The Death Penalty: American Law vs. Christianity

The Death Penalty: American Law vs. Christianity May 18, 2015

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death in a Federal court. American law permits the death penalty in some cases and in some states. The issue is then not just what the American law permits as justifiable punishment (lex talionis) but how Christians are to think about capital punishment and the death penalty. I shall make the case today that Christians ought to renounce the death penalty.

First, the OT clearly contains legislation about capital punishment. The famous lex talionis of Exodus 21:24 (Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21) legislated “an eye for an eye.” The person who kills/murders a human is put to death as a just punishment. Most think the lex talionis is designed to curb revenge, and it limited punishment to compensate for the crime.

Second, the Cities of Refuge provided for unintentional slayers a place of refuge while waiting trial (Exod 21:12-14; Numb 35:6-34; Deut 4:41-43; 19:1-13). These Cities are near-equivalents of a prison system. There is an admission of the potential use of improper revenge written into the fabric of the Cities of Refuge They exist because the avenger was justified to put murderers to death. The Cities prevented avengers from meeting out “injustice.”

I conclude from these two sets of evidence that the death penalty is legislated in the Torah and that the death penalty is understood in the Bible as just. I see no reason to pretend that the Torah is barbaric: there is logical force in “human for human.”

But, there are other considerations:

Third, Jesus clearly undermines the lex talionis. Not because Jesus didn’t believe in justice, or that the death penalty was unjust. Here’s what Jesus says:

Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

The Torah of Moses specified justifiable revenge; Jesus contends that his followers are to extend grace. He knows what justice permits; he just doesn’t think that is the way to proceed for his community of faith. Yes, he seems to be saying, the lex talionis is just, but among my followers there will not be the pursuit of revenge. As I point out in The Sermon on the Mount, what was “show no mercy” in the Torah under Jesus becomes an opportunity to show mercy.

Fourth, forgiveness is a notable emphasis of Jesus, of his followers, and of the Christian faith. In Jesus Creed, chp. 23, I explain that forgiveness, or at least the emphasis given to it, takes a path that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was not prepared to take. And, I would contend that Jesus and the early Christians sensed this shift: they were to create an alternative community, one not marked by a justice system of offense and retributive/strict/undifferentiated punishment, but of offense and redemption/forgiveness leading to restoration through repentance. (Hence, a good expression of restorative justice that goes beyond retributive justice.) Grace and forgiveness unleash the power of God that re-makes humans. That is the way of Jesus.

Fifth, the system of embracing grace in the Bible sabotages the system of justice.  God’s love for us restores us by forgiving us.  God’s grace is a system in which revenge is denied and punishment absorbed. Cracked Eikons are restored to be glory-producing Eikons as a result of this gospel.

And herein lies the reason why I think Christians ought to oppose the death penalty. Not because the death penalty is unfair, or it doesn’t work, or because it is too hard to prove someone guilty, or because it costs too much — these are all pragmatic reasons with some merit, but not enough as far as I’m concerned.

The reason Christians should oppose the death penalty is because they believe that (1) humans are Eikons of God who, because of the redemptive work of the trinitarian God in the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost, (2) can be restored to union with God and communion with others. Christians can oppose the death penalty because they have hope and believe that God’s grace can undo what has been done and remake the criminal into a person he or she was not previously.

I do think life imprisonment is just, but I see no reason to go any further than that: of course, it is not just to keep someone alive who has murdered another human (who is also an Eikon), but the system of grace taught by Jesus deconstructs the system of justice by taking it to an entirely new level. Not the level of offense and punishment, but the level of offense and punishment-with-redemption.

Perhaps time and efforts on our part will lead that person to the sort of honesty before God that discovers that God’s redemptive work can make murderers anew. The Apostle Paul is a good example.

We should write to our senators to oppose the death penalty.

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