The sin of vigilantism

"Vigilantism is wrong, dangerous, and sinful. It is wrong because it operates outside of the law. It is dangerous because it often leads to violence. It is sinful because at its core it is contrary to how God designed government to work." - Jesse Johnson

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T Howard's picture

Jesse's article really does an injustice to what the OT law says about the "avenger of blood." The avenger of blood was a form of vigilantism condoned by Scripture.

josh p's picture

T Howard I was thinking the same thing. The Avenger of Blood was a really interesting method of justice.

Nord Zootman's picture

The difference lies in that the avenger of blood was part of that legal system.  It is not a form of vigilantism because it did not go outside the law.

Andrew K's picture

Nord Zootman wrote:

The difference lies in that the avenger of blood was part of that legal system.  It is not a form of vigilantism because it did not go outside the law.

Yes, but the article is making the claim that vigilantism is a sin. Full stop. Not that it is a sin merely because it is illegal, but because "at its core it is contrary to how God designed government to work." 

Going 60mph in a 55 might be illegal, but it is not inherently "a sin" purely because "that's how God designed roads to work." 

Nord Zootman's picture

The avenger of blood is NOT a vigilante. One has to take law into their own hands to be a vigilante and the avenger of blood was not doing that.

Andrew K's picture

Nord Zootman wrote:

The avenger of blood is NOT a vigilante. One has to take law into their own hands to be a vigilante and the avenger of blood was not doing that.

"Take the law into your own hands: to do something illegal and often violent in order to punish someone because you know the law will not punish that person:"

So vigilantism is wrong because it is illegal, in other words.

That reduces the argument of the article to a tautology: i.e., "It's not just wrong [sin] because it's illegal; it's sin because it's taking the law into one's own hands [illegal]."

But we already knew that something is sin if it is illegal. Because it's disobeying the government. 

Again, that doesn't speak to anything inherent to vigilantism. In this case, all the author's verbiage would boil down to "vigilantism is wrong because it's illegal." 

Not saying this is an easy area, but I think it definitely requires a more careful and nuanced treatment than given here.

Nord Zootman's picture

No, you are not focusing on the definition of vigilantism. I might add that in this instance there was no avenging going on. I think it is a serious mistake to say that the avenger of blood was a vigilante.

Bert Perry's picture

I know the OT mentions the existence and operation of the "avenger of blood" a few times.  Does it ever really flesh out how he was chosen, and under what conditions he operated?  We have a slight parallel, perhaps, in those who are "bounty hunters" in the U.S.; people who, for a portion of the posted bond, track people down who skip trial.  Noteworthy; their operation is seriously bounded by law today.

We might start by guessing that since it is an "avenger of blood", that he would only operate in cases that had serious spilled blood or a capital crime (e.g. rape) involved.  We also know he had to respect the gates of the sanctuary cities, and the decision of a council in that city that determined guilt or innocence.  What else do we really know from Scripture, for for that matter, contemporaneous sources?  

(could we even find contemporary Jewish sources of that day, given the destruction that repeatedly wrought havoc in Israel?  Keep in mind as well that the pagan nations may have had somewhat different regulations on their "avengers of blood"--given modern Middle Eastern culture, I'd be surprised if the ancient Edomites and such didn't have them!)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

Going out on a bit of a limb, I'm guessing that our ancient avengers of blood would have either worked for pay--making them work only on the biggest cases, or those of the most well connected people--and the assumption might have been made "if they're willing to leave their home over this case, that is their punishment."  Keep in mind that leaving your home also meant leaving your land and your relatives, so this is really a fairly serious consequence for misdeeds.  You couldn't just give them a call or send them an email.

Food for thought, no?  I'm just a bit uneasy at the notion of coming down hard on either side of the question of whether the "avenger of blood" was a vigilante, or whether he would have been almost akin to the Texas Rangers.  I'm open to being persuaded, but I just don't know how much we know, or really even how much we can reasonably infer.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Mark_Smith's picture

Who knew you couldn't get in a truck and chase down with a .357 and a shot gun someone that you think might have been robbing your neighbors? Then, you confront him in the street and blow him away...

I had no idea.

Please spare me any justification for this. It has nothing to do with "avenger of blood." This is pure good ole boy idiocy.

T Howard's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:
Please spare me any justification for this. It has nothing to do with "avenger of blood." This is pure good ole boy idiocy.

Mark, my initial comment was not to justify what happened in Georgia but to critique the article's poor handling of what Scripture says about the "avenger of blood."

The avenger of blood was a near relative who would seek vengeance on behalf of the victim. He wasn't an officer of the court because Scripture speaks of him pursuing the accused and overtaking him in hot anger (Deut 19:6). The "avenger of blood" concept is similar to other ANE cultures; however, the inclusion of the cities of refuge where the accused could seek sanctuary is unique to Israel.

These cities served as both a sanctuary as well as a form of "house arrest." If the avenger of blood caught the accused, guilty or not of premeditated murder, outside of the city prior to the death of the high priest, he could still avenge the death of his relative.

So, in one sense, the avenger of blood did operate outside of the official judicial system of early Israel and executed personal vengeance on the accused. In another sense, the avenger of blood operated within the guidelines established by the mosiac law.

josh p's picture

Yes no one is justifying revenge hits. It is important though not to make blanket statements against practices that God Himself ordained as part of the judicial system of OT Israel. The avenger of blood is a really interesting practice as are the (basically) sanctuary cities which prevented reprisals for manslaughter.

Mark_Smith's picture

If you want to talk about avenger of blood, please do so.

Keep in mind, during the week when we found out two fools hunted down a black man jogging down a street in the name of "justice" is not the time to do it.

Andrew K's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

If you want to talk about avenger of blood, please do so.

Keep in mind, during the week when we found out two fools hunted down a black man jogging down a street in the name of "justice" is not the time to do it.

I was only marginally aware of this event prior to reading the article. It was just one awful item among many on my news feed.

Someone associated with my organization just died in plane crash in Papua yesterday. You probably didn't know, or it left little impact if you did.

Keep in mind, not all SI readers orient themselves with constant reference to America's obsessive, race-baiting media cycle.

 

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Andrew K wrote:

Keep in mind, not all SI readers orient themselves with constant reference to America's obsessive, race-baiting media cycle.

Yeah.  Not even all Americans orient themselves with reference to race-baiting stories in the media.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

If you want to talk about avenger of blood, please do so.

Keep in mind, during the week when we found out two fools hunted down a black man jogging down a street in the name of "justice" is not the time to do it.

Mark, glad to see your passion on this one, and I'd agree that something beyond idiocy and ignorance of the law by some good 'ole boys is likely in play.  I had the privilege of running with a young black man out of Flint in college, and I vividly remember that his response to aggressive dogs was very different than mine--as if he'd learned the hard way that some people trained them to respond a certain way to young black men.  I'd confront the dog, but he'd be a quarter mile down the road before you could say "boo."  

But that noted, perhaps it is a good time to discuss things like this for the simple reason that people are interested in cases like this.  Perhaps, if indeed Scripture bound the behavior of the "avenger of blood" fairly strictly (I'd assume he'd be liable, too, for wrongful killings in addition to needing to respect courts, city walls, the law of Moses, and the like), and the avenger of blood was not a vigilante policing all crimes including burglary, that we might be able to reduce the chances of this happening again.

Definitely use wisdom in the context and all that, but having had a profitable discussion with a BLM activist a few years back, I think it's possible.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Mark_Smith's picture

The media does a lot of that. I don't consider 2 guys, one of whom was a former police officer who worked for the DA for 30 years, and recently retired, who took it upon himself to go "citizen arrest" a black man in Georgia, and surprise, the guy resisted, so he and his son shot him. Then, the police "investigated" and found nothing wrong, along with two DAs passing the buck... "race-baiting." It is a flair up of good ole boy southern bull hockey that needs to be eradicated from America.

Mark_Smith's picture

The OT law allows a family member of a person murdered to get to be the one who kills a murderer who had fled to a city of refuge. If the murderer flees there, and the city the murdered is from calls for the murderer to be returned, then the murdered family may have an avenger in blood to kill the murderer.

Note the city the crime happened in calls to get the murderer back. That is a justice system.

Then, and only then, can the family member kill the murderer.

The avenger of blood is merely the executioner for a legal justice system. This is not vigilanteism.

NONE OF THIS has anything to do with the case at hand that the lead article is about.

Andrew K's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

The OT law allows a family member of a person murdered to get to be the one who kills a murderer who had fled to a city of refuge. If the murderer flees there, and the city the murdered is from calls for the murderer to be returned, then the murdered family may have an avenger in blood to kill the murderer.

Note the city the crime happened in calls to get the murderer back. That is a justice system.

Then, and only then, can the family member kill the murderer.

The avenger of blood is merely the executioner for a legal justice system. This is not vigilanteism.

NONE OF THIS has anything to do with the case at hand that the lead article is about.

Mark, in case you missed it, the article isn't about the "case at hand." If it were, does a terrible job presenting information about it, merely providing three brief paragraphs at the outset.

Instead, using the incident as a springboard, the article propounds a discussion on a certain category of Biblical ethics.

Some of us who responded here, while agreeing that the case is an instance of wicked human behavior, noted that the article itself could do a better job in presenting a full-orbed discussion of what the Bible has to say on the topic of justice as practiced in the OT, commenting on an interesting omission.

That is all.

T Howard's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

The OT law allows a family member of a person murdered to get to be the one who kills a murderer who had fled to a city of refuge. If the murderer flees there, and the city the murdered is from calls for the murderer to be returned, then the murdered family may have an avenger in blood to kill the murderer.

Note the city the crime happened in calls to get the murderer back. That is a justice system.

Then, and only then, can the family member kill the murderer.

The avenger of blood is merely the executioner for a legal justice system. This is not vigilanteism.

Actually, Mark, according to Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19, the avenger of blood can exact revenge on the accused whether or not the congregation rules that his act was premeditated. The accused can be killed by the avenger of blood before he stands before the congregation for judgment if the accused is found outside a city of refuge. Once inside a city of refuge, if the congregation determines [this is the legal judgment] that the act was premeditated, they will turn the accused over to the avenger of blood. But, if the congregation determines that the act was not premeditated, the "manslayer" must still reside in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. If he leaves for any reason, the avenger of blood can still kill him.

So, while the early Israelite justice system could get involved (i.e. standing before the congregation for judgment), the avenger of blood operated outside of due process and the judgment of the congregation in that he could exact revenge for the death of his near relative anytime the accused was found outside of a city of refuge before the death of the high priest.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

T Howard wrote:

So, while the early Israelite justice system could get involved (i.e. standing before the congregation for judgment), the avenger of blood operated outside of due process and the judgment of the congregation in that he could exact revenge for the death of his near relative anytime the accused was found outside of a city of refuge before the death of the high priest.

Given that scripture does (to a small extent) cover the actions of the "avenger of blood," can we really say that this is "outside of due process," or is it just a part of the system that we don't have enough information to understand?  From what we know of what scripture says elsewhere about the value of life and our approach to taking it, whether justly or unjustly, I'd have to conclude, given the lack of condemnation of the avenger of blood, that this form of justice/retribution was sanctioned by God in some way, even if we don't have a good explanation of it.  In my mind, at least, that would seem to put it firmly outside the concept of vigilantism as we normally understand it.

Dave Barnhart

T Howard's picture

dcbii wrote:
Given that scripture does (to a small extent) cover the actions of the "avenger of blood," can we really say that this is "outside of due process," or is it just a part of the system that we don't have enough information to understand?  From what we know of what scripture says elsewhere about the value of life and our approach to taking it, whether justly or unjustly, I'd have to conclude, given the lack of condemnation of the avenger of blood, that this form of justice/retribution was sanctioned by God in some way, even if we don't have a good explanation of it.  In my mind, at least, that would seem to put it firmly outside the concept of vigilantism as we normally understand it.

I can't make an argument based on what Scripture doesn't tell us, but my point is that the avenger of blood was not "an agent of the court" like we think of today. He executed vengeance for his near relative outside of the official judicial process in place at the time. The avenger of blood was an accepted role in ANE cultures; however, that role was regulated in Israelite culture by the introduction of cities of refuge as laid out in the Torah.

So, what is the parallel of this practice today? If someone exacted vengeance outside of the judicial process for his slain relative today, he would be called ... wait for it ... a vigilante. The difference today is that the "avenger of blood" is no longer an accepted role within most civilized societies and has been more or less outlawed.

Mark_Smith's picture

Is this theological discussion of an obscure OT topic, or is this something we are supposed to consider for today? Because if you are claiming any type of modern application, there is nothing in our western legal tradition to do this.

T Howard's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

Is this theological discussion of an obscure OT topic, or is this something we are supposed to consider for today? Because if you are claiming any type of modern application, there is nothing in our western legal tradition to do this.

both, and you're wrong about "there is nothing in our western legal tradition to do this." This was accepted practice in parts of the U.S. through the 19th Century. Some would argue that it was acceptable in Southern states up until the 1960s.