A Christian Response to Violence, Part 1:

About this article

This article with accompanying discussion questions, adapted from Living Justice and Peace, examines what it means to follow Jesus' command to love our enemies. The spiral of violence, grace, and restorative versus retributive justice are discussed, and the courageous example of one woman who sought God's help to love her enemy is offered.
In the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, many people are calling for military retaliation against whatever group or country is ultimately found to be responsible. The desire to strike back at those who hurt us is understandable, but Christians are called to pause and consider: What would Jesus do?

"Love Your Enemies"

If we look at the Gospels, we see that Jesus challenged injustice throughout his ministry. But he also encouraged peacemaking:
  • "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).
  • Forgive one who sins against you "not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:22).
  • When one of his disciples attempts to prevent Jesus' arrest by attacking with a sword, Jesus admonishes him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52).
Perhaps one of Jesus' most challenging teachings, however, is the commandment to love our enemies. You are probably familiar with the following passage:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? . . . And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-48)
Here is another way of stating Jesus’ message: In the world created by humans, it is ordinary to love our friends and family while shunning or hurting our enemies. But the world Jesus envisions--the Kingdom of God--is different. Everyone is invited into the Kingdom, even people we might despise. God gives good things (like sun and rain) to everyone, regardless of whether they are just or unjust. So we should do no less than what God does: we should respond with love even to those who promote injustice.

Is Jesus suggesting that we must accept and even encourage injustice, or be "nice" to those who harm others? The Gospels provide a clear answer: we need not choose between justice and love; rather, like Jesus, we can be committed to both. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ commitment to the truth of God’s love for all people leads him to consistently and boldly challenge injustice whenever he encounters it.

Challenging injustice is not inconsistent with loving those who are responsible for that injustice. "Love" is not always the same as "being nice." For example, taking the car keys away from a drunk friend would be a better way of loving her than avoiding a confrontation by letting her drive drunk, because, ultimately, taking away the keys could save her life.

Similarly, challenging the unjust actions of an enemy calls him to respect his own life and dignity. When an enemy is challenged in love, the ultimate goal is not to defeat him or have power over him. Rather, the goal of action based in love is to restore the enemy’s relationships--with his own dignity, with other people, and with God.

Restoration, Not Retaliation

Remember when you were a small child and someone hit you? Probably, your first impulse was to strike back. The same feelings rise to the surface when we witness horrible acts of violence against others. In our anger and sorrow over the great death and destruction caused by the hijackers, our first reaction may be to "hit back"; we want to make others hurt as much as we have been hurt.

Justice that focuses on hurting those who have hurt us is called retributive or retaliatory justice. "An eye for an eye" is the slogan of retributive justice. We don’t need to be ashamed of the violent feelings that make retributive justice a tempting response to violence. Such a reaction is understandable.

There are two big problems with retributive justice, however. First, it harms everyone involved, including those seeking justice. God’s way is the way of love, and when we follow the way of love, God lives in us and we become more the person God calls us to be. But when we act out of the desire to make others suffer, we become less human ourselves.

Second, retributive justice creates a spiral of violence because those hurt by our retaliation feel justified in retaliating against us. According to the logic of retaliation, the person who commits violence first loses the right not to be harmed. Unfortunately, living by this rule makes it almost inevitable that violence will spiral out of control--as Gandhi once observed, the "eye for an eye" approach to justice soon leaves everyone blind.

Jesus’ way of responding to injustice is called restorative justice because it seeks to restore the relationships that have been harmed by injustice. Restorative justice focuses on healing rather than causing more harm. It seeks healing and wholeness for both the victim and the one who has caused the harm.

An Approach Rooted in Hope and Nurtured by Grace

Responding to the recent terrorist attacks with restorative justce might seem impossible. How can healing and wholeness come out of so much harm? How can we be expected to seek healing for those who caused so much harm?

An honest response is that it isn’t easy, either emotionally or practically. But Christian faith gives us hope that, with time, real healing justice is possible, and confidence that we can follow Jesus’ way with the help of grace. The Christian approach to justice is grounded in the belief that, as Jesus announced, "the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17:21)--God’s love has already overcome injustice through Jesus. God’s love, not violence, is the source of all power.

The cross is the ultimate sign of this hope and confidence. Jesus refused to follow the logic of retaliation. Because he was totally committed to following God’s will, he chose to act only in truth and love--even if that meant giving up his life. He responded to those who crucified him not with more violence, but with forgiveness (Luke 23:34). By refusing to retaliate, he broke the spiral of violence. And by following God’s way of love even in the face of death, he liberated humanity from sin, the root cause of all violence.

Jesus calls us to "take up [your] cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). In the wake of the terrorist actions, the "cross" Christians are called to take up is the difficult task of figuring out how to challenge our enemies with love rather than hate.

Responding to Violence with Love: A Real-Life Example

Here’s a real-life example of someone who managed to respond to violence with genuine love for her enemy.

Marietta Jaeger’s seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped during a family camping trip in Montana. The abductor cut open the family’s tent and took her while everyone was asleep, kept her a week, and then killed her:
It was when they were dragging the river searching for the body of her daughter that Marietta Jaeger lost her self-control. "That night," she says, "I wanted to kill [the abductor] with my own hands. I wanted him to swing."

But about three weeks after the abduction, Marietta began "a wrestling match with God" about notions of acceptance and forgiveness. In a moment she still remembers, she "gave God permission to change my heart."

"It was hard," she says. "Anyone who says forgiveness is for wimps hasn’t tried it." She began trying to picture the kidnapper as a child of God, "someone as precious in God’s sight as my little girl. I tried to speak about him with respect. I began to pray for him, and I asked God to let one good thing happen to him each day."

One year to the day after the abduction, the man called Marietta to taunt her. "I’m in charge here," he said, "and you’re not." But, in fact, Marietta was in charge, because she was able to respond with love. "It’s hard to explain," she says, "but I was filled with genuine concern and compassion for him." As the two talked for the next hour, he spoke about his loneliness; at one point, he broke down weeping.

Marietta taped the conversation, and shortly after that, the man was arrested. Although police found the bodies of four missing women and children in his home, he maintained his innocence. Marietta visited him in prison, urging him to free himself from his burdens by telling the truth. Then she approached the state prosecutors and told them she would vigorously oppose the death penalty for the man, whether he confessed or not.

When the man learned of her position, he broke down and confessed in detail to the four murders. Four hours later, he hanged himself.

Marietta has actively campaigned against the death penalty. "In God’s eyes, the man who killed our daughter was just as precious as Susie," she says. "To kill someone in her name is to violate her. I honor her life and memorialize her far better by insisting that all life is sacred and worthy of preservation." (Adapted from Robert McClory, "How I Came to Forgive the Unforgivable," U.S. Catholic, August 1998)

Marietta offers a great example of what it means to respond to violence in love. First, she recognized that she couldn’t do it herself; she needed God’s help. With time and God’s help, she was able to recognize her enemy as someone who was loved by God.

Notice that "loving her enemy" did not mean accepting what he had done or letting him avoid responsibility for what he had done. Indeed, it was her attitude of love toward him that enabled her to challenge him to own up to the truth of what he had done. But her response to the horrible violence committed against her daughter and family focused on making things better for everyone involved, not causing more harm.

Discussion Questions
  • What kinds of feelings did you have toward the terrorists after the attacks? What kinds of feelings do you have toward them now?
  • Suppose Marietta Jaeger had responded to the violence against her family in a spirit of vengeance. How might things have turned out differently for her? For the attacker?
  • What was the key to Marietta Jaeger’s ability to respond to her "enemy" in a spirit of love? Do you think it is possible for everyone to respond in the same way?
  • In what ways is the spiral of violence at work in the terrorist attacks?
  • In the wake of the terrorist attacks, what relationships need to be restored? Can you imagine practical, realistic ways that those relationships might be restored?
  • What might it mean for us to respond to the terrorist attacks in a spirit of love? What kinds of attitudes do we need to have as we seek justice? What needs to happen for those responsible for planning the attacks?
  • Is there any way a military response to the terrorist attacks could possibly be consistent with Jesus’ call to love our enemies?
McClory, Robert. "How I Came to Forgive the Unforgivable," in U.S. Catholic, August 1998. Reprinted with permission of U.S. Catholic magazine, Claretian Publications, www.uscatholic.org, 800-328-6515.


(This article is adapted from Living Justice and Peace, Second Edition: Catholic Social Teaching in Practice by Jerry Windley-Daoust, et al., published by Saint Mary's Press. Copyright © 2008 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be used for classroom or campus ministry purposes. This article may not be republished in any form without written permission from Saint Mary's Press. To order this books, contact Saint Mary's Press at 800-533-8095, or visit our online catalog at www.smp.org/catalog.cfm.)

Published September 11, 2001.