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Thursday, March 19, 2009
UPDATE: This post spawned a reply post today on the Zeal For Truth blog, mostly from a Christian libertarian point of view. He doesn't address the Biblical support, only Prager's pragmatic argument for it.
In light of New Mexico's monstrous decision to outlaw capital punishment today, I thought it might be useful to give an in-depth reasoning FOR it (both from a Christian perspective and a secular one) and explain how one can be "pro-life" and in favor of judicial execution. Mostly, I will do so by using the arguments of others. But first, a couple of my own thoughts.

When it comes to politics, fads, cultural shifts, and social agendas, a Christian should usually (like a 99.9% of the time kind of usually) shy away from, transform, or outright reject anything that secular culture embraces. That is because the perishing world isn't just partly against God's way and His law, they are in COMPLETE rebellion toward it (Gen. 6:5). So, if they view a certain issue as important (like diets and physical appearance), it's pretty safe to say that they aren't aligned with God's priorities (not to imply diets are bad for Christians, but for entirely different reasons). Another example is environmentalism. The unregenerate world views this as a supremely important issue, even to the point that humanity is the problem. Now environmentalism isn't in itself wrong (it's Biblically proper to care for the earth), but it is wrong to the extreme which secular mankind takes it, actually serving the earth as their god (note the whole "Mother Earth" terminology, referring to the Greek god Gaia). If anyone thinks god/goddess worship is dead, just look at Earth Day.

Christians should likewise be hesitant about embracing the relatively new outrage over capital punishment - if for no other reason than the fact that the most secular, post-Christian countries are the strongest proponents against it. Unfortunately, I don't see this mindset in my generation of Christians. "Be in the world but not of it" was taken to an unhealthy extreme by two generations ago to the point of not being in the world, and now it is dangerously close to swinging to the other extreme where the current generation is both in it and of it. We need to listen to 1 Thess. 5:21-22. We are in danger of losing sight of a GODLY sense of justice in the church, and once justice is perverted, the loss of the Gospel is soon to follow. As the old maxim says, "What one generation knows and teaches, the second generation assumes, and the third generation loses."

With that in mind, let us test the idea of capital punishment (referred to as CP henceforth), comparing it first and foremost to the Word, but also to extra-biblical reasons. Let's begin with an excellent Scriptural defense of CP which you can read in entirety here.
The Biblical position is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that God is favor of capital punishment.
Old Testament

Genesis 9:5b-6

[God] spoke these words to Noah after the flood, in the context of the covenant He made with mankind (referred to as the Noahic Covenant) to never again destroy mankind by flood. It is noteworthy that this divine command preceded the Mosaic Law. While the Mosaic Covenant was a temporary covenant whose laws were superseded by the New Covenant, the Noahic Covenant appears to be eternal in nature, and thus concurrent with the New Covenant.

The reason for the command is theological in nature. Man is made in the image of God; therefore, a fatal attack against God's image-bearers is an attack against God Himself. It is for this reason God commanded that the individual who sheds another man's blood shall have his own blood shed as well.

When we come to the Mosaic Covenant we find an expansion of crimes for which capital punishment was applicable. The Law of Moses prescribed the penalty of death for 21 offenses, most of which were moral and religious in nature. While human government is no longer responsible for administering capital punishment for most moral and religious offences (as they were under Mosaic Law), they are still responsible for administering capital punishment in the case of the intentional murder of an innocent human being (Noahic Covenant).

Exodus 20:13

The Hebrew word translated "kill" is ratsach. The root is used 38 times in the Old Testament, each time referring to the murder of an innocent human being (whether it be intentional or accidental). A more accurate translation of this Hebrew word is "murder." Nearly all modern translations translate it as such.
We would do well to make a clear distinction between killing and murder as well. Killing can be just, but murder is always unjust. That's why it is factually incorrect to say capital punishment is the killing of those who kill others. Capital punishment is the killing of those who murder others. It would be equally wrong to say capital punishment is the murdering of those who murder others. Taking the life of an individual who unjustly took the life of another human being is not murder, but killing. To use "killing" or "murder" of both parties interchangeably is to confuse the just taking of life with the unjust.

New Testament

John 19:10-11

What is important to note about this passage is that Jesus did not challenge Pilate's gubernatorial right to sentence Him to death. He implicitly affirmed Pilate's right to administer capital punishment, and that the right came from God... Jesus challenged the source of Pilate's right, not the right itself.

There is no question that the state's execution of Jesus was unjust (because Jesus was innocent, and capital punishment is for the guilty), but that is no reflection on the just nature of capital punishment itself. While there may be unjust applications of a state's right to execute certain criminals for purposes of justice, it does not taint the just nature of capital punishment itself.

Turning our attention to Paul, he wrote the Romans saying:

[Romans 13:1-4]

According to Paul the purpose of human government is to reward good and punish evil, an example of the latter coming in the form of "the sword" (a reference to the Roman form of capital punishment). The reason for such is God's desire for retribution of moral wrongdoing. While vengeance is the Lord's, He has delegated some of the execution of that vengeance to human government in the form of justice generally, and in the form of capital punishment specifically.

While often ignored in this discussion, Acts 25:9-11 sheds some valuable light on this issue as well.

Paul maintained his innocence from those charges, but did not object to being put to death if he had done anything that was deserving of death. Paul did not object to the possibility of capital punishment by arguing that it was unjust punishment, or in contradiction to God's design. To the contrary, he acknowledged there were crimes deserving of death, and was willing to submit to that penalty had he actually committed those crimes.

For those who accept Scripture as the authority for faith, then, the Biblical teaching and rationale should be sufficient to arrive at a position on this controversial issue.
Responding to Objections

Objection: Capital punishment is contrary to the pro-life ethic of Christianity.
Response: This argument, known as the "seamless garment," misunderstands the nature of the pro-life ethic. "Pro-life" does not mean we are against killing in general; "pro-life" means we are opposed to the murder of innocent and defenseless human life. To argue that consistency of the pro-life ethic demands that one oppose capital punishment as well as abortion confuses guilt with innocence. The unborn are innocent; murderers are guilty. To kill the unborn is the unjust taking of life; to kill the murderer is the just taking of life. "The right to life is not an absolute; it can be forfeited. This moral right is only prima facie; it stands only until challenged by some greater law, like justice or protecting the lives of the innocent."

Objection: Jesus would forgive.
Response: This objection proves too much. It not only argues against meting out capital punishment, but all forms of punishment. So what do you do with evildoers; i.e. those who are a danger to society? Do you invite them into your neighborhood to murder you or your neighbors so they can receive forgiveness again and again and again?

While Jesus may forgive, Jesus does not demand that Caesar forgive as well. God may forgive the sins we have committed against Him, but this does not cancel out the consequences for sins we have committed against other men. There are temporal consequences for sins we commit in this world. Some of those consequences come from God, while others come from man. For example, even though God forgave David of his sins of murder and adultery, there was a temporal price to be paid: David's child died.
This writer goes on to give plenty of other good responses to common objections, but for space considerations (this is already a long post), you'll have to read them by going to the link above.

Dennis Prager has written and spoken on this issue many times, and one of his best pieces on the issue can be found here.
Over the years I have offered many arguments for capital punishment for murder:

1. It is a cosmic injustice to allow a murderer to keep his life.

2. Killing murderers is society's only way to teach how terrible murder is. The only real way a society can express its revulsion at any criminal behavior is through the punishment it metes out. If murderers all got 10 years in prison and thieves all got 20 years in prison, that would be society's way of saying that thievery is worse than murder. A society that kills murderers is saying that murder is more heinous a crime than a society that keeps all its murderers alive.

3. It can, if widely enacted, deter some murders. Though I regard this as a less important argument than the first two, there is no doubt that it is true. Everyone acknowledges that punishments can deter all other crimes -- why wouldn't capital punishment deter some murders? Is murder the only crime unaffected by punishment?
The most common objection opponents offer against capital punishment is that innocents may be executed.

My answer has always been that this is so rare (I do not know of a proved case of mistaken execution in America in the last 50 years) that society must be prepared to pay that terrible price. Why? Among other reasons, because more innocents will be killed by murderers who are not executed (in prison, or once released or if they escape) than will be killed by the state in erroneous executions.

So, yes, I acknowledge the possibility of an innocent being killed by the state because of a mistaken murder conviction. But we often have the tragedy of innocents dying because of a social policy. I support higher speed limits even when shown that they lead to more traffic fatalities. I support the right of people to drink alcohol even though the amount of violence directly emanating from alcohol consumption -- from drunk drivers to spousal and child abuse -- is so high.

And now I have an additional argument. Regarding murder, it is not only those of us who support capital punishment who support a policy that can lead to the killing of innocents. So do almost all those opposed to capital punishment. Nearly all opponents of capital punishment (and many supporters of capital punishment) believe that if the police obtained evidence illegally, the conviction of a murderer should be overturned.
The people who believe in this policy do so knowing that it will lead to the murder of innocent people..., just as I believe in capital punishment knowing that it might lead to the killing of an innocent person. So those who still wish to argue for keeping all murderers alive will need to argue something other than "an innocent may be killed." They already support a policy that ensures innocents will be killed.
Lastly, I'll include a short reference to the issue by Theodore Dalrymple in one of his essays.
Let me say at once that, on the question of the death penalty, I face both directions at once. Viscerally, I am in favour of it - in my professional life I met quite a number of murderers for whom it seemed to me that death was the only just and indeed humane punishment - but I do recognise a very powerful argument against the penalty, namely the tendency of all jurisdictions, which after all rely on merely human institutions, to make mistakes and execute the wrong person. You might argue that only those of whom we can be sure that they committed a brutal murder should be executed: but in our system of law, all convicted prisoners are supposed to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and in that sense all should be equally eligible for any penalty that the law prescribes for their particular offence. I am, moreover, a little squeamish about the increasingly clinical nature of executions, as if they were medical procedures. I remember reading an account of an execution by fatal injection, though I now cannot recall where the account was published, in which the injection was preceded by a swabbing of the skin of the person to be killed. This seemed to me both ridiculous and sinister, as if we were trying to pretend that an execution was actually a surgical operation. This (if the account of the execution was accurate) is a terrible slippage.

On the other hand, I cannot share any sense of outrage against the idea of capital punishment, such as is now widespread in Europe. From the assumption of European moral superiority vis-à-vis the United States with regard to capital punishment, you would have thought that capital punishment had been outlawed in all of Europe in about 458 BC. In fact, the country in which the outrage is strongest, or at least most vocal, France, was the last country in western Europe to abandon it, in 1981 - hardly an aeon ago.
Feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the matter. For whatever reason, many Christians today are against the death penalty. I'd like to know how they square that with Scripture (if in fact they do, as opposed to just going along with the culture around them).


Anonymous said...

Well, I agree in principle that the death penalty is applicable under the New Covenant and therefore in modern times. So I basically agree with the scriptural references you cited and believe they are applicable today.

However, as a practical matter, I am not for the death penalty for the simple reason that so many innocent people have been and continue to be imprisoned for crimes they are later exonerated of, usually due to DNA evidence. If a person is guilty of murder, I don't have a problem with imposing just retribution, but because of the flaws with the justice system and the political pressure involved in so many rushes to judgment, I cannot support it entirely in good conscience. I've seen prosecutors who refused to admit they were wrong years later after the obvious prosecution of an innocent person. That's just not right.

In the legal system, truth is relative. This is how most law schools teach it. Therefore, any search for the truth is fundamentally flawed.

Anonymous said...

Chris, do you believe that wrongful judgment is a new issue, or one that occurred even back in Biblical times? If, as I would maintain, it's actually LESS of a problem now that it was back then, then why, in your opinion, did God command the death penalty?

Also, while plenty of people have been exonerated from wrongful imprisonment in this country, do you know of any (or more than a handful) of PROVEN wrongful executions? In other words, how do you respond to Prager's point that the case of wrongful execution is much more rare than the case of innocents dying at the hands of murderers who were not executed? Also, your logic seems to indicate that we shouldn't have any punishment, since some of it is going to be a mistake. How do you differentiate between the need for imprisonment even if plenty of innocents go to prison and the need for execution even if a handful of innocents are killed?

Anonymous said...

No, wrong judgment isn't a new issue, but exoneration of those wrongly judged is relatively new. There is no way of telling how many people were wrongly executed in biblical times. If I were to guess, I would have to say it happens more frequently now due to the way the legal system operates - prosecutors must charge and prosecute someone in order to keep their jobs. That's not good.

God commanded the death penalty because he is just - period. It is just for someone to die who sheds the blood of an innocent person. I won't argue with that, and in fact, although I am personally opposed to the death penalty for the reasons I stated, I am not vehemently opposed to it like some. I see both sides.

As for the question of whether I know of many "PROVEN" wrongful executions, the obvious answer is no. But generally, no one would be able to know something like that. I'm not concerned with trying to figure out how many people innocent people are killed by the hands of an unjust system; my concern is that the situation is ripe for such things to occur, and that is unjust. Do I think people shouldn't be punished for crimes? No, I just don't think punishments of this particular severity should not be meted out when the legal system is so fundamentally flawed and class-biased.

A more just system of crime and punishment would involve no imprisonment for drug crimes. Violent crimes, whether involving drugs, racism, "hate" or whatever would be punished the same. By eliminating drug offenders from the prison system, we would free up space for violent offenders, and prevent so much prison turnover from parolees with violent histories.

I would like to see American prisons look more like Chinese prisons. Without going into all the details of their system, they have drastically lower instances of recidivism because prisons are not universities of higher criminal learning. And there is no private prison industry whose profits are in relation to the number of prisoners they can bill the taxpayer for. If you went to a Chinese prison, there is no way you would want to go back. Something like 90% of them do not.

Anonymous said...

Just as an addendum to my Chinese prison comment, let me just qualify it by saying that we certainly don't want to implement everything the Chinese do, but some of the things they do would be both helpful and ethical.

Darius said...

Chris, I agree that our prison system is a joke. But that's a different discussion.

"I'm not concerned with trying to figure out how many people innocent people are killed by the hands of an unjust system; my concern is that the situation is ripe for such things to occur, and that is unjust. Do I think people shouldn't be punished for crimes? No, I just don't think punishments of this particular severity should not be meted out when the legal system is so fundamentally flawed and class-biased."

A couple things here... one, while it is unjust that a rare innocent person is executed, it's also unjust when guilty murderers are not executed and then go out and kill again (either in prison or during parole or escape). And the latter is much more prevalent. So, while it's terrible, I'll take a handful of wrongful executions(if there are any, since executions have recently been usually conducted in the most slam-dunk of cases) over the hundreds of murders each year by repeat offenders.

Two, you mention "class-bias." The first link answers this issue down in the "Objections" section. Basically, I'm not convinced we have class-based standards of justice. But, for the sake of the argument, I'll assume we do. It does not follow that just because some upper class murderer gets off that it is unjust to not execute a lower class murderer. Two wrongs don't equal a right. By getting into the "equality" issue, you're elevating it above or at the expense of justice. The great illustration on the link is this: "If one man is paid for a job and gets what he deserves and another isn't, how do you rectify the inequity? You don't take away what the first man deserves... that would double the injustice."

Anonymous said...

"It does not follow that just because some upper class murderer gets off that it is unjust to not execute a lower class murderer."

I know. That's not what I'm saying. It is just to execute either of them as long as they are guilty, but it is unjust if either of them are not guilty.

"Two wrongs don't equal a right. By getting into the 'equality' issue, you're elevating it above or at the expense of justice."

Not really. It's got more to do with the inadequacy of the justice system to administer justice than it has to do with "equality". Lady justice is supposed to be blind. If she isn't then we have no justice to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Darius, I guess you know by now Colin has posted a response to this on ZFT. Just when you thought you were out, we keep pulling you back in.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up, I actually didn't know that. I'll check it out.

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