Why Capital Punishment is not such a Capital and Christian Idea

Why Capital Punishment is not such a Capital and Christian Idea October 26, 2011

If it was ever the case that I hoped or expected jurisprudence in America to act in ways that accord with Biblical teaching, I have now officially abandoned hope of that being true, or even mostly true. I do not expect lawyers, courts or executors in America to abide by Christian principles any longer.

Furthermore, for those who are so minded, I think a reasonable case for state sanctioned capital punishment can be made on the basis of New Testament texts like Romans 13, though there the weapon mentioned (the short sword), was not used for state executions, but rather for personal protection of the tax police and others. Most Christians in the mid-50s A.D. were not fearful of legal execution by the sword anyway, because most Christians were not Roman citizens like Paul himself, and only Roman citizens who had committed a capital crime face the possibility of a quick execution by beheading.

I do think that because of the increasingly secular direction of our culture, our cultural situation is becoming more like that of the earliest Christians. After all, Paul writes Romans while Nero, and his pagan cohorts, are ruling the Empire. Compared to that, our American justice system and laws and rulers are modicums of fairness and compassion.

Here’s the rub however. Jesus quite clearly calls Christians to an ethic of non-violence and an ethic of forgiveness, however grievous the wrong done to us. I will speak to that in a minute. At a minimum what that means to me is that while the secular state may well ‘not bear the sword in vain’ and may even have a Biblical right to do so, Christians themselves who wish to follow the ethic and example of Jesus must abandon that right, and have nothing to do with capital punishment. Let others do what they feel is right according to their own value system, but there is a higher calling on the life of Christians, a higher law and set of principles they must answer to—- namely Jesus and the law of Christ.

Let me be clear that all the harangues in the world about what the OT says about capital punishment will not persuade me in the least that this makes it o.k. for Christians to participate in the legal taking of someone else’s life. Christians are not under any form of the old covenant, they are under the new covenant, and the new covenant is not just the old covenant renewed or Parte Deux, the sequel.

No, the new covenant is God’s highest and best for his people. The new covenant offers an ethic of the coming Kingdom, and it foreshadows the day when we will beat swords into plowshares and the lion will lie down with the lamb without thinking about lamb chops, and we will study war no more, or as my friends in N.C. would say— ‘no mo, no mo’.

There are many reasons why Jesus died on the cross for humankind, rather than fighting his execution and executioners, but certainly one of them is because of what he believed about the sacred worth of human life, even the life of the revolutionary bandits who hung on the cross with him, one of whom he offered the opportunity of joining him in Paradise, a Jewish term for one of the levels of heaven.

Jesus did not care just about the sacred worth of unborn life, or young and vulnerable life, though about the latter he indeed said things like ‘theirs is the Kingdom of God’, and he gave stern warning to those who cause the least, last, and lost to stumble. No, Jesus died for adult sinners as well. He died for hated Samaritans as well. He died for hated Romans as well. We could go on. He died for every age and stage of human life, because all of it was seen as of sacred worth and all of it needed atonement.

Jesus did not tell his disciples, pick up your swords and follow me, he said pick up your crosses and follow me. And when in extremis two desperate disciples at the Last Supper said ‘we have two swords, we are ready to rumble’ Jesus’ response was ‘enough of this!’. Sadly they had not gotten the point after lo those many months of his teaching them the ethic of non-violence and forgiveness. And when one of them actually used a sword to try and prevent his capture, Jesus not only stopped such action dead in its tracks, he paused to heal the wounded servant, on his way to execution. Who lopped off the slave’s ear? The very person who asked Jesus about forgiveness (see below).

Jesus wanted no violence at all done in his name. It is not merely an irony, it is a disgrace that Christians later thought Jesus might endorse a Crusade or two. Those were some of the most shameful things ever done in the name of Christ, but of course, we could name much more recent examples from the Holocaust or the dark days of Apartheid in South Africa.

Christians still have a capacity for deafness when it comes to Jesus’ life ethic. Jesus you see was totally pro-life—- not just pro birth, pro life. And above all, he believed that justice, if we are talking life and death here, should be left in the hands of God. The Biblical message is clear— ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay’.

Too often we forget that when John of Patmos heard the martyred saints under the altar cry out ‘How long O Lord’? they were reminded that only one person is worthy of unsealing the seals and judging the world, only one person knows enough, cares enough, is fair enough, is compassionate enough, is just enough, is holy enough, to judge the world when it comes to beginning or ending life— the Lamb upon the throne depicted in Rev. 5— only he is worthy of unsealing those seals. We are simply not good enough, not holy enough, not wise enough, not just enough to do it right. We just aren’t.

I was watching TV and seeing all those celebrating Muslims in Libya on the day Ghaddafi was gunned down in the streets of his hometown. They were partying like the Bridegroom had returned. It reminded me of the American reaction to when bin Laden was killed in his own home. These reactions are entirely understandable on the basis of human nature, or even on the basis of the Muslim credo when it comes to such things.

But they are not justifiable on the basis of a Christian life ethic. As John Donne put it—- ‘any man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind…therefore do not ask for whom the death knell tolls, it tolls for me.’ Why do I say this?

Let’s consider for a moment a revealing story from the ministry of Jesus. I love this story, but too seldom are its nuances really seen in light of the OT context. In the selfsame chapter as Jesus tells his disciples that unless they turn and become like a defenseless child they shall not enter the Kingdom of God, we have in Mt. 18.21-22 a tiny little exchange between Jesus and Peter. We would certainly be the poorer if it was not in the Bible.

Peter, thinking he had gotten the hang of Jesus’ forgiveness ethic asks ‘if another fellow believer (my brother) sins against me, how many times should I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Yes, doubtless Peter thought he was being extremely magnanimous, very compassionate, very forgiving. But Jesus will have none of it. “Not seven times, but I tell you ‘seventy seven times’.”

Now the alert students of the Bible will have heard something almost identical to that phrase in the NT. If you look back in Genesis 4.23-24 you will find the story of Lamech. Now Lamech was a typical vengeful person, but here is what he says— ‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.’

There is where the rot started—- with Cain. The first killer. No sooner had the Fall happened than we renounced the life ethic God originally had in mind. Remember the tree of life? It was o.k. for them to eat of that tree—- imagine everlasting life without the prospect of death! This was on offer. Did you ever wonder why the angel guarded the back door into the Garden when the Fall happened? It’s because God didn’t want everlasting fallen human beings. He wanted mortality guaranteed if we were going to be like Lamech.

But my main point is this—- Jesus is reversing the curse when it comes to killing. Jesus is reversing the dictums of Lamech in Mt. 18. He’s telling Peter— ‘I want unlimited forgiveness even when a fellow believer sins against you.’ Jesus wants the opposite of Lamech. He commits his disciples to doing the exact opposite of Lamech. No more revenge, and no more killing, however legal, at least not by the followers of Jesus.

So where does this ethic leave us as Christians? In my view it means there are jobs in our society that Christians should not be doing— in particular any job that involves the use of lethal force Christians ought not to be involved in. Why? Because we are living out of an ethic of the coming Kingdom, not the ways of the world.

We are supposed to be signposts, ensigns, previews of coming attractions, not micro-managers of the old ways of Lamech or even more civilized ‘justice’. It’s just not our job! We are supposed to bear witness to a higher and prior, and in the END more permanent, ethic. An ethic of shalom for one and all, for all creatures great and small. Wouldn’t you rather be totally and consistently pro-Life opposing abortion, capital punishment, and war instead of just being pro the beginning of Life? Jesus was.

Let me deal just briefly with a couple of the objections to this view.

Objection One: ‘This ignores the fallenness of the world. It’s naïve. In a world of Ghadaffis we need capital punishment and war etc.”

Response— I am not talking about the ethic of governments, I am talking about the ethic of Christians, followers of Jesus who are bound to his teachings. Now for me, this means of course there are some roles in society that I as a Christian can’t play— like being a soldier. There are plenty of other ways I can be a good citizen and I do them. I pay my taxes and I was even a VISTA aide at one point.

My point is this— the world is going to go on. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Christians are not called to fight them. They are called to take up their cross and follow Jesus and follow his example, to the death if necessary. They are to be examples of a higher and better ethic, which one day will be the law of the land when the new heaven and new earth show up.

Objection Two: Capital Punishment is a legal administration of the Biblical Principle— a Life for a life.

Response— That would be a reasonable argument except that if you actually study the lex talionis in the OT, it means ‘only a hand for a hand, only a foot for a foot, only a life for a life’. In other words, it was meant to limit the Lamech like behavior that was already happening, it was not meant to license such rough justice.

In brutal ANE societies, that lex talionis sounded like pure pacifism I am sure. It limited revenge taking. If you want a foreshadowing of better things, look at the ten commandments—- ‘thou shalt not kill’ at a bare minimum means no premeditated murder— legal or otherwise. It too was a foreshadowing of better things to come, namely the ethic of Jesus.

There are of course many other reasons to oppose capital punishment. For example, it ignores the possibility of amendment of life. If a felon on death row doesn’t become a Christian, it takes away their opportunity to be saved. Did you ever think about that?

Read John Grisham’s powerful An Innocent Man lots of non-felons have been executed on death row. We as Christians should not be shrugging our shoulders and whispering— ‘just collateral damage’, a simple mistake.’

We should especially not say this when disproportionately it is the poor who get executed because they could not afford a better lawyer. That’s not real justice. That’s ‘exoneration’ bought and paid for. My point is this— when a person’s life is on the line, you can’t afford to be wrong about his guilt. And frankly juries and judges are not ever omniscient. Never.

There is much more to be said, but let me leave you with an Amish tale— a true story. You may remember over five years ago when a crazed individual in Pennsylvania invaded an Amish school and killed a bunch of Amish children. Just horrible. The cry for justice went up. Well if you know the story, it never got to the courts.

But here is the point—- what did the Amish do? They forgave the man on the spot, and they went to the man’s family and forgave the family as well, and treated them with love and respect and mourned with them!!! And then the Amish buried their dead, mourned, and got on with being real Christians. No revenge, no ‘rough justice’ just forgiveness. They didn’t care what the law of the land said. As for those Amish and their households, they would follow the Lord and his teachings. And this is what I am calling all Christians to do. What a different world we would live in, if it happened.

You may say— “those Amish are radical, they are crazy! Indeed they are– crazy enough to believe the peaceable Kingdom is coming. Crazy like Jesus! (for further reading try Will Willimon’s fine little book Why Jesus?’

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