The Theology of Violence: God’s Wrath Punishes Evil : Justice: The denial of human rights is a structural, collective offense against the divine and natural order; vindication is a divine and natural response.


The following is from “Freedom Made Flesh, the Mission of Christ and His Church,” by the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ, rector of the University of Central America, San Salvador, who was murdered last week.

We must unmask certain attitudes that are now widespread in the face of the global phenomenon of violence. We must make a distinction between the different forms that violence assumes, to enable us to talk about one kind of violence that is always evil and condemnable, and another kind of violence that on occasion may be absolutely necessary even though it undoubtedly entails evils. Given the circumstances, the latter kind of violence may be not only tolerable but even required.

In many forms of violence we can see not only a real symptom of an intolerable situation but also an authentic moral denunciation of a prophetic cast. I shall begin by citing one of the most “violent” psalms, Psalm 58:


Answer, you rulers: are your judgments just?

Do you decide impartially between man and man?

Never! Your hearts devise all kinds of wickedness

and survey the violence that you have done on earth. . . .

. . . O God, break the teeth in their mouths.

Break, O Lord, the jaws of the unbelievers.

May they melt, may they vanish like water,

may they wither like trodden grass,

like an abortive birth that melts away

or a stillborn child that never sees the sun!

All unawares, may they be rooted up like a thorn bush,

like weeds which a man angrily clears away!

The righteous shall rejoice that he has seen vengeance done

and shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked,

and men shall say,

“There is after all a reward for the righteous;

after all, there is a God that judges on earth.”

This is not an isolated strain or passage in the Old Testament. Such texts are abundant in the history of the Israelite nation.

A bland conception of Christianity and of man, which ultimately leads to tolerance of unjust oppressors, has made us incapable of understanding such strong texts and attitudes.

The “violent” tenor of this chastisement is surprising to us. The words could hardly be more harsh or cruel. The psalmist asks God to impose the full weight, not of his justice, but of his wrath. An all-powerful and enraged God must stand for the oppressed and inflict punishment on the unjust oppressor. The punishment is not left to God because the oppressed should not do the job; it is left to God because the oppressed cannot do the job, so God is asked to do it for them.

This psalm makes it very clear that there are two forms of violence. One is the violence of the unjust oppressor; it is the original, aggressive violence. The other is the violence performed on behalf of the oppressed, the violence with which God punishes the unjust oppressor on this earth, whether that oppressor be an individual, a group, or a whole nation. In other words, good violence possesses not only the element of moral denunciation but also the elements of chastisement, punishment, and the rehabilitation of an order that has been put out of kilter by the abuses of unjust people in power.

The point I want to stress is the duality of this violence. Both types of violence, the evil violence and the good violence, resemble each other in their force and their destruction. From a theological standpoint, however, this resemblance has no meaning or value. The thing that defines evil violence as the real violence is the fact that it is the violence wrought by the powerful on this earth who are acting unjustly. It is the injustice wrought against a whole group of people, against the defenseless and the oppressed.

The physical force employed in the process is an element of lesser importance; hence it is not the thing that characterizes violence as such.

If people say that the punishment of unjust men in power, of what we today would call the structures of sin, ought not be performed by human hands--at least not by the hands of people who are not lawfully constituted authorities, then they do not really understand what theology means by the punishment of sin. Viewed in theological terms, such punishment is not a sanction imposed by a judge in accordance with the dictates of some positive law. That would be a legal, external punishment. This can indeed be justified, but it does not tackle the problem in all its seriousness. From the theological standpoint, the punishment must be regarded as the natural outcome of an unjust action, as the natural fruit of sin. It is the response--initially natural and only derivatively personal--triggered by the unjust structure or the unjust action.

The abuse of power can take many different forms that are unjust and violent. Three forms deserve to be denounced as particularly grave: 1) legislation that tries to perpetuate an unjust situation in the political and socioeconomic order; 2) political torture in all its forms; 3) falsehood propagated deliberately to misguide the consciences and conscious awareness of the people. This would be covert, legalized violence, but it remains the worst violence of all. It is unjust violence, or, the violence of injustice.

So violence in the strict sense is the injustice that deprives man of his personal rights by force and prevents him from giving shape to his own personal life on the basis of his own personal judgment. The thing that differentiates real violence is not the method used but the injustice committed. This differentiating factor is highlighted most clearly in those structures that make a truly human life impossible. They constitute what is social injustice in the strict sense. When people become aware of their personal rights, social injustice gives rise to what is called revolutionary violence. This fact proves how closely and naturally violence is bound up with injustice.

The institutionalization of this social injustice is the highest magnification of violence. There we find the worst form of violence; there violence reveals its full theological and human maliciousness. If people truly want to repudiate violence, it is to this institutionalized social violence that they must turn their attention. They must not be led astray by sporadic violent reactions to it, for it is in institutionalized violence that the mystery of iniquity infects man most gravely and that collective sin takes on its most serious form.

1976 Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y.