The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



September 2013

Punitive Violence and Forgiveness

by Blake Hereth, on Theology, Pacifism, September 2013

Having been raised in the Deep South, I recall the teachings on war and violence: they were evils to be avoided, but occasionally killing a human person was morally justified.
Aside from war, in which it was taken as given that killing was often justified, there was a slightly more controversial kind of case in which killing was allegedly justified: as punishment for severe crime. While there may have been someone who regarded capital punishment as always unjustified, such as my Roman Catholic friends, most were adamant defenders of the view that capital punishment was at least sometimes, and probably often, justified. As my parents would advise me, “Because of what the criminal did, we’re justified in harming him.”

Occasional fights with my siblings confused me a bit, however. My parents would often say, “Just because they wronged you doesn’t mean you’re justified in harming them in return.” But this was odd: surely if criminals could be justly punished for their crime, then my siblings could be justly punished for theirs (though my siblings hardly deserved execution!).
At Cedarville, I read Saint Anselm of Canterbury. I’ve admired his brilliance ever since, and I found in his work perhaps one of the best defenses of capital punishment (and punishment generally) I’ve ever seen.1 In short, Anselm claimed that it is wrong to treat the innocent and the guilty as if they were morally the same: just as it would be unjust to punish the innocent, so it would be wrong to let the guilty off the hook.2
Yet this view of punishment seems at odd with the New Testament teaching on forgiveness. We are to forgive one another just as Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32), to forgive more often than we think we should (Matt. 18:21-22), and even to forgive all those against whom we hold any offense (Mk. 11:25).

There’s a pretty strong case to be made for the conclusion that forgiving someone entails not punishing them. If, for example, I forgive your debt of $500 and then demand that you pay it to me, I haven’t actually forgiven your debt. If God forgives us of our sin but still sends us to hell, then he hasn’t forgiven us of our sin. Forgiving someone, therefore, is foregoing whatever they owe (or are owed, if you believe you ‘owe’ them punishment).

What I’m about to say is controversial, and I’ll admit that I’m not entirely convinced of its truth. But it seems plausible to suppose that punishing someone is never obligatory: it’s never wrong to forgive someone.

To see why, consider that it’s initially very plausible to think that, when someone does something wrong to you, two options are available to and permissible for you: (i) punish them or (ii) forgive them. If someone steals from you, it isn’t wrong to forgive them, but you might punish them instead. Since either is permissible, neither is obligatory.

Now, there are roughly two kinds of cases in which it might be wrong to forgive someone: (1) cases in which someone else is wronged and you lack a right to forgive their perpetrator, and (2) cases in which you would undermine the seriousness of human relationships by forgiving an unrepentant perpetrator.
Cases like (1) don’t matter for my argument. Since everyone should always forgive, there’s nothing wrong with treating perpetrators the way victims should treat perpetrators.3
Cases like (2) don’t matter for my argument. There’s certainly more than one way to take human relationships and transgressions seriously, and forgiveness is one such way. (This is why Anselm is wrong, I think, about punishment: when you forgive the guilty, you are treating them as morally different from the innocent. The innocent don’t need forgiveness, and you would treat them wrongly if you acted as though they really did need forgiveness.) Moreover, since forgiveness stands a better chance at restoring broken human relationships than violence, it’s difficult to see why forgiving someone would be anything but taking the relationship very seriously.

The next phase of the argument is the following moral principle, which most everyone believes: we should not do violence to anyone unless we’re obligated to do so. Put another way, you shouldn’t do violence to anyone unless it would be wrong not to do violence to them. This is true in part because if you, say, chop off someone’s arm without needing to do so, then you lack justification for harming that person. If there’s any morally permissible alternative available to violence, you should take it.

But if it’s always permissible to forgive persons, then it isn’t obligatory to do violence to persons. If it isn’t obligatory to do violence to persons, then it’s wrong to do violence to them. Since, as we’ve seen, it is always permissible to forgive persons, then it’s always wrong to do violence to them.
This doesn’t show that violence is always wrong.4 I’m not giving a full defense of pacifism, only a partial defense of pacifism. After all, if pacifism is true and violence against human beings is always wrong, then there’s no good reason to do violence to any human being, and therefore punishment is a bad reason to do violence to any human being. Since I’ve argued for that, I’ve given a partial defense of pacifism. (Because this is only a partial defense of pacifism, the claims here might still be true even if pacifism is false.)

If there is anything worth questioning, it’s our own beliefs about whether doing violence to human beings is justified. There’s both good theological and philosophical reason to think that punitive violence is always unjustified and therefore always wrong. Unless a better case can be made for the conclusion that punitive violence is sometimes justified, we should conclude that punitive violence is always wrong.

(1) I don’t mean to suggest that Anselm’s work was intended to be a defense of capital punishment or punishment. But his writings do contain the philosophical materials to fashion such defenses.

(2) Anselm, Prologion X: 1077-1087.

(3) I’ve argued for this more extensively in a paper of mine, “Mactatis pro Familia.” The fuller objection to pacifism, of course, must be that we have an agent-relative duty to punish those who cannot be forgiven, since those with an agent-relative right to forgive cannot do so. If you’d like a copy of the paper (warning: it’s fairly technical), email me:

(4) One objection I frequently hear is that there is a practical need for violence and killing. After all, the world would be a dangerous place if we didn’t incarcerate or kill (some) capital offenders! But that justification for violence and killing is not punitive but rather preventative/protective. And that is an entirely different objection.