Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Capital Punishment and the New Covenant

In light of the Supreme Court's recent ruling upholding the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of capital punishment, I thought I'd reprint here an essay I wrote ages ago for our church newsletter:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also..You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:38-39;43-44

Murderers deserve to die. So do adulterers, liars, gossips, thieves, selfish people, parents who yell at their children, inconsiderate drivers, and everyone else who breaks God’s law.

So that’s not the issue. The question is who gets to decide when somebody dies. The answer is God alone.

Throughout the pages of the New Testament, foreshadowed in the Old, the Bible turns our hearts toward redemption and reconciliation—and allows opportunity for rehabilitation. The first person to receive mercy instead of death for a capital crime was Cain: the Lord put a protective mark on him so that he would not be put to death (Genesis 4:15).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned civil and personal ethics on its head. When the Author of life talks about the sanctity of life, we all stand convicted.

The Sermon—and, by extension, all of Jesus’s teaching—“raises the ante by radicalizing the demands of the Law” (R. Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 1996). We are called to a counter-intuitive and paradoxical lifestyle of meekness, mercy, peacemaking, and non-retaliation.

Not only his words, but also Jesus’ example of non-violence and mercy preclude capital punishment. Jesus didn’t call for the execution of his own executioners, but instead called out for his heavenly Father to forgive them.(Luke 23:34) He did not condone armed resistance at his own arrest, but told his disciple, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

Consider Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery, which was a stonable offense back in the day (John 8). First, He reminds the self-righteous tattletales of their own hypocrisy: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. And instead of calling for the Old Covenant penalty, Jesus demonstrated a dramatically different New Covenant response. He told her “Go, and sin no more.”

Paul reiterates the radical instruction to forsake self-protection in Romans: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”(Romans 12:19-21)

Abandoning violence and retaliation on both personal and civic levels does not mean abandoning all forms of societal justice, punishment, and restitution—just the violent ones.

Why is it better to kill murderers than to imprison them for life? Incarceration provides an appropriate and just punishment for capital offenders. (As Christians concerned with justice, we still have to deal with the fact that human justice systems are skewed by politics, race, and economics. It’s not possible in a fallible human government to execute justice perfectly. But in the absence of capital punishment, if we make a mistake, it’s reversible. It’s better to let 10 murderers go free than to execute one innocent man.)

Ultimately, we are to be lovers of people, letting God use us as messengers of redemption and reconciliation. Killing someone, even a confessed serial murderer, is not compatible with loving him. When we allow the state to execute him, we cut off the possibility that he will find peace with God.

And only God has the right to say “time’s up.”


corduroy said...

Hey, I love this topic, not for the topic’s sake, but because it’s ultimately about how we read the Bible.

So, I don’t think any of those examples show Jesus or Paul were demonstrating only God should decide when/if someone should die.

I haven’t looked at Hayes’ book (but now I guess I’m going to have to). So I don’t know if this is his (or her) take on the sermon in a nutshell – “The Sermon—and, by extension, all of Jesus’s teaching—‘raises the ante by radicalizing the demands of the Law’”.

If it is, I don’t know if Jesus so much upped the ante or if he was simply saying, “Hey everybody. You got it all wrong!” I think in the Sermon Jesus was telling the crowd, “Don’t be fooled: Sure, people can appear great on the outside, but on the inside they look bad .”

I think that’s exactly what Jesus was getting at when the woman was brought before him while he was teaching. The Pharisees were trying to use her as a pawn to frame him. But Jesus foiled their plan by showing (again) they may be revered as the “spiritual leaders of the community” but the irony was they were full of sin. They looked good on the outside like a white washed tomb, but they were rotten on the inside. (Ironically, in the end it was Jesus who used her to get to them.)

So I don’t think he is challenging the issue of capital punishment for the 1st century crowd here any more than he was saying adultery from that point forward should no longer be punished.

And with Paul’s writing, right, I agree with the second part of what you said with Hayes, in this evil world, we can be counter-culture and show humility and love when we’re least expected to show it. But 2 things: 1. I don’t think this was new either. Paul even quotes a passage from the OT illustrating the same principle. 2. More importantly, I don’t think we can make the jump that Paul was saying capital punishment is retaliation.

So I guess in summary, my take is the Bible (OT or NT) doesn’t set out to show governments how to function. I don’t know if that was ever intended by the writers (or the Great Writer of course). So maybe more specifically I don’t think we can use the Bible to invalidate or defend capital punishment.

(Crap. I thought this was going to take just a few minutes…now I completely missed who got voted off American Idol.)

E. Peevie said...

Crap. My argument got demolished by a stuffed bear in green overalls.

Just kidding. I'm not suggesting that the purpose of the SOM was to challenge capital punishment for the first century crowd. It obviously went far beyond that narrow frame.

And again, I agree that the Bible doesn't set out to show governments how to function. But I am suggesting that eliminating capital punishment in our age is a reasonable extrapolation from Jesus' teaching, and from the NT in general.

I think it is our obligation as believers to allow our extra-biblical persuasions (such as abortion, capital punishment, and R-rated movies, for example) to be informed by our faith and our understanding of the Bible. The Bible is relevant to all of life, and we have to examine all of our beliefs in light of what it teaches.

The tricky thing, I think, is to do this without "proof-texting," which I suspect is what you are gently suggesting that I was doing with the capital punishment essay.

corduroy said...

Hey, how did you know I overate this evening?! (But I'm not in overalls, I'm in my underwear right now...remember, I do this after my shower.)

We're on the same page after all or at least on the same chapter...I don't know if I can give up rated-R movies. I just watched No Country For Old Men, and it was gory but, wow, what a performance. Did anyone else see this? (Besides, what are you telling me 24 is PG-13?!)

E. Peevie said...

Cordy, I'm with you. I wouldn't want to give up all R-rated movies.

I did see NCFOM, and I thought it was great. Horrific, but great. What would you say it's about?

hammerdad said...

Hey EB!

Nice bloggin. . . challenging topic!

I have been pretty schizophrenic on this topic personally. I think that it's pretty clear from Romans that God has granted the power of the sword to the state and that therefore if the state acts "justly" (much to debate on just that definition) it could theoretically retain goodness and still carryout capital punishment on those who unjustly and intentionally take innocent life.

Yet I don't trust that the system is just. How many of our public officials have gone to jail? How many more have gotten away with whatever? Since I can't get past the pragmatics of an unjust society I can't get so far as to consider the new covenant application.

I am also wondering if your reasoning which applies biblical standards to public secular institution is something that you are suggesting the individual private citizen support from a democratic standpoint. . . or. . . if you are suggesting that a given Christian politician or judge in a place to carry this out should use this New Covenant rational for outlawing the current standard?

Peace - Joel.

E. Peevie said...

Hammerdad, so great to have you join the fray. Thanks for commenting.

It might be helpful in interpreting my essay to know that the assignment was to write a position opposing capital punishment using only biblical arguments--not sociological or other arguments.

I'm arguing that as Christian citizens, we should formulate our opinions based on our understanding and interpretation of our faith and what the Bible teaches.

But as far as politicians and judges go, that's another interesting question. I guess a Christian politician is also obligated to figure out her positions from a faith foundation; and a judge is obviously sworn to uphold the existing law without letting personal opinion sway her opinions.

I don't know, really. What do you think?