A vigilante is a person who takes it upon himself to enforce laws or to provide justice in situations where no justice seems possible. Vigilantes operate without proper legal authority, and they often depend on their own notions of right and wrong with no concern for what is truly just. Vigilantes skip due process, sometimes with the belief that law enforcement is inadequate or unavailable and that their intervention is necessary to maintain a peaceful existence. The irony is that, as a vigilante seeks to bring lawbreakers to justice, he becomes a lawbreaker himself.
Many popular super heroes of fiction such as Spider-man, Batman, and the Punisher are really nothing more than flamboyant vigilantes. Because they fight crime and bring otherwise untouchable villains to justice, they are lauded as heroes; their popularity shows that a sense of justice runs deep in the human psyche. We crave justice.
The Bible contains examples of vigilantes at work. Notably, Simeon and Levi avenged the rape of their sister, Dinah, by killing all the men in the city where the rapist lived (Genesis 34). Phineas could be considered a vigilante when he defended the Lord’s honor and put an end to the immorality and idolatry running rampant in the Israelites’ camp (Numbers 25). The Mosaic Law stipulated the limitations placed on vigilantes (“avengers of blood”) and provided the accused with the right to a trial before the assembly (Numbers 35). During the time of the judges, before the monarchy was established in Israel, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, ESV), and men like Samson practiced vigilantism. Later, Absalom, acting as a vigilante, murdered his half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13). It should be noted that the Bible’s inclusion of historical accounts of the deeds of vigilantes does not constitute blanket approval of vigilantism.
Vigilantes were common during the years of Western expansion along the American frontier. Law and order was often slow in reaching the outposts of civilization. In the absence of reliable law enforcement, justice—or what was perceived as justice—was often meted out by citizens who, for good or ill, took the law into their own hands. After the Civil War, vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan used violence and intimidation tactics to resist new laws that freed the slaves. In more modern times, vigilantes have attacked logging sites, abortion clinics, and other focal points of controversy in a belief that they follow a higher law than what is stated in the U.S. legal code.
There are some cases where intervening in an active crime situation is the only right choice. For example, a man sees an old woman being mugged. The Bible’s commands to defend the weak require that the man come to the old woman’s rescue (Psalm 82:3). But does that command extend beyond reactive defense to include proactive vigilantism?
The heart of most acts of vigilantism is contrary to Scripture. Vigilantes act outside the purview of the law, which is problematic for Christians. Also, vigilantism often gives way to mob rule, and the out-of-control actions of a lynch mob hardly if ever lead to true justice.
“The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). The authority in free countries is the law, which even a nation’s leaders and judges must obey. In most cases, to bypass due process is to flout the law. It is the government’s duty “to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4; cf. 1 Peter 2:14); it is the Christian’s duty “to submit to the authorities” (Romans 13:5; cf. 1 Peter 2:13). Christians should be exemplary in their law-abiding behavior. Except in rare situations, there is no need to resort to vigilantism. There are better ways to resolve perceived injustice. The Christian is obligated to “show proper respect to everyone, . . . fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17), and he prays “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2).