—Keith Pavlischek, Fellow
Center for Public Justice
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”