Without justice, governments are just bands of criminals on a large scale

“Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.

If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of “kingdom,” which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

For it was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, “What is your idea, in infesting the sea?” And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, “The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.” Augustine from City of God

An often discussed problem among political philosophers is the “problem of dirty hands.” This problem can be summed up in the following question, “Is a government official ever justified in committing an immoral act for the greater good of the country that official serves?” Our initial intuition may be that no one is ever justified in committing an immoral act. But, with a little context that initial intuition may be put into doubt. For instance, what if our whole country were at stake? Would we look the other way if one of our leaders committed an immoral act to save our country?

As the religious leaders were debating whether or not they should have Jesus put to death the chief priest, Caiaphas, stood up and said, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:49-50 NRSV). No doubt, Caiaphas believed and probably taught others that murder is always wrong. Yet, in this case, he was willing to engage in murder, or at least look the other way, for the greater good of the nation.

Jesus Christ was put death, in part, because some believed it was for the greater good of the nation. I won’t go to the trouble of detailing the irony in that situation. But, I do think it should give Christians pause. It is no easy thing to navigate the rough waters of fulfilling our duty as Christians in conjunction with our duty as citizens. And, it’s easy to moralize over these difficulties, assuming that doing the right thing is always easy. Doing the right thing was not easy for our Lord and it may not be so easy for us. Nonetheless, one thing is certainly clear. If we are going to bear the name of Christ, our first allegiance is to him and that means following him in the Way he prepared for us.

We can’t always control what our leaders do. As citizens, we have our vote and we have our voice. That may not seem like much, but it was more than Augustine had in his day. “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” Indeed. Augustine was an observer of the government under which he lived. Unlike him, we are participants in the government under which we live. And if we are participants, then we are responsible. May God grant us the grace, wisdom, and discernment we need to participate in such way that ensures our government is just. And, if it is not just, may we not look the other way.



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