I entered the Catholic Church as a young adult on Easter 2002 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and ever since that day this verse has been a guiding phrase and a final mantra for every decision that I make.
Twenty-five years before I made that profession of faith to fully enter the Catholic Church, I was baptized as an infant in an Episcopalian community. My family did not attend Church often; a few Christmas services at the Episcopal Church and some months of attending Mormon services, but by the time I was a teenager I considered myself an atheist.
But more than anything, I was an American. I believed that the Constitution was the most important document in human history. My parents taught me to work hard and to always help others. Asking for help, however, was not virtuous. It was a sign that your ideas were flawed, so it was only acceptable to ask for help if you hit rock bottom. My parents worked very hard to put themselves through college so that they could get better paying jobs and it paid off. By the time I was in High School, we had moved out of poverty and into the middle class. Politics were part of our daily conversations, and everyone in my household served in the Army. My mother, my father, and my older sister all served, and in 1995 I joined the Infantry.
At that time, I did consider myself a born-again Christian after a spiritual experience with Jesus that came from an “atheistic” and pugnaciously intentioned reading of the Gospel. God revealed himself to me in a very real way, so when I joined the Army, I considered myself a “Bible Christian” and I was trying my best to follow Jesus and “serve the Lord ” as I was serving my country. In Basic Training I attended Protestant services, but one time I decided to see what a Catholic Mass was. I knew nothing about Catholics when I went to that first Mass, and I had no idea what to expect, but I was awestruck. I remember thinking, “this is the most biblical worship I have ever seen!” In addition to the adherence to Scripture, the reverence for the Eucharist was inspiring and the whole experience was evangelical. It was a practice in theology. “Here is the God who ransomed himself for your salvation.” When I found out that all Masses were like this and going on all over the world every day, I fell in love. Six years later I came into the Catholic Church.
It was that same time, right after the attack on the World Trade Centers in 2001, that I was going through the Special Forces Qualification Course and so I had plenty of time to ponder the compatibility of my faith with my profession. I wondered what “turn the other cheek” meant to someone who was sworn to defend the nation and uphold the motto of the Green Berets, “to free the oppressed.” How could I be a Weapons Sergeant in Special Forces and at the same time be committed to the non-violence that Jesus preached in the sermon on the mount?
Although I did have some struggles, these were resolved with relative ease. I had good mentors that included senior SF guys (who were men of faith), plus some chaplains and priests who were able to put things plainly. I came to see that non-violence did not include an absolute distancing from evil. While it is good to separate ourselves from evil at times, most of us need to “serve the Lord” in ways that have close proximity to evil and require us to choose between several decisions, all of which have aspects of immorality to them.
To resolve the ambiguity in the decision making process to “serve the Lord,” it is necessary to see good and evil for what they are and that starts with realizing how God fits into this picture. God is the creator of good, and God did not create evil, nor does God intend evil (see Genesis 1-3, and Wisdom 1). In the fullest sense of reality, evil does not exist because it does not have its own identity. Everything that we call evil is a privation of the good. God created everything good, and evil is only a corruption of the good.
It helps to go back to the beginning, before time and matter were created. Here, God the Father existed as Love, and love cannot exist for itself or by itself, so there is a subject to be loved. That subject, the beloved, is the Son, the second person of the Trinity. And the love that the Father has for the Son is returned to the Father by the Son, and this love is so intense that it proceeds as a third Person, the Holy Spirit. So love is essential to existence. It is by love that everything that has being has been created. This also means that what we call evil or death has no essential role in existence. Evil is a privation of the good, a privation of the love and the life that created us and brought each and every one of us into existence the very moment that our parents conceived us and gave us life. So when we say that “God is love,” it means that “God is not a stagnant monolith, but a dynamic, self-giving community of persons.”
God created all things that they might exist and have life, but death entered through sin. So as a Christian, as someone who wants to serve the LORD, I can never use death as a means. In addition, it is my duty to be a witness to the good, to be a witness to life, and to stop violence and death wherever it exists.
This is where the confusion comes in. How do I stop violence? I, myself, must be non-violent, but what if the violence is being inflicted on someone else? Then, it is my duty to stop that violence.
This means that sometimes I will be getting my hands dirty and potentially cooperating with violence and killing in order to stop violence.
For example, if I see someone being attacked, I must stop the unjust aggressor. In doing so, I will be using force and more than likely inflicting harm on the attacker. This is the situation that military and police find themselves in every day. They are faced with an unjust aggressor, and the only way to stop the violence is to use force. The intent of this use of force cannot be to kill, the intent of the force is to stop the violence. If the unintended consequence is that the attacker is killed, even if this is fully foreseeable and expected, it is morally permissible. There is some cooperation with evil, but the alternative is not acceptable and is, in fact, a greater cooperation with evil.
Put plainly, Christians cannot stand by and watch injustice and violence. We must do everything we can to stop violence and prevent death.
I am happy to say that in my time in the military, which was mostly in Special Forces and included combat rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, I never used force or violence as the object, means, or the intent. It was always used as the only way to stop someone from committing harm to others. There were several times when I was shot at and we pursued our aggressors without firing a shot. In fact, the first time I was shot at it was by a young man (who called himself “Saddam the Black”) who fired a rocket at my vehicle and ran. My teammate and I chased the Saddam down and arrested him. We did not need to shoot him because after he fired the rocket, he had no other means to harm us. We detained him and allowed the legal process to run its course.
Christians have always maintained a morality that excluded the use of violence. The Sermon on the Mount tells us to turn the other cheek, and the Early Church Fathers tell us how this applies to our life in society. I am reminded of Saul who took part in killing the first Martyr, the Deacon St Stephen. Saul converted to Christianity and became “Paul” and was one of the first Bishops of Rome. So in this example, the Christian answer to “what do we do with someone who kills?” …make them a Bishop. That would be the goal. Christianity is full of wayward souls who converted and became powerful witnesses to the grace of God.
Christians have long proclaimed the goodness of life. There has been a consistent life ethic preached throughout the ages. In one of the earliest accounts, Athenagoras of Athens stated…
For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?
The use of death is never acceptable for a Christian. When death is the unintended side effect of a moral act, that is permissible, but violence should never be used as the means.
It is reasonable to think that the use of the death penalty would work to protect society. If the only way to prevent violence was to have the penalty of death looming as a deterrent, then the death penalty would be admissible. If there was a situation where society could not restrain the violent offender and protect society, then the death penalty would be admissible. Christians in positions of leadership and with power would be obliged to use this penalty in order to keep society safe. This is why the death penalty has been permitted. Many theologians have stated that the penalty of death is permissible if it is protecting the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor. But it is also important to note that many theologians, like Athenagoras, were always in clear opposition to the Death Penalty. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis recounts some of these leaders…
Lactantius, for example, held that “there ought to be no exception at all; that it is always unlawful to put a man to death”. Pope Nicholas I urged that efforts be made “to free from the punishment of death not only each of the innocent, but all the guilty as well”. During the trial of the murderers of two priests, Saint Augustine asked the judge not to take the life of the assassins with this argument: “We do not object to your depriving these wicked men of the freedom to commit further crimes. Our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part. And, at the same time, by the coercive measures provided by the law, they are turned from their irrational fury to the calmness of men of sound mind, and from their evil deeds to some useful employment. This too is considered a condemnation, but who does not see that, when savage violence is restrained and remedies meant to produce repentance are provided, it should be considered a benefit rather than a mere punitive measure… Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted on their souls.”
So the death penalty is admissible if it is the only way to keep society safe, but that is not the reality today. The truth is that we can keep society safe by placing violent offenders in detention centers. We do not need to kill them in order to prevent violence. Indeed, killing those who are convicted of murder only adds violence. When we do this, we say that the state or that people in power have the right to kill, and by saying this we foster the culture of death. This shapes the psych of children during socialization. We tell children that they can’t kill, or they will be killed. That makes no sense. The only logical explanation is that killing is reserved for people who have control. That still makes no sense, but it does foster violence. In addition, the death penalty has been used by governments to suppress political dissent and prosecute religious and cultural minorities. In the United States, the racist history of the death penalty is well documented.
Abolishing the death penalty is an important goal of mine because in doing this work we proclaim the goodness of God. We proclaim that God loves each and every one of us and that we are more than the sum of our choices, even when that choice is to commit violence to others. The central message in all of Scripture is “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” So when I consider the Gospel, and then look at historical evidence and weigh them against my life experiences, I am faced with the choice of life or death, and that is an easy choice to make. Moses was faced with the same choice, and we read about it in Scripture. This verse summarizes everything I have written…
See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it…I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and cures; therefore choose life…
So for me the choice is easy. Do I choose to support the death penalty, or excuse it as something we need to have in society? Or do I serve the LORD of life and good? And I always go back to Joshua whenever I make my decisions, so… “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
All Scriptural References from The Didache Bible: With Commentaries Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Downers Grove, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2014
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q32 a1 ad3 https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1032.htm
 Athenagoras “A Plea for the Christians around 180 AD https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0205.htm
 Fratelli Tutti §265
 John 3:16-17
 Deuteronomy 30:15-16; 19
 Joshua 24:15