Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 4

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Has God Ever Commanded Genocide?

You mentioned Joshua. That’s another question which comes up, do you think God commanded the genocides in the Old Testament? You know, “Kill every man, woman, child, animal” and all that kind of thing. Do you think that was their misunderstanding of what God was saying, or do you think He was saying that, or do you think there’s some other way of dealing with it?

Yeah, that’s a really, really tough one. I suppose I would want to say that, no, God did not command that. That this was a kind of misunderstanding. I mean this might be one of the reasons I suppose that the early Christians developed allegorical ways of reading Scripture, which we tend to dismiss as being pre-critical and so on, but in many ways are necessary.

What is Justice?

How do you define “Justice”? What do you think “Justice” means because “Justice” seems to mean different things to different people? How do you define “Justice”? What does “Justice” look like?

Oh goodness, wow! Give me some context for that question?

Some people frame it as: when I take your eye, the only way for justice to occur is for you to take my eye. So a retribution model is essential for justice to work.

Other people see it as: what’s happening when I take your eye is that I’ve broken our relationship and trust and so the ultimate justice can only be served when the relationship is being restored and healed and that may require me sacrificing something back, but it may not.

So you’ve got some people who sort of put an emphasis, when you talk about justice, on the retribution side of things. It’s all about just making sure that a person suffers as much as the other person suffers.

Whereas for other people it’s about trying to bring a relationship back, that you’ve shattered relationship and you’re trying to reconcile the two. When you’ve got restored harmony, that’s when you’ve got justice.

Augustine discusses this question in The City of God and he talks about how a republic is based on justice and that justice is suum cuique, “to each his own”, or “to each his or her own”, “Whatever corresponds to each one”, and he says the problem with Pagan Rome, is that God has not been given God’s due because the true God is not worshiped, so there is no justice in ancient Rome. That seems to me to be a way of thinking about justice, that ultimately it’s not just kind of dividing up what belongs to each person and therefore you get retribution, eye for an eye, and all that kind of stuff. But it means ultimately giving God what is God’s due and, if God is the God of Jesus Christ, that includes inaugurating this kingdom of forgiveness and mercy, and so justice in that broader sense, that I think that you’re pointing towards in your second alternative. Justice can never be spoken of as what pertains between two people without including the third element, which is God.

Yes, I agree. I should’ve framed it a bit more precisely. In Eden, before the Fall, we see how God intended humans to be, in relation to Him, everyone else, and Creation. So I’d say it is a very, very good picture of what “justice” looks like. When I’m trying to achieve justice for people, I want them to be in right relationship with each other, with God, and with Creation. Obviously we’ve got quite a few limitations here with our ability but I think that kind of justice is what God has always intended and will achieve.

I think all other forms of justice are stepping stones, or potential tools, in order to get to there. There will be our Father’s discipline, the Gardener’s pruning, the Metal Worker’s purging and purifying—there are various analogies the Bible uses. There is a whole range of ways God uses, it’s not just a “sweep it under the carpet” and “let’s have a group hug” kind of thing. There’s an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.


This feeds into Restorative Justice where you’ve got an acknowledgment of fault, you have the opportunity for the victim to explain the hurt and the damage that’s been done, so that the perpetrator can see and actually go, “Argh! I’ve done the wrong thing!” and an opportunity for them to apologize and an opportunity for the victim to forgive, and possibly work together to fix some of the consequences and stuff. So that’s a little picture of what God’s doing on a cosmic scale.

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