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Is Human Life Really Inviolable?

October 6, 2011

Moral philosophers and theologians sometimes speak of the inviolability of human life, by which they mean that human life has such a high value that to act against it in a way that harms it or destroys it constitutes a violation.  Whether this violation always qualifies as unlawful or unjust has been a matter of much debate.  Massive amounts of ink have been spilt to demarcate the line between lawful and unlawful killing, and the line has often been drawn between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty.  You won’t find many people who would call murder just, and absolute pacifists are as rare as socialist conventions in Lubbock.

Peacenik that I am, I cannot bring myself to condemn every taking of human life.  On the other hand, I cannot escape the nagging thought that the violation resulting from the act of killing must always be an evil.  If a just response to life means giving life what it is due, and if human life is inviolably due promotion, support, respect, and nourishment, then to violate life by taking it, for whatever reason, is to act contrary to what is due to human life and therefore to act unjustly.

St. Thomas Aquinas disagreed, arguing that man can be considered both in himself and in relation to the common good.  While considering man in himself leads to the conclusion that killing any man is unlawful, considering man in relation to the common good reveals that killing can become lawful if it’s done in relation to the common good.  In one sense, I understand this analysis.  Different standpoints of considering the same object will often lead to different conclusions about that object.  Nevertheless, I don’t see how bringing the common good into the total consideration removes the obligation of respect due to the inviolability of human life.  Killing a human being for the sake of the common good is still killing a human being whose life is inviolable.  The life doesn’t lose the property of inviolability just because one has good reason to take the life.  In this analysis, it would appear that human life, valuable though it may be, is not really inviolable, at least not in a way of much significance.  A weak inviolability, maybe?

The violability of human life is further illustrated by the demarcation between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty.  If the killing of the former is always wrong and the killing of the latter may be right, then it would seem that inviolability is not a property of human life itself, but rather a property  of contingent aspects or qualities of human life—innocence and righteousness.  No violation necessarily results from executing a serial killer or taking out a terrorist because these human beings are not worthy of the lives they live.  Their lives are not inviolable.  If this is the case, then human life isn’t really inviolable, not in itself, at least not in a very meaningful way.

I tend toward the view that human life itself is inviolable, and that while taking someone’s life may be justified, there remains an element of evil in every act of killing.    Killing is always wrong, even when it’s right.  This is an odd thing for me to say.  Perhaps my thinking here is mistaken, confused, or fallacious.  Or perhaps moral thought itself cannot make coherent sense of killing.

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  1. Thales permalink
    October 6, 2011 12:54 pm

    The violability of human life is further illustrated by the demarcation between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty. If the killing of the former is always wrong and the killing of the latter may be right, then it would seem that inviolability is not a property of human life itself, but rather a property of contingent aspects or qualities of human life—innocence and righteousness. No violation necessarily results from executing a serial killer or taking out a terrorist because these human beings are not worthy of the lives they live. Their lives are not inviolable. If this is the case, then human life isn’t really inviolable, not in itself, at least not in a very meaningful way.

    One quibble with this, (or maybe you agree with the point I’m about to make, and it’s a distinction which you recognize but I’m just missing.) I think that innocence and guilt that does or does not support killing is not a property of the individual himself — it’s a property that is essentially related to the common good, as you describe in the preceding paragraph. Killing a guilty man may be okay — but not because he is guilty; it may be okay because he is guilty in a manner that deeply injures the common good. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think that killing someone should ever focus primarily on the individual and his or her worthiness; it should always be primarily focused on the common good. (I think this is true for both pre- and post-Evangelium Vitae views of capital punishment, though I think it’s much easier to see in a post-EV view).

  2. October 6, 2011 2:00 pm

    “Killing is always wrong, even when it’s right. ”

    It would seem that the real ambiguity isn’t so much between violability or not, but between wrong and right. Relying only individual conscience to make that distinction is really asking for trouble. So we have a lot of rules to guide us between right and wrong, but there’s no way any set of rules can possibly cover all possible nuances of fact and intention while remaining consonant with conscience.

  3. October 6, 2011 2:15 pm

    I don’t think the invioliability of human life can be an absolute, for the simple reason that sometimes you have to take a life in order to *enforce* respect for human life.

    For example, if we had refused to wage war against Hitler on the ground that it was wrong to kill German soldiers, then we would have been acquiescing in his policy of disrespect for human life in innumerable ways.

    Since his goal was to dominate at least the nations surrounding Germany, if not the whole world, the only way to avoid killing would have been for those countries to surrender the moment he demanded it. And if he were not satisfied with occupying those countries, but wanted to move on to Britain, Russia, and maybe even the U.S., we would have been acquiescing in Nazi policies which were harmful to human dignity in all those places. Since the only way to stop him was to use force, it was therefore necessary to take human life for the purpose of saving human lives, as well as human dignity, in the places he sought to invade.

    In that case, *not* taking human life would have been opposed to human life and dignity. I suggest that this is where the “common good” comes in: Treating each individual human life as inviolable, can itself be a violation of human life in general.

    As far as your question whether taking a life is always evil, I would think that taking human life for the above reasons and in that context, could be considered an evil effect, certainly, but one which is tolerated in order to avert an even greater evil.

    Now the question might be raised, How does this differ from directly aborting a fetus in a tubal pregnancy? In both cases you are deliberately taking a human life for the sake of trying to accomplish a good. Why is it evil in the case of the fetus but not in the case of a German soldier?

    Here, I think, is where guilt or innocence comes in: The fetus is not committing or cooperating in some evil. In fact most likely it’s not doing anything consciously, but is only acting in accord with its nature in trying to survive and develop. Whereas the German soldier is a conscious agent of Hitler. Whether he is a voluntary agent or not, he is Hitler’s agent and instrument in his scheme to dominate various countries and impose policies which are opposed to human life and dignity. The soldier is the very person who needs to be killed in order to protect and enforce respect for human life.

    Finally, for what it’s worth, I would point out that human life is more than biological life. “Human life” may be inviolable in the abstract, but if so, that’s because it’s the image of God. God is not biological life but spiritual life: Truth, goodness, beauty, intelligence and will. To the extent someone perverts those things in himself, and seeks to destroy or pervert them in others, he has already violated the human life — the image of God — within himself. The snuffing out of his mere biological life would seem to pale in comparison.

    • Rodak permalink
      October 6, 2011 2:48 pm

      “…sometimes you have to take a life in order to *enforce* respect for human life.:”

      Exactly. You have to destroy the village in order to save it. I thought we had established that principle categorically during our glorious humanitarian effort in Vietnam. Good intentions, plus a copious, indiscriminant deployment of napalm, puts the fear of God into the heathen every time.

      Sarcasm aside, if we examine the “common good’ argument in favor of taking human life, aren’t we simply ranking quantity over quality? If you put the serial killer up against his potential X-million victims, his life looks insignificant, indeed. But if you put his life up against each of those X-million, one at a time (which is the real situation, I would argue), it becomes, uniquely, “him or me,” X-million times. Then it comes down to the question: do I have the right to take vengeance against this man? Or, do I have the right to preemptively destroy this man’s life in order to be certain that he will not destroy mine at some future time? All X-million individuals (imo) have to take this responsibility on as individuals, not as members of a mob in which the responsibility falls on no person, but on an abstract (and questionable) principle.

  4. October 6, 2011 4:22 pm

    The ‘inviolability of human life’ rests upon the divine claim that man is created in the image of God; that man somehow shares in the very nature of God. This may have been less clear prior to the Incarnation, but part of the good news is that creation has been ‘entered into’ by its Creator. Humans in particular bear a direct living relationship to God and are referred to as God’s children. Any direct killing, innocent or not, is an evil because it fails to take into account.

    War, capital punishment, etc is sometimes ‘justified’ because it only considers the human agent divorced from ‘the divine seed’ that he or she carries. When the veil is lifted (so to speak) we will see that killing a human being is more than the ending of his earthly life, indeed it is simultaneously a direct attack on the divine relationship that that individual shares with God. As JPII says in EV we are not only dealing with an ultimate reality, but a penultimate reality.

    Regarding all the most difficult circumstances in life; the confrontations with Hitler et al., I understand how easy it is to fail in the vision described above. Mea culpa. But this is what conversion is all about and it often means standing alone and apart from concensus thinking. The true saint is far from a pacifist. Seeing a vestige of Christ in every person the saint engages in never ending spiritual and material battles, one of which is to resist the temptation to justify direct killing.

    • Rodak permalink
      October 6, 2011 5:17 pm

      Absolutely, Tausign: that’s the short answer. And the most correct one. It moots every point I made above.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      October 7, 2011 6:08 am


  5. October 6, 2011 5:19 pm


    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re saying, let Hitler take over and commit genocide against the Jews rather than kill a single German soldier.

    • Rodak permalink
      October 6, 2011 8:57 pm

      @Agellius — What you propose to Tausign is a false choice. The real question is: would you–Agellius–be willing to walk up behind Hitler and blow his brains out personally? If the answer there is “yes,” I would ask you to name a couple of those persons whom you could actually make it your project to murder in the cause of good today. And I would ask why you apparently aren’t busy doing so?

      • October 7, 2011 11:29 am

        Rodak writes, “The real question is: would you–Agellius–be willing to walk up behind Hitler and blow his brains out personally?”

        I don’t agree that that’s the question.

        Discussing doctrine with you is a little difficult since you’re not a Catholic, and therefore we don’t share a lot of premises in common. But part of Catholic moral teaching is that killing is licit in cases of war or capital punishment, but only by the legitimately constituted authority. It would not be licit for me personally to shoot Hitler in the head. But if I were a soldier in my nation’s army, and were ordered to do so, it would be.

        If you disagree, that’s fine, but that’s what my religion teaches.

    • October 7, 2011 12:28 am

      ”Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re saying, let Hitler take over and commit genocide against the Jews rather than kill a single German soldier”

      No, I’m not saying that at all. What I’m trying to do is listen to what God is saying. You are confusing two separate issues. One is the sanctity or inviolability of human life. The other is how to confront the problem of evil and evildoers.

      As I said in my earlier comment the inviolability of the human being is based upon the unique relationship that each individual has with God. It’s not any characteristics of his nature per se, his mind, conscience, contingent qualities, etc that makes him special among creation. No, it’s the mystery of the shared life with God, the image of the divine nature which somehow makes him or her one with God. While that image is distorted by sin it’s never severed, even if we reside in hell. If this relationship were undone the creature would cease to exist. Because of this, any direct killing is not only an attack on the creature but an attack on God, which is always and everywhere evil. As I read Scripture, the Catechism and EV (where all of this is developed most explicitly); this dignity is a true gift bestowed upon man and no one can contend with it.

      Now, the problem of confronting evil per se or evil in others: This could be and endless discussion. But it’s important to understand the ultimate end game, which is that evil is conquered by love and goodness. I know this appears highly problematic to our nature. Before jumping out of your seat, think of how we (again, mea culpa) routinely resort to violence and power. I’m not talking ‘kum-bi-ya’. I believe the saints would testify that it’s a great temptation to twist hatred and violence into a virtue; it’s so easy, isn’t it? Ironically, the real work is done when we yoke with Christ, share our crosses, suffering violence for the kingdom, receive stigmata and are mocked unto death for living the gospel seriously.

      • October 7, 2011 11:27 am

        Tausign writes, “You are confusing two separate issues. One is the sanctity or inviolability of human life. The other is how to confront the problem of evil and evildoers.”

        I don’t agree that I’m confusing issues. The point of Kyle’s post was whether it’s always wrong to kill a human being. My point was that it can’t always be wrong, since there are situations where it would be wrong not to.

        I’m not denying that human life is sacred, that we have a bond with God, or any of that. In my view that’s not even under discussion, but is assumed. Nevertheless God himself, in scripture, makes clear that he sometimes authorizes killing, and also authorizes governments to decide that killing is called for in certain circumstances.

  6. October 6, 2011 9:15 pm

    Your above piece on Hitler was excellent. Japan’s long term intentions at that time were to enslave China where in the massacre of Nanjing, Japanese soldiers tossed Chinese babies aloft and bayonetted them as they came down through the air. If anyone thinks God wanted Japan and Hitler to extend their rule over even more people and that Japanese and German lives were inviolable, then you must hate vast tracts of the Old Testament and you must hate God killing Herod in Acts 12 in the new testament and having worms devour his body….you literally must hate it. God picked an ex- murderer, Moses, to lead the first people of God and soon God had Moses take part verbally (not physically) in God’s killing of two laity rebels and their families….Dathan and Abiram. God picked Peter to lead the second People of God and Peter was an attempted murderer unless you think he was a samurai who could remove an ear with a sword. And again soon God had this second leader take part verbally in a killing by God of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
    Both were violent….both were to leave their physical violence but help God in His. You might conclude…..ergo only God can take a life literally. And that might work if there was no Romans 13:4…. but there is and it refers to the state avenging God’s wrath with the sword (it could have said “scourge” rather than “sword”). The state deputes to you the right to kill a violent invader of your home. I fought a criminal last year on the street who hinted he’d be back with a gun for me to deal with. Our bedroom door is fortified but wood not steel with a motion alarm. If he enters my home and tries some night to call me out with threats at that door after entering my home, I’ll shoot him right through the door…heart level. And yet I pray for him about three times a week that God will save him from hell and from me. Do I love him? Yes….in fact I may be the only person who does and thus prays for him. He’s ghetto, living on the wind, ex military I sense based on how he entered my house and stayed anally neat while robbing it.
    Elijah….the only prophet….the only human called by God to prepare the way for Christ’s final return was a man who killed 450 prophets of Baal by slitting their throats. The prophet Samuel killed Agag because Saul would not despite being ordered by God to kill Agag. Saul was then removed from the kingship because he lacked what the Stoics were later to call…”severitas”. The prophet Elisha cursed sacriligious boys and two bears killed 42 of them. Catholic sermons haven’t touched these things in so long that these last two Popes reject the necessity of violence in the OT (see EV section 40; and Verbum Domine section 42)…..but neither of them mentions Acts 12 either and Herod’s disgusting death by God….it doesn’t fit with their theories.

    • Rodak permalink
      October 7, 2011 7:59 am

      More proof, if any were needed, that the so-called “Old Testament” should be consigned to the literature shelf, along with Homer and the rest of the primitive, pre-Christian texts. The “O.T.” can be cited to justify virtually any kind of homicide one should want to commit, including genocide. All one needs do is think that he’s channeling God’s will and he can kill with guilt-free abandon. Some call it piety; some call it pathology.

    • October 7, 2011 9:29 am

      Bill I’m just curious. You give me the impression of really posessing great firearm skills; if so, then why aim for a man’s heart? Why not blast off his knee caps? I’m not being flippant, I simply want to know why must the force be deadly when it doesn’t have to be?

      • October 7, 2011 10:09 am

        No one on earth could shoot kneecaps through a closed door. Your goal in self defense is not to kill a man for it’s own sake. That’s murder. Your goal is to stop his trigger finger from moving and killing or paralyzing you or your loved one. In movies, people die or fully recover. In life, one can be paralyzed for decades or dead, by not moving first. The thug will want to announce himself in my case. That will be his mistake. I learned at 16, you attack when the criminal begins his announcement. Where you grew up or live colors this whole issue. I grew up where it was raining Irish thugs daily. If you live in areas of the USA where crime is very avoidable, you are more likely to eschew my orientation. Cities are not so good. regardless of the section because thugs are abundant.
        To stop his trigger finger, you either have to kill him fast or shoot his gun hand off period. Period. Period. Few men could do option two in movement,
        Many of you like Rodak above are in the wrong scriptures. There has
        got to be more pacifist scriptures within Hopi culture or Buddhism. The result is that modern Catholics are forever editing the hell out of a very large Bible. Our homilies are constant editing. And the historico-critical techniques which once horrified the 19th century Popes….are now de rigeur for recent Popes in the hopes of remaking the scriptures so that the NY Times might possibly like them (I like the Times by the way….Catholicism will never produce a press corp that good).
        These last two Popes and many Cardinals are horrified that Church documents supported burning heretics from 1253 til 1816….so am I. They are trying to erase that history by promoting the opposite extreme… not always but sporadically. That’s why you can find both warrior and pacifist comments by both. But you can’t erase history by going to the opposite extreme. There’s always the History station. The Japanese nation is similar to these last two Popes….horrified by the rapes in the tens of thousands of women of all ages in Nanjing (Nanking), they are now acting the role of pacifists as a nation… in order to once again believe they cannot be monstrous.

  7. Rodak permalink
    October 7, 2011 8:09 am

    John 18:36 – Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.

    One needs to decide whose kingdom one is of. As He himself informed us, the prince of this world is not Jesus Christ.

  8. Thales permalink
    October 7, 2011 8:11 am

    A quick thought:

    When we talk about killing another human being, I think that capital punishment is the most difficult or most complex situation to understand or justify; war is the second most; and finally, self-defense or killing the attacker as the only means to defend against the death of the attacked who is immediately threatened by the attacker. If you hold the position that killing is always “wrong” or “an attack on God” or “evil,” then it is this last example which you need to wrestle with, because it’s the situation where the killing is most obviously justified. In fact, in some situations, killing might be your required moral duty — like a madman about to kill a child, and the only way for the parent to stop him is to shoot him (not intending the madman’s death, but knowing that death will certainly occur).

    It’s easier to talk about the immorality of violence in the context of capital punishment and war; it’s not so clear in the context of the necessary defense of an innocent you must protect in the face of a lethal threat.

    • October 7, 2011 10:44 am

      This is a really interesting and very difficult point. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are generally credited with–or blamed for–the just war theory. But both of them made a distinction between what Christians could do in an individual/personal capacity and what they could do as magistrates or soldiers in the service of the common good. So while they justified killing enemy combatants in warfare, they did not think it right for a private citizen to “resist evil” by taking the life of an attacker. But what about taking the life of someone who is trying to kill an innocent person whom the Christian feels obliged to protect?

      Noting that the early Church fathers were remarkably silent about any obligation to defend others, C. John Cadoux argues that Christians in the era before Constantine were unwiling to use violence even to save fellow believers from very cruel forms of martyrdom. In the post-Constantian era, though, as Louis Swift notes, the defense of the innocent became the basis for a very different Christian ethic. As St. Ambrose wrote, “Anyone who does not prevent an injury to a companion, if he can do so, is as much at fault as he who inflicts it.” Before long, Christians came to see it as their duty to defend the innocent by punishing, even killing, the guilty.

      This is clearly the mindset of today’s Christian majority when they uphold capital punishment and the just war theory. Can it be reconciled with the Matthew 5:39? I doubt it, not unless we are missing the gospel where Jesus calls on the disciples to rescue him from the Romans.

      • Thales permalink
        October 7, 2011 11:26 am


        Interesting points. It’s gives me more to think about.

        This discussion about killing spills into the use of violence and fighting against evil, generally — which is another difficult point. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but he also drove the moneychangers out of the temple. When should one choose to accept persecution, and when should one actively fight against persecution?

      • October 7, 2011 11:36 am

        Give the cite references for Augustine and Ambrose being against self defense at the personal level….their works not a third author’s works on them.

      • October 7, 2011 12:04 pm

        If Augustine and Ambrose really opposed self defense at all points of their career, it would be interesting as a failure of theirs to remember Exodus 22:

        [If a thief is caught* in the act of housebreaking and beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt involved.
        But if after sunrise he is thus beaten, there is bloodguilt.]

        When my thief broke in during the day, he had no weapon because house thieves ring your bell for five minutes and they enter if no one is home (weapons violations incur longer sentences in NJ than burglary).
        If he enters my house at night, it’s because now he is looking for a person not goods….and he is carrying.

      • October 7, 2011 12:37 pm

        Bill asked for citations. Here’s Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy: III.4.27. I do not think that a Christian, a just and a wise man, ought to save his own life by the death of another; just as when he meets with an armed robber he cannot return his blows, lest in defending his life he should stain his love toward his neighbor.

        Resembles Augustine’s Letter #48 (to Publicola): 5. As to killing others in order to defend one’s own life, I do not approve of this, unless one happen to be a solider or public functionary acting, not for himself, but in defense of others or of the city in which he resides, if he act according to the commission lawfully given him, and in the manner becoming his office.

        Neither suggests that any form of self-defense is unacceptable, but both say that it is unacceptable to take another’s life in defending oneself.

      • October 7, 2011 2:47 pm

        Excellent…thanks. Obviously I think they are being clergy ( no one depending on them intimately or financially by way of family) and are projecting that onto others and ignoring the implications of Exodus 22:1-2 which distinguishes just as I do between burglars and armed robbers… thieves and night robbers.
        “Do not resist the evil doer” says Christ but then He proceeds to give examples none of which are atrocious assault or rape or maiming. They are at the level of insults and the stealing does not go past a tunic. Raymond Brown, the scripture scholar, noted how the right cheek is mentioned in the turn the other cheek passage…..meaning the antagonist hits you with his weaker hand generally speaking….the left…..meaning it connotes some type of mideastern ritualistic level far removed from
        atrocious assault.

      • Thales permalink
        October 7, 2011 3:39 pm

        Well, let’s set aside the nuanced issue of defense of one’s self. My main point still remains because it looks like they’re saying that violence towards another based on defense of others is at times acceptable.

  9. Chas permalink
    October 7, 2011 11:24 am

    I think that the key to this is understanding what exactly the common good is, and how the individual is ordered to it. It has to do with the nature of civil society as such, but is undergirded by metaphysical considerations about the order to the good that is present throughout reality. I would recommend reading DeKoninck’s Primacy of the Common Good against the personalists and Yves Simon’s Philosophy of Democratic Government for the classical Thomist exposition, and would recommend John Finnis’ Public Good: the specifically political Common Good in Aquinas for a dissenting view, to which Lawrence Dewan responded in an article called St. Thomas John Finnis and the Political Good. Just a bit of light reading.

  10. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    October 7, 2011 12:28 pm

    As the discussion wanders into self-defense and “necessary” violence, I want to share a story that has troubled me (in a good way) for many years. A friend of mine, Chris, runs the local Catholic Worker house. He lives in the worst part of town: shootings, drug dealing and murder are a part of every day life on his street and for the people he ministers to. Some years ago, one of his acquaintances was a low level dealer who came by the house from time to time. Said dealer had been shorting his supplier: he was using too much and not selling enough to pay his bills. The supplier wanted to settle this with street justice: shoot the guy who wasn’t paying. Chris was working in the furniture pantry when the dealer, chased by his supplier comes running in. Chris’ immediate response was to interpose himself physically between the dealer and the man out to do him violence. He did not threaten (or even try to call the cops), he just got in the way to prevent the shooting. In return, he got pistol whipped; this provided enough time for the dealer to get away.

    This story troubles me for many reasons, but mostly because of the challenge it lays down. It puts to lie any sense that pacifism is the same as passivity: that by refusing to kill or use violence in the defense of others, we allow bad people to hurt the innocent. It also illustrates the depth of meaning in Jesus’ teaching about “who is my neighbor”? Chris did not save someone innocent: the guy was a drug dealer, who in his addiction would probably have ripped off Chris and his family if he had gotten the chance.

    • October 7, 2011 12:47 pm

      I agree that pacifism need not be the same as passivity. I don’t think this story shows that violence is never necessary to protect the innocent (not that you are necessarily saying that). In this particular case someone managed to assist another person without using violence: But then no one is claiming that violence is *always* necessary, only that it’s sometimes called for and licit.

      By the way, this Chris guy, what a hero! No better love than to lay down your life…

    • October 7, 2011 12:48 pm

      Except the story with a more committed gunman would still have resulted in the small dealer being killed….but Chris did an heroic thing no doubt….but not a thing that would work with a range of antagonists. Watch ” the first 48″ if that have it in your area. Half the city murders are drug related and delay…as in your case….would not stop too many of them.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
        October 8, 2011 8:04 am

        Bill, I don’t know if you meant it to be, but in reading your comment it seemed to me that you are trying to marginalize Chris’s response. You say that he is being “heroic,” implying that his behavior is supererogatory and so not something the rest of us should consider. And then by saying it is “not a thing that would work with a range of antagonists” you are suggesting the non-violent approach would only work in exceptional circumstances.

        I was not suggesting that this one action was going to put a dent in Hartford’s murder rate. But I have come to believe that Chris’ actions point to alternatives that we are too quick to ignore, given our belief in the tragic illusion that violence can solve our problems.

      • October 8, 2011 3:40 pm

        Long ago…3 of us in a VW bug late at night….I saw a guy ramming the head of another guy repeatedly on the sidewalk with 14″ drops of the head with a gang of about ten guys watching. I said, “Tim pull over….he’s gonna kill em”. Tim said, “You sure?”. “I’m sure”, I said. We got out….one went into the bar and called police and me and Tim got between the two and I talked to the aggressive one… ” You’re Irish….that’s means you’re Christian and you shouldn’t be killing this guy.”. He pulled back his right hand as if to punch me and I kept my hands at my side and kept preaching about God to him and he never threw the right. Then he started saying something none of us understood.
        ” Why are you picking on me?” he said to me and I never raised my hands.

        “You’re Catholic I said…You shouldn’t be killing ‘em.”. Police arrived…we separated…police left…victim left. Now the 3 of us had to reach our car with ten guys standing within 10 feet of it. As we reached it, the aggressive guy came out from the pack and yelled at me, ” You…you with the religion….you’re f#%+^# crazy…”. “Why’s that,” I said, “because I stand up for God?”. He and they were silent…..and they didn’t attack which in that part of Jersey City was totally rare. We drove off. Tim, a veteran of awful street fights where peace never happened, said said to me, “Bill, that was the f&#% craziest thing I ever saw….those numbers…we should have been killed”. I said to him, “And we would have shot into heaven like arrows for saving a stranger’s ass.”. The two of them burst into laughter….knowing I was getting more religion….and leaving the streets and their world slowly.
        But David….I was ready to counter that right if the guy threw it….but I did feel that God was palpably there and that I was strangely safe and that he wouldn’t throw it….which would have brought his crew into it. But later in life, I was in other less safe situations. God does not palpably arrive in
        every case. You come home and your wife is being attacked by a strong man….preaching is not going to do it….a gun is. If you hate guns, get a razel from the Graham brothers online, sharpen it like a razor and be willing to do the disgusting for your wife…taking out a windpipe or a carotid artery.
        Rarely necessary in most lives just on probability theory. But the men who failed in such moments….wish a part of them had thought out the extreme just in case.

    • October 7, 2011 1:25 pm

      Does this pistol whipped man not have the consolation of Christ even in the injury? Would he have experienced a lifetime of questioning or regret had he not stepped forward?

  11. Dan permalink
    October 7, 2011 1:46 pm

    If we are all immortal souls, and we believe that when we die we are united to Christ, awaiting the resurrection when we will be raised, then why is killing a big deal?

    Answer that question and you’ll get your answer on this one.

  12. October 7, 2011 1:55 pm

    If killing benefited the common good, the common good would have been perfected long ago. The truth is that defeating evil requires a counter-intuitive approach: martyrdom. Why? Because the problem of evil is a problem of truth. And only the cross can unmask the Father of Lies.

    • Thales permalink
      October 7, 2011 3:44 pm

      When violence, injustice, scorn etc. is directed at one’s self, then I think it’s obvious what the best response is, in the light of Christ: it’s to turn the other cheek, it’s to suffer persecution with a light heart, it’s to accept martyrdom. So I agree with your point wholeheartedly.

      But that doesn’t talk about the more difficult situation that I think needs to be wrestled with here. What about violence, injustice, scorn, etc. that is directed at someone else who is innocent?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
        October 8, 2011 8:08 am

        The problem with framing it this way is that it divides people up into two dichotomous and often ideal categories: the innocent and the guilty. In many cases, its hard to sort out who is who. In war, propagandists work hard to convince people that “we” are the innocent aggrieved party, and they are the “evil aggressors” but it is rarely so neat and clean.

  13. October 7, 2011 1:58 pm

    One of the greatest verses in the Gospel comes from the lips of a murderer:

    “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

  14. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    October 8, 2011 8:11 am

    There is an ethical conundrum much debated in recent years by philosophers that gets at the question of the inviolability of human life. Here, roughly, is how it goes:

    You are standing next to a train track switch when you see a runaway train approaching. If the train continues on its present course it will hit a large group of people on the tracks—say a school bus filled with children. You are not in a position to warn them or intervene in any way except to throw the switch at your feet. But if you throw the switch the train will go onto a track and kill a person walking along the other track. What is the ethical option?

  15. Rodak permalink
    October 8, 2011 10:56 am

    What I would probably actually do is throw the switch. Ideally, however, I think that one should do nothing and leave the outcome in the hands of Providence. It is not absolutely certain what will happen,on the one hand; and “you” did nothing to set the situation up, on the other.

  16. October 8, 2011 11:49 am

    The ‘temptation’ is to weigh the ‘worth’ of those on one side vs the other and calculate a response. Of course, since we are not God, we can’t know which side benefits the common good most, so we make assumptions about the future and proceed. (i.e. we presume the one doesn’t invent the cure for cancer and the many don’t turn out to be a gang of terrorists). I think its impossible for us to avoid the responsibility in making that decision and so the switchtrack operator must decide: left, right or remain paralized and do nothing. Even so, that forced decision doesn’t undo the truth that human life is inviolable.

    I believe that the evidence for the inviolability of human life is shown in the effect that any decision has upon the decisionmaker. The switchtrack operator must bear some consequence of burden and regret no matter which life is lost. In similar fashion the soldier always carries some sense of loss and regret for taking human life no matter how worthy his mission.

    Of course in starting with our ‘ethical conumdrum’ we begin our slide down the slippery slope, turning here and there along winding curves. First its the defense of innocence, then its the defense of our homeland, our interest, our economy, our comfort and so on. From there we eliminate our burdens, in abortion, in mercy killings in scorning our brother for being a burden, etc.

  17. October 8, 2011 3:18 pm

    Something I find troubling in this discussion is that we seem to be calling upon ‘a theology of just killing’ in order to rationalize a repugnant and seemingly unavoidable feature of human life; namely killing other human beings. It’s particularly sad when we begin to call on heinous events in Sacred Scripture to counter the overall message of the Gospel. We see this reflected in Israel’s own history, in the Old Testament scriptures, where God is portrayed as directing slaughters and such to show his presence and favor among his people. But is this how the Church reads and interprets such events? Aren’t we called to view the Scriptures in their entirety?

    Even though some sacred texts conflict with one another (because of the human element involved) they bring an overall coherent message which can be continually unpacked over time. The O/T must NOT be disparaged or consigned to a dusty shelf, but it must be interpreted under the influence of prayer and the Holy Spirit. We call this ‘reading sacred scripture with the mind of the church’.

    In the O/T we have to distinguish between what God does and what Israel claims that God is doing. Examples of God seen most directly include his command: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. When God confronts the first murderer Cain, he marks him and goes so far as to prohibit the taking of Cain’s life; and then delivers his punishment. In the test of Abram, it’s revealed that God never wanted Isaacs’s death as sacrifice. In the great flood where God judges mankind, no human is involved in taking lives.

    The references to God’s will as show through the actions of his chosen people need to be interpreted much more carefully. We don’t see God directly; we see the behavior of his people. Thus war and slaughter, slicing throats of false prophets, stoning people to purify the culture etc. are displays of fallen human nature seeking solace under the cover of God. The fact that the Hebrew people saw God as their deliverer through killing simply means that they were as human as we are; no more righteous or guilty in regard to taking human life than the rest of us.

    Most importantly, the fact that these narratives are contained in Sacred Scripture does not necessitate they are God’s approval of killing. They are what the Hebrew people believed was God’s assistance in the difficult course of history. Indeed, they are the chosen people of God, but they are never completely faithful. It’s ironic, but where we find institutionalized or deliberate killing (as opposed to the crime of passion), we find the cover of ideology or God. Wars, crusades, rebellion and terrorism, counterinsurgency, capital punishment, abortion, mercy killing, etc all appeal to the justice and compassion of God.

    The only ‘human on human killing’ I see being willed by God in the entire set of scriptures is that of Christ’s crucifixion. This involves God and HIS Son and all mankind. This one exception is predicated on the reality of Jesus being ‘true God and true man’. The executioners are not a few roman soldiers, it is ALL OF HUMANITY. He is OUR expiation, OUR atonement; and we are all priests who kill the Lamb. He is the one and the only human sacrifice allowed and the only human killing that satisfies God’s purpose. The Sacrifice is done. To the extent we humans kill more humans, we sacrifice others to ourselves: there is no atonement in that.

    • October 8, 2011 8:15 pm

      Unforetunately you have to reduce the canon then of inspired books…..or at least sentences and paragraphs. God gives numerous death penalties and orders certain wars in the First Person imperative. Read the Pentateuch. Two brand new Popes are not the Church when it would be impossible to find any Father of the Church or Doctor of the Church who would agree that the First Person imperatives in question are delusions of the Jews. If they are, Beneduct should remove them from the canon of inspired texts. Cardinal Avery Dulles….a very modern mind when he was here….stated that God gave death penalties in the Bible over 36 times. You say those texts are delusions.
      Let’s cite Jesus on whether you or Cardinal Dulles are correct….Christ in Mark 7 is going to include the death penalty for offenses against parents and refer to it twice as “the commandment of God” and “the word of God”:

      (And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!
      Mar 7:10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother'; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die';
      Mar 7:11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)–
      Mar 7:12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,
      Mar 7:13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”)

      That’s Christ including the death penalty…”let him surely die”….as the word of God that Jews are voiding. You are not getting to the core. When Christ dissuaded those who would stone the adultress they brought to Him in John, Christ was actually pronouncing an end to the death penalties He gave as a Person in the Trinity to the Jews only centuries before. Jews by order of God had to kill for mortal sins anyone of their community by order of the Trinity.
      Why? Because mankind prior to grace which Christ brought (Jn1:17) and prior to Christ weakening the devil (there are few possession cases now)…..mankind just to avoid adultery needed great threats from God. Just as the Egyptians…just to let the Jews leave Egypt…needed great threats and disasters from God which they got in the plagues.
      Once Christ comes and brings grace, He ends the death penalties for mortal sins which only applied to the Jews all along. The Jews and Gentiles together had one other death penalty together only….and that was for murder and is found in Genesis 9:6 and is re-echoed in envelope structure in Romans 13:4….the beginning if the Bible and the end. That deth penalty for murder was wholly separate from Jewish only death penalties for mortal sin.
      Read the 12 th chapter if Wisdom. If your theory is correct, the Church has a moral obligation to remove that entire chapter from the canon.

  18. October 8, 2011 4:59 pm

    I’d also remember that Life itself can be an idol. Saving LIVES is not the ultimate Christian value, saving SOULS is. The death of the body is not the ultimate moral conundrum, it’s actually a quite mundane occurence. Better to fear the one who can destroy both the body AND soul in hell.


  1. War and the Eclipse of Moral Reason | The American Catholic

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