Anyone who knows anything about the Judeo-Christian tradition (an increasingly small group, I know) is aware that the Hebrew law “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was intended to limit the bloodthirsty drive for vengeance. As Saint Augustine observed, “For who will of his own accord be satisfied with a vengeance equal to the injury? Do we not see men, only slightly hurt, eager for slaughter, thirsting for blood, as if they could never make their enemy suffer enough?” Augustine explained that the precept against excess vengeance instituted a principle of compensation, which “instead of being a brand to kindle a fire that was quenched, was rather a covering to prevent the fire already kindled from spreading.”
Of course, Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek” properly serves as an admonition to set aside compensation as well as excessive vengeance, and instead practice forgiveness. As Augustine again noted, Christ presented to us the opportunity to forego compensation and so take ourselves “further from the sin of an unjust vengeance.” Such virtue, beyond mere justice, is the practice of love and pleasing to God.
Christ’s call to forgiveness has played an important role shaping Christianity’s civilizing influence on man and society. The Golden Rule. Increasing recognition of the intrinsic dignity of the person. Increasing discomfort with lustful engagement in violence (something on which Augustine wrote a great deal). All these combined with Christ’s Word to encourage amelioration of the severity of retribution and punishment. One might even claim that Christianity truly civilized mankind, taming our savage nature through the ministrations of God’s love.
Sadly, such claims bespeak more the pride of the speaker than the reality of human nature. It is true that spectacles of public torture and various cruel practices, especially within our penal system, have been lessened or abolished in cultures under the sway of Christianity. But human cruelty remains with us, and is making a very vengeful comeback.
As with so much else, those who wish to consign religion and faith to the dustbin of historical ignorance insist on highlighting sins of cruelty associated with Christians, and especially with Christians in positions of authority. There is much to criticize. But it would be wrong to dismiss the very real improvements in accepted behavior accomplished under Christendom. The elimination of torture as a standard technique of interrogation took centuries, but until quite recently was established as a public norm. Torturous forms of execution, carried out for public amusement and intimidation also all but died out. And warfare itself for many decades had been rendered less “total,” bringing recognition of noncombatants as deserving of protection. Still, the depredations of war, the reality of personal cruelty, and the possibility of mass murder remained ever present, and broke out all too often.
Napoleon brought back total war in the name of “the people” and in service to arrogant ideology. But it was the totalitarian heresy of the twentieth century—irrational faith in the human capacity to transform reality through will and violence—that broke the back of Christian restraint in public life. That said, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and the whole long line of murderous tyrants who sought to displace God were not the only purveyors of cruelty. Some in the name of the Church, others in the name only of themselves, joined in the global orgy of violence.
And then there were the Progressives. The death cult of totalitarian ideology shared with supposedly more civilized “progressive” would-be saviors a willingness to treat people as objects to be made use of in the name of a far-off paradise. Hitler was not, after all, the originator of “scientific” de-valuing of supposedly defective human beings. The dream of biological perfection brought forced sterilization under Progressive regimes, continued with totalitarian death camps, and remains with us today as children with various disabilities are thrown into the furnace in the name of a utilitarian calculus regarding what makes a life worth living—and what makes a person worth caring for, and even being allowed to live.
The Culture of Death has been with us for quite some time. It has been fostered by the belief that a “procedure” to end life so that others may avoid pain and trouble is not cruel. Indeed, it rests in large part on that Will to Ignorance that sets aside uncomfortable truths and holds that violence done in a sterile, professional atmosphere is neither cruel nor violent. A spanking is by nature evil, we are told, but even the sale of body parts may be accepted, provided we redefine the person as merely a “clump of cells” or at least “beyond pain.”
Those with eyes to see know that such practices dehumanize the doers and cause violence to the bodies and souls of mothers as well as unborn children. Unfortunately, the desire to justify this form of killing leads us to deny its impact on everyone involved. Our society seems intent on rendering killing antiseptic in the mistaken belief that it then will cease to trouble us. The obvious parallel concerns war itself. Augustine was aware of the dangers, here. The true sin of war, he argued, was not in the killing, but in the lust for blood it so often entailed—a lust even the most virtuous of soldiers must fight to keep at bay. Whether suffering from PTSD or not, few come home from combat unaffected by the experience in a manner deserving of respect and concern. Yet, too often we treat warfare as if it were just another job, as a kind of civil service position that should be open to all and involve the mere following of established protocols, with no fuss. As in the abortion clinic, so on the field of battle, we must simply follow procedure, trust that the professionals know what they are doing, and check our conscience at the door.
How can we cling to this vision as we face an enemy that posts videos of children executing prisoners? Of people being beheaded or burned alive in the name of religion? The savages of ISIS do not engage in such brutality, or encourage others to slaughter civilians, because they are merely “passionate,” or because this is what religion does to one’s character. These people have chosen evil. Whatever their claims regarding their god and his commands, they have chosen to revel in inflicting pain and destruction on others as a kind of act of sacrifice and worship, as did the most barbaric of the pagans.
This is no screed against Islam itself. Nor is it yet another empty call for people to be “nicer” because all gods must love niceness. It is one thing to turn the other cheek on behalf of oneself, quite another to do so on behalf of the people one is sworn to protect. My point is the simple but too often overlooked one that civilization is far more fragile than we would like to believe. As we dispense with religious institutions, beliefs, and practices—as we dispense with God himself in the ridiculous belief that we are enough on our own—we leave ourselves open to barbarism within and a more overt barbarism from without. For far too long we have been living off the bank and capital of the Christian ages even as we deny the value of the currency we spend. God insists on being loved for himself. But even a belated recognition that such love is necessary for the possibility of any kind of decent life here on earth might help us recognize the necessity of order in the soul and, from there, the source of such order in God. Only by recognizing God’s will and his love can we recognize the dignity of ourselves and our fellow men. And only then will it be possible, however unlikely, that we will behave as, and become, decent human beings.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared January 28, 2017 on Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. The image above painted by Raphael depicts Emperor Constantine’s “Vision of the Cross” before the Battle of Milvian Bridge.