A Death Penalty Follow-Up


Last week, I wrote a post about the recent case of Troy Davis and how this had inspired me to rethink and reconsider my position on the use of Capital Punishment by the government to punish those convicted of crimes they deemed worthy of such a response. In my attempt to be nuanced, I fear I may have given a wrong impression of where I stand now.

I think some people may have walked away from the post thinking that I believe that the government should have the right to bring the death penalty to bear upon some criminals, but Christians shouldn’t actually do it (or something like that). This isn’t quite the case.

Let me restate what I’m thinking even more clearly and simply: I don’t see a justification for Christians supporting the use of Capital Punishment by the government in any case. 

Now for the nuance: in Romans 13, when Paul is talking about the government and how they bear (what he calls) the “power the sword”, he isn’t making a moral statement on this power; from his perspective, he is merely speaking to the reality of how secular governments function in the real world. He is not laying out the boundaries or contours for a distinctively “Christian” government; he is helping Christians understand how they should interact with the government as it is.

And so, as I said in my post, I understand the reality that civil governments (especially in a secular society) will–and historically always have–implemented capital punishment as a means of punishing those they deemed “most worthy” of receiving such a sentence. I understand that this is most likely the way things will be in the government, but nevertheless,  Christians should demonstrate an ethos of life that stands against this policy of the State.

The post got many views and a good discussion began in the comments and on Facebook. I’d like to take a few lines now to respond to some of the responses I received (if I mis-characterize what you were saying, please feel free to let me know in the comments).

The previous post was written while I was definitely mourning and processing all of this; this post is admittedly much more cold, intellectual, and bit more “debate-y”. Honestly, I don’t like writing posts like this and in this style (and length), but in the end, this stuff needed to be said, and to say it more “pastorally” or “sensitively” would have only taken more space, not less. But either way, I hope you find these ramblings helpful in your own journey of processing all of this most serious and weighty of topics.

It might help, Paul, if you defined what you mean by capital punishment.

The lawful taking of an individual’s life by the civil authority in a given society for crimes that it has judged deserving of such response. This differs from other forms of punishment because it ends a person’s life entirely, rather than merely diminishing the quality of their life.

When Jesus refused to capitally punish the woman caught in adultery, he was offering forgiveness for a sin against the religious law of Moses, not the civil law of Rome. His forgiveness was as an act of the Church, not the State.

I actually was talking about Mosaic “law”. My subtle point (maybe too subtle) was that Jesus did not criticize the religious law that would have given him the right and freedom to stone the woman. He didn’t say that the capital punishment offered in the law was in itself bad or wrong. He instead simply refused to play a part in the actual execution (no pun intended) of the law itself. So no matter how “good”, “right”, or “justified” capital punishment may be, I think Jesus demonstrates that the Christian is to move away from it, rather than defend it.

God was the one that first instituted a separation of Church and State (not Thomas Jefferson). Even in the Old Testament, God established a separate and distinct civil institution from the religious institution and he commanded they remain distinct. But while they were separate, both institutions had transgressions that allowed for the death penalty in certain cases. And yet, when Jesus is presented with a religiously legitimate reason, he refrains–and the text does not say he did so simply because it may have been illegal to kill her under Roman law.

Maybe I’m stretching too much, but I find it hard to believe that God would go to one sphere of existence that allowed for the death penalty (the religious one) and say “no more!” and then walk into another sphere that allowed for it (the civil one) and then say “keep ’em coming!”.

The death penalty acts as a deterrent for more crime.

Capital punishment is instituted by God in Genesis 9:6, and the reason offered is because “humans were created in the image of God”, therefore if you kill one, you should be killed. Neither here nor in anywhere else in Scripture does God say he thinks this is a good idea for mere crime prevention reasons.

And beside that, research so clearly shows this not to work (and for all of you fiscal conservatives, it’s really costly). Violent crime has gone down dramatically (also here) in the U.S. in the past fifteen years, even as the number of people sent to death row has been cut by two-thirds. Admittedly, the main reason this doesn’t work in crime prevention is probably the length of time between the criminal act and the actual execution, but this is so that people have the chance to appeal their case before that ultimate of consequences is paid–should Christians support this being taken away?

And in the end, where do we see in the workings of the Kingdom of God that we are to take the life of anyone (or even support the government doing so)–even to save another? Is that anywhere in the New Testament?

Paul, you made the comment that you can’t see an interpretation of the Old Testament that would both support capital punishment and not end up supporting other things like genocide, stoning homosexuals, slavery, and demeaning women. I don’t see how you can make that connection. 

In the end, I don’t think there is any New Testament case for a Christian to support capital punishment. Most every conservative evangelical case for capital punishment is based around the Old Testament. My point is to say that we can’t cherry-pick those laws and requirements in the Old Testament that we think are still valid ways of conducting society and then disregard others. Other than arbitrary “preference”, I cannot think of a logically consistent interpretive framework or filter that when objectively applied to the Old Testament out pops capital punishment as okay, but a host of other things we don’t like remain “invalid” for today.

Aren’t some crimes so blatantly horrendous and evil that it is in affront to justice to let that person continue to live?

Maybe this is a good place to say that I think there are many logical and reasonable philosophical defenses of capital punishment in a given society. And this is one of them. I just don’t see, though, a theological or biblical defense of it. The picture of “justice” offered by Jesus in the Gospel is one that turns on its head nearly every other “logical” or “philosophically-consistent” framework employed by the rest of the world outside the Church.

I understand philosophically why a secular government would be very reasonable to employ the use of capital punishment (as did the apostle Paul). But this is not the ground from which Christians determine their role in a civil society, nor how they determine their view of capital punishment.

And either way, how would one determine what crimes are so “blatantly horrendous and evil”? What essentially secular institution should the Christian trust to determine how “evil” something is? (In my humble opinion) crimes should be based on the transgression of another’s rights, not the degree to which it contains some abstract sense of “wickedness” or evil. History has shown us that when the State has that right and ability, eventually, many things start being considered “evil” and “horrendous” by the government that we would not want to bear that judgment.

Isn’t life imprisonment sometimes worse than capital punishment?

Maybe, though I don’t think you see many death row inmates resign themselves to their death and just end their available appeals, hoping to hasten their end so as not to stay in prison any longer. But I could be wrong. I just don’t know this reason would suddenly constitute a biblical case for supporting capital punishment unless you’re trying to say that the death penalty is actually the most gracious and loving thing we could do for someone who has committed a terrible crime. And I guess you could make this argument if you want–I would just disagree. And I think a lot of prison lifers would also disagree with you.

Finally, Paul, you asked whether Christians should be more willing to see a guilty man go free or an innocent man be punished. In that case, why don’t we just get rid of the entire justice system, and then we can guarantee no innocent person will ever be punished again.

Good point. Maybe I should make clear that I am merely talking about capital punishment and not simply punishment in general (although I would point out our justice system tries to favor innocence by presuming it until proven guilty). I was simply acknowledging the reality that the justice system will get it wrong sometimes; and when it does, which mistake should the Christian think is a greater injustice? A guilty man not getting the punishment he may in fact deserve, or an innocent man having his life taken away?

There should be justice. Order should be maintained in a society. Those creating disorder and infringing the rights of others should be removed from the society so that the righteous may prosper. But the death penalty carries with it a finality, weight, and level of human error that I believe makes it unjust and improper for the people of God to say they support, and even more improper for them to implement should they find themselves in a place of power.

The vast majority of Christians in the world now and in Church History have believed that capital punishment is wrong and have actively worked to get rid of the death penalty from whatever society they have found themselves in. To see how differently the modern American Evangelical church deals with this issue is disheartening, embarrassing, and something I feel we will repent for in the generations to come. I pray it comes sooner.

So what do you think? Where am I simply being naive in my thinking? What do you agree with that I could have written more about? How have you come to the conclusion on this topic that you have?

[Note: for more information, and if you wish to get involved in some activism, you can visit People of Faith Against the Death Penalty]

[art credit: Francisco de Goya, “The Giant”]

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10 thoughts on “A Death Penalty Follow-Up

  1. I have supported the death penalty for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I read Rene Girard’s book “I see Satan Fall Like Lightning” that I started questioning my stance on the DP. Girard talks about reciprocal violence, sacrifice, the scapegoat mechanism, and how Christ came to put an end to violence, and so we should do likewise. I think this is the best argument against Christians supporting a death penalty… That being said, I still feel obligated to support it because there is a difference between personal, reciprocal violence and corporate, government sanctioned punishment. The former is evil, vengeful, and wrong. The latter… I can’t seem to find a problem with. At this point I am not very settled on the issue…

    Also about John 8… Christ was following the OT law perfectly. The text in John 8 says that the Pharisees brought a woman that had been caught in adultery… but no man is mentioned. Where is her husband? Where is the man with whom she committed adultery? Something is fishy about this situation… and so rather than stoning, the pharisees should perform the test for adultery in Numbers 5. Christ reminds them of this by literally pointing to the correct course of action by writing in the dirt of the temple floor… “And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.” (Numbers 5:17 ESV) …So I don’t think that John 8 can be used to talk about the death penalty… if anything it reinforces Christ’s support of OT law.

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  3. The caveat I see, is that in Romans 13 the government is called an avenger. Avengers in the OT traditionally had the “power of the sword” and so I believe Paul isn’t talking about a realized power, but a historical one.

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  4. Due to the listing of government responsibilities in Romans 13 as well as the avenger comment, I think our response would be the same as theirs – Paul would be saying that the government has a responsibility different than a person of faith. Whereas the individual had responsibility to seek God and make disciples of Jesus, the government had responsibility to restrain sin and promote good.

    The only punishment in the OT that required capital punishment was premeditated murder because of the importance of human life. This is first made clear in Gen 9:6, where immediately after the flood, God makes a promise with mankind: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” This is also unique in that the promise is not to Israel, but to all mankind. There is no reason to believe it abrogated, and indeed that language is picked up by avengers in the OT to seek vengeance on those wrongfully harmed. And now in Romans 13, the same language is picked up again.

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  5. I think the that the point in Romans 13, is that the Israelites should pay taxes because governments create order. And that order is possible because sin is restrained (sin brings creation back to chaos). The Roman empire isn’t a model moral entity by any means, but yet it still served a strong purpose in promoting good (pax romana!) that we do forget. Paul saw that as enough to be worth paying taxes and living under.

    Today we can learn from it and attempt to guide our governments to also restrain sin and promote good, but also to appreciate that despite the government failings – it still creates order to live under.

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