In a 2014 piece on CNN’s Belief Blog, Dr. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world), argues that Christians should support capital punishment.
He mitigates that view with these three qualifications:
- There should be every protection for the rights of the accused.
- There should be every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the crime.
- There should be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime.
Having laid out those caveats, Mohler then asks:
Should Christians support the death penalty today? I believe that we must, with the considerations detailed above.
The first problem with Mohler’s reasoning is that we do not live in a just society—so entertaining the notion that the death penalty will be justly applied is wishful dreaming.
In his article Mohler admits as much:
Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is. There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed.
Shouldn’t a Christian who in principle supports the death penalty, but who also acknowledges all the current injustices associated with it, argue for a halt in the implementation of the death penalty until those injustices are corrected?
Is Mr. Mohler unaware that, according to a statistical study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, one in twenty-five people imprisoned under a death sentence is likely innocent? I suppose we can only hope that he is.
Instead of carrying to its logical conclusion his acknowledgement of the profound flaws in our legal system’s handling of death penalty cases, Mohler manages to at once double down on his premise and blame society at large for the deterioration of the values that would lead it to more heartily embrace the death penalty:
American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. … We must recognize that our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.
I think it’s fair to argue that one would be hard-pressed to show a connection between “secularism” and the devaluing of human life.
But onto the real gist of the problem with Mohler’s reasoning.
Mohler’s basic argument from Scripture in support of the death penalty is simply that the Bible calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder. Namely:
Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his image God made humankind. (Gen. 9:6)
We note that a literal reading of Scripture also calls for the death penalty for crimes of a lesser nature, such as adultery, disrespecting of one’s parents, and disobeying the Sabbath.
“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” (Lev. 20:10).
“Whoever curses father and mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17).
“When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. . . . Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’” (Exodus 15:32-35)
Mohler also references this curious and problematic text at Romans 13:1,4:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. . . . [The governmental authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
The problem with this passage is that it contradicts a basic principle laid down by Luke in Acts 5:
When they had brought them [the apostles], they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Which is it, then? Are we to obey our “governing authorities,” or are we to obey Jesus?
Surely Mr. Mohler would say that first and foremost Christians must obey Jesus.
And what did Jesus say about crime and punishment? Most famously, this:
Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7).
He also said this:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Shouldn’t Christian thinking about all things moral and ethical begin and end with Jesus?
And yet, in all of Mohler’s argument supporting the death penalty, not once is Jesus mentioned. Not. Once.
To quote the Church Lady: How convenient.
I wonder what the early disciples of Jesus, who were almost all pacifists, would have thought of Mr. Mohler’s argument.
I wonder what Jesus would have thought of it.
Thanks to John Shore for his assistance with this piece.
Photo via Pixabay.
About Chuck Queen
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.