Violence as a Form of Justice - Informing Understanding, Shaping Judgment, and Guiding Behavior - Reason and Experience

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Last week Pope Francis reversed the Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty.

From the Catholic News Agency:

Pope Francis ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

In the fall of 2017 I wrote "An Argument Against Violence as Justice." Below you will find portions of that paper, showing that while Papal proclamations and Christian protests outside of prisions and courts are on going, there is still much to do.


Without Christian opposition to violence at the hand of the state, the popularity of violence towards individuals by the state as a form of justice will grow. The case of Michael Ross provides an example of this. Local church leaders who were once advocates for abolishing violence as a form of justice were suddenly in favor of violence as a form of justice.[1] The death penalty seeks to remove threats to society, yet the offender is an internal threat, meaning the offender is a member of that which seeks to remove him. The offender, outside of cases of foreign nationals, is not an external threat. The offender is part of the society where they have enjoyed the benefits of society while at the same time a part of the society that has enabled or made it permissible, the offender to commit the offense that the state now sees as a threat or impermissible. While the state did not commit the offense, the state has allowed the conditions, in some cases, to become present that lead to offenses where the offender is then sentenced to death at the hand of the state.[2]

The death penalty is a primitive form of justice, even within the Judeo/Christian context. Violence once advocated and permitted by religious law is no longer compatible with the new covenant established by Jesus and the covenant the Church, and those individuals within the Church, covenant to live into together.

The majority of Americans (53 percent) agree that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to a minority offender versus a white offender.[3] If the implementation of justice cannot be done with equal proportionality by the state, the justice being sought through violence is no longer just. Further, if the purpose of violence as a form of justice is to right an imbalance created by the offender, the state cannot create another imbalance while seeking justice.


Because the application of violence as a form of justice in the United States is disproportionately directed at minorities, this is also an issue of justice as it relates to race. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 53 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is disproportionately directed at minorities, and 52 percent of Americans favor life imprisonment without the possibility of parole over the violence as a form of justice in the United States.[4] The experience of our shared lives together alone should compel the Church to consider violence as a form of justice incompatible with the teachings of Jesus.

Christians must be willing to experience pain and suffering rather than inflicting it.[5] Jesus did not promise His followers that they would not experience pain and suffering during this life. Nor did Jesus instruct His disciples to inflict pain and suffering on those who seek to or who have offended them. If this were the case, rather than being beaten and crucified, Christ would have led to a violent response to his own arrest. Jesus would have permitted Peter to draw his sword or to lead an army of heavenly angels in an armed revolt.

The larger human experience, in addition to the experience of the Church, gives advocates for the Church’s opposition to violence as a form of justice. Members of the Council of Europe are signatories of protocols that outline(d) situations where the use of violence as justice is (was) permissible by the state. The 6th Protocol, signed into agreement in 1983, called for an end to the use of the death penalty in 1950 with provisions for it use only “in times of war or imminent threat of war.”[6] This was later revised in 2002 by Protocol 13 where it was noted that Protocol Six did “not exclude the death penalty in respects to acts committed in time or war imminent threat of war.”[7]

The state is charged with, having the responsibility of ensuring and maintaining the life of its people.[8] Because of this responsibility the state cannot with good conscience use violence against its own citizens as a form of justice when the justice sought is done at the expense of the life the state is charged with maintaining.


[1] Bottum, pg. 21

[2] Barth, pg. 444

[3] Cooper, pg. 26

[4] Cooper, pg. 24

[5] Lösel pg. 185

[6] Protocol No. 6

[7] Protocol No. 13

[8] Barth, pg. 444

Want to learn more? Check out these resources.

Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2010). Church dogmatics (Vol. 4.3, 14 vols.). Hendrickson.

Communications, U. M. (2017, November 24). Social Principles: The Political Community. Retrieved from

Cooper, B., Cox, D., Lienesch, R., & Jones, R. P. (2015, November 11). Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from

Drehle, V. (2014, April 28). US Death Penalty Wrongful Convictions Executions. Retrieved from

Henderson, K. (1997). How Many Innocent Inmates Are Executed? An Illinois coalition moves to stop the death penalty in the wake of startling statistics. Human Rights, 24(4), 10-11. Retrieved from

Lösel, S. (2010). Fighting for Human Dignity: A Christian Vision for Punishment Reform. Political Theology, 11(2), 179-204. doi:10.1558/poth.v11i2.179

McCrudden, C. (2008). Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights. European Journal of International Law, 19(4), 655-724. doi:10.1093/ejil/chn043

Miller, M. K., & Bornstein, B. H. (2006). The Use of Religion in Death Penalty Sentencing Trials. Law and Human Behavior, 30(6), 675-684. doi:10.1007/s10979-006-9056-6

Paul, J., II. (n.d.). Evangelium Vitae. Changing Unjust Laws Justly, 289-316. doi:10.2307/j.ctt284tpq.14

Protocol No. 6 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty. (1983). Human Rights Quarterly, 5(3). doi:10.2307/762032

Protocol No. 13 : Article 1 - Abolition of the death penalty. (n.d.). European Convention on Human Rights : Commentary. doi:10.5040/9781472561725.0035

"Social Principles: The Political Community." United Methodist Communications, Accessed 24 November 2017. 

Walldrop, R. (2017, November 19). A Christian Perspective on the Death Penalty. Retrieved from

Whitman, J. Q. (2005). Harsh justice: Criminal punishment and the widening divide between America and Europe. Oxford University Press.