Acton Institute Powerblog

Complaining to Mary: Should Christian Libertarians Defend Blackmail?

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[Note: Since my previous post on Christian libertarianism stirred up an interesting debate, I thought it might be worth adding one more post on the subject before we move on. I think the following thought experiment will help shed light on our previous discussion.]

The medieval monk and scholar Caesarius of Heisterbach tells of hearing a lay brother praying to Jesus: “Lord,” the man declared, “if Thou free me not from this temptation I will complain of Thee to Thy mother.”

Attempting to blackmail Jesus is, of course, not the best way to seek absolution. But while blackmail is a sin, should it also be a crime? Libertarians, who claim it is a “victimless crime” would say no. As economics professor Walter Block explains,

There is something deeply paradoxical about laws that criminalize blackmail. How is it that, as Glanville Williams put it, “two things that taken separately are moral and legal whites together make a moral and legal black”? For the crime of blackmail involves the criminalization of two otherwise legal acts when they occur in combination- for example, the threat to disclose damaging information about another, and the offer to refrain from disclosing it for some valuable consideration.

Were Alfred to (threaten to) disclose damaging information concerning Bill’s extramarital affairs, no offense recognized by law would be involved (even if there were something distasteful about such gossip); were Alfred to ask Bill for $5000, again there would be no contravention of any proper law (even if it displayed a degree of chutzpah). But were Alfred to threaten Bill that he would disclose information concerning Bill’s extramarital affairs unless Bill paid him $5000, his two-part act would—under current laws—constitute the crime of blackmail. Why should the conjunction of such otherwise legal acts have an entirely different legal status?

Good question. I can’t imagine why secular libertarians would think these acts should be illegal. Would a Christian libertarian also argue in favor decriminalizing the practice? The reason I ask is because, as I noted in my last post, one of the main complaints I have with most libertarians is that they often work backwards from a grievance to the development of their core beliefs. Christians, on the other hand, must start with Biblical principles and work their way to a coherent political philosophy.

I’m eager to hear Christian libertarians make a defense of blackmail as a victimless crime from a Biblical perspective. I’d also be curious to hear how they would handle the situation if they themselves were being blackmailed, so let’s add to this thought experiment:

A bill was pushed through Congress that makes all blackmailing legal. To celebrate the new legislation, a blackmailer contacts you and says that he has private information about your family that would cause severe damage—financially, emotionally, etc. You agree that if the information were to be made public it could harm not only you and your family and hinder your ability to provide for them in the future, but it could indirectly cause harm to others (though not in an aggressive way). The blackmailer offers to keep quiet if you agree to pay a sum for the remainder of your life.

What do you do?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • This is illustrative, very good.
    First, my peculiar brand of CL says that Christians ought to behave as Christians, and ought to expect the world to act differently.  It makes sense for the world to legalize blackmail, given that it is efficient and actually equalizes power among the parties involved through a transfer.  Christians cannot justify imposing a moral code which is designed to highlight the Christians’ peculiarity.
    We are supposed to be noticeably different in order that we might testify of the difference wrought in us through regeneration.
    To that end, we have no fear of the blackmailer.  When he approaches us with his incriminating evidence we should all be able to say, “Ah, but I’ve already confessed that to everyone who would identify it as scandal.”
    If we have not confessed all already, can we really say we are Christians?
    Otherwise we fall into fearing man more than God.  But the fear of God is clean, casting out fear.
    If on the other hand, the blackmailer threatens someone we care about with scandal attached to them, we have the opportunity to step in and take the fall for them.  That is, we can publicly announce the situation in such a way that the scandal falls on us instead of them.  Indeed, we ought to also be ready to do the same for the sake of our enemies.
    This is the radical, costly grace we are called to live out.  When the trigger is pulled, we ought to be found in front of the barrel, no matter whether the shot was intended for us, our loved ones, or our enemies.  Only radical sacrificial love makes us stand apart from long-run self interested altruism.
    Yes let blackmail be legalized by the state.  Then let the Christian confront the blackmailer with radical love.  Transformative action will always trump transactional action.
    Nathanael Snow

  • Fitzsimons50

    say no

  • Roger McKinney

    “Christians, on the other hand, must start with Biblical principles and work their way to a coherent political philosophy.”

    And what is the Biblical principle that says blackmail should be a crime? Keep in mind that it can be immoral without the necessity of making it a criminal offense.

  • Becky

    James, Actually the first commandment that God gave Adam and Eve was imposed with a death penalty.  However, I do agree it was not done with coercion, but stated as a fact.  If you do A, then B will occur.  That’s the way the law works.  People do have the free will to choose, but they can also expect to suffer the consquences as a result.  This has not changed with Christ’s sacrifice.  Christs sacrifice was for those that chose to repent and excercise their free will to do God’s will.  “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” I do agree that the starting commandment would be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    • “Actually the first commandment that God gave Adam and Eve was imposed with a death penalty.” – ?  In my Bible, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were not killed – unless of course you refer to their spiritual death in original sin which persisted for all human kind until the resurrection of Christ. 

      But all of that misses my point.  I don’t argue that actions don’t have consequences.  The question is what should define as illegal.  In my view only those actions that threaten the life, liberty, and property of others should be illegal.  Other actions that are sinful or immoral but do not harm others directly should be left legal but if sinful or immoral the people who do them should have to deal with the consequences of their own actions.

      I cite the example of Adam and Eve to point out that God Himself does not force or coerce us to be moral.  Why should the state presume to do something God Himself does not?  I agree with you that Christ calls us to choose to repent and follow him, but He still leaves that as our choice…

      • Becky

        James, the actual reading of the text is ‘by dying you will die’  or ‘you will die the death’ which is exactly how we die.  We die a little more each day until death finally takes us.  It’s like someone saying that if you drink a slow working poison you will die.  They don’t drop dead, but it eventually kills them, little by little. Adam and Eve did not drop dead, but the death process began.  And it was a direct result of going against God’s commandment not to eat of the tree that caused it to begin. That is a death penalty.  God does not lie.
        You said: “I cite the example of Adam and Eve to point out that God Himself does not force or coerce us to be moral.”   I agree that God does not force or coerce us to be moral, but neither does the law.  It gives us instruction on what is moral and good.  Hence we have the commandments to love God, love our neighbor, not to lie, steal, etc. The law sets the bounds/limits with which we are to act.  It is within these bounds/limits that we are free to act.  We do have the choice of stepping outside these bounds, but to do so results in penalties.  Eternal hell for one.  The law works the same way whether it’s the laws of God or the laws of man.  The only difference is that laws of God are good and just, and the same cannot be said of the laws of man, especially these days.  Moreover, a people that governs itself has the ability/right to set down rules of behavior that they find unacceptable.  Those rules are based on, not all, but the majority of people.   Why would a people want to legalize something that they know is harm themselves or their children, directly or even indirectly?
        Original sin still stand for all mankind except those baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

        • RogerMcKinney

           “…a people that governs itself has the ability/right to set down rules of behavior that they find unacceptable. ”

          Within limits. They are limited by God’s law, or what is called natural law. The majority has no more right to steal from individuals than individuals have a right to steal from each other. The majority has no right to murder. The majority in the US has enslaved blacks, stolen Indian land, and imprisoned Japanese. Just because a majority wants to do something doesn’t make it right. The Constitution was intended to be a limit on the power of the majority.

  • I’m not sure that separating the two actions is sufficient to establish Professor Block’s premise. Picking up a knife is not a crime. Pointing a knife in a particular direction is generally not a crime. Thrusting a knife forcefully in a given direction is not in itself a crime. And, as noted in the original post, asking for money is not a crime.

    However, if I point a knife at an individual and ask for money, and further suggest that noncompliance with my request will have negative consequences for the one, I have pretty clearly committed an impermissible aggression. I have given the one the choice of which deprivation of some portion of his or her life, liberty, and property he or she prefers.

    It is possible to argue that what the blackmailer does is akin to what the armed robber does. Both involve a credible offer to do harm, to be withheld in return to consenting to alternative, (presumably) lesser harm. I’m not yet sure they’re the same thing, but I’m not sure they’re not, either.