Vigilante Justice: An Oxymoron?

Our world is broken. Injustice, violence, and crime are daily events. Trouble is never very far away, and often enough, it’s right under our noses; but we’re so used to crime and injustice that we’ve become numb to it. We don’t even bat an eye when we hear about someone being killed in a gang shooting across town, we just change the channel. And whether or not criminals are punished is something we leave to other people.

But when evil touches us personally, questions of justice rise to the forefront of our minds. We need a system to preserve justice. Law exists to keep peace and preserve justice, to protect its citizens from crime and to prevent it wherever possible. We should be grateful to the brave men and women who work in this field to keep us safe.

However, we know that the law is broken. Often, criminals are not detected, and many escape justice even when they are. Violent criminals get locked away for years, living off the tax dollars of the very people whom they have hurt; and the law doesn’t always provide a remedy for those families who have been hurt. Still others are sentenced to unreasonable terms for non-violent crimes and are forever marked with a criminal record. All of this leaves us in doubt and despair. Can there ever be justice in our world?

Vigilantes: Above, Around, Against
Questions about justice are at the forefront of many of the books, movies, and television shows in our time. Recently, Netflix has brought these questions before us again with The Punisher, now in its second, and final, season. After Frank Castle’s family is brutally murdered, he decides to take justice into his own hands by taking revenge. Frank acts as judge, jury, and executioner, brutally destroying anyone connected with his family’s murder.

The idea of a vigilante, out to serve justice when the law fails to do so, is not new to Hollywood. The Punisher follows a long line of vigilante movies and shows: Death Wish (and its 2016 remake), Taxi Driver, The Boondock Saints, Taken, The Equalizer, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inglorious Basterds, Dexter, and many, many more.

Vigilantes come in all varieties. Some work above the law, some around it, and others against it. Characters like Batman and Daredevil bring criminals to justice by aiding the police (usually by breaking the law), but refusing to kill said criminals. This sounds good at first, but it has its own set of problems. For example, think of the confrontation between Batman and the Joker at the end of Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight. Batman leaves the Joker suspended in mid-air instead of letting him fall to his death. Our long history with supervillains shows that they are only going to escape prison, wreak havoc, and destroy more lives. Wouldn’t it be better to let them die?

That’s what Frank Castle would say. In a showdown with Daredevil, Frank remarks, “You beat up the bullies with your fists, you throw ‘em in jail, everybody calls you a hero, right? And then a month, a week, a day later, they’re back on the streets doing the same . . . thing!” Frank argues that it’s better to just put criminals straight into the morgue so that they can’t hurt anybody else.

We may be tempted to his view, given the brokenness of our own justice system, but the idea that individuals like Frank can deal out justice in a way that is more fair (or even equally as fair), is to assume that individual people are immune from the temptations and errors—bribery, extortion, obscurity or lack of sufficient evidence, dishonest witnesses, etc.—that distort our justice system in the first place.

Frank is angry and out for more than justice; he wants revenge. Romans 12:19 commands us not to take revenge, and we need only look at the whole of Scripture to see why we are given this command. Humans are broken and sinful—every last one of us. None of us have full knowledge or a perfect sense of justice. No one has perfect justice but God. When we take matters into our own hands, we are attempting to take the place of God.

That is Not Justice
Frank Castle is, like the criminals he sets out to squash, violent, brutal, and completely unhinged. In court, Matt Murdock (Daredevil), attempts to reason with the jury about Frank’s behavior.

Murdock argues that we need people like Frank Castle who will stand up and fight for themselves, “We need heroes . . . and the hope that they provide.” He’s right about that. But Frank Castle is not a hero. Frank considers himself the kind of person who has the courage to make the hard choices, specifically the choice to take other people’s lives, which he does often. He has, however, made the easier choice.

Working toward justice takes effort. It takes a lot of time to sort through the evidence and to bring someone to justice. Seeing a case through to justice is actually one of the hardest and most courageous choices we can make.

The Punisher is graphic, brutal, bloody, and violent. Our glorification of characters like Frank Castle, shows just how out of control our ideas about justice have become. Though we are numb to the violence and death around us, for some reason we keep turning to movies and TV shows to watch more of it. Perhaps it is because we can indulge our fantasies about bringing criminals to our perceived notion of justice.

Consider another example—Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, a fictionalized story about a group of Jewish commandos who go behind enemy lines to take out Nazis during WWII. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi commanders behind the “final solution” committed some of the most brutal and atrocious crimes in history. It is right that we feel anger about what they did. It is right that they were punished severely. However, Tarantino’s film is not about justice; it is about revenge. Tarantino is already known for indulging in graphic violence in his movies and Inglorious Basterds is no exception, as we watch scene after scene of brutal slaughter.

With all the things that we know about the Nazis, and the way that our world perceives justice, there is a certain expectation that people should enjoy watching a movie like this. But when we watch an American commando take a baseball bat to the head of a German soldier, while the other commandos sit by laughing and cheering, we can’t help but wonder if our sense of justice has become completely warped.

Snuffing out the Spark
In watching movies and TV shows like this, it feels as though the vigilante is almost more inhuman than the criminal. I think this helps to explain why God commands us not to take revenge—because revenge does something to our souls. It rots them out. It turns them cruel and dark.

At one point, Daredevil asks Frank if he ever thinks twice before taking another human life. Frank Castle says that calling these criminals “human” is generous. It’s important not to miss this. We call certain acts by other humans inhuman, because when people commit brutal crimes, they relinquish a part of their humanity. By destroying the image of God in another person, they end up destroying it in themselves. But the way to deal with this evil is not to become inhuman ourselves. This is, unfortunately, the path that Frank is on. Like Matt Murdock says, Frank doesn’t even know the difference between right and wrong anymore.

Daredevil confronts Frank, noting that those people he kills might have one bit of good left in them. “And then you come along and that one tiny flicker of light gets snuffed out forever.” Daredevil, for all his flaws, asks Frank an important question, “What about hope? I live in the real world and I’ve seen it, Frank—redemption. It’s possible the people you murdered deserve another chance . . . to try again. And if you don’t get that, there’s something broken in you you can’t fix.”

Frank is indeed broken. He wants justice, but he’s given in to despair and has become no different from the people he wants to destroy. He needs redemption just like these criminals do. Daredevil speaks a truth that is vital for us to remember—in the real world, redemption is possible, even for Frank. Despite all that is wrong, there is hope.

This may sound unhelpful to those who have been directly hurt by evil and have watched justice slip through the fingers of the law. But executing “justice” by our own means exacts a toll on our humanity that isn’t worth paying. No one human can handle the responsibility of administering justice alone. Humans are all broken and flawed. None of us knows what is perfectly just. That’s why we need each other, and we need the law, even if it sometimes fails to carry out justice perfectly.

Perfect justice is elusive in this life, but we can work towards reform in our system instead of taking matters into our own hands, like Frank does. As Christians, we have a hope that goes beyond our broken system and our broken selves. In God’s kingdom, all things will be set right. This implies a real judgment, since there is a price to be paid for the things that we do here. But it also implies real justice and real hope.

Perhaps we can conclude with Gandalf’s wise words to an overzealous Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”¹

Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!

Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.