Saturday, May 16, 2015

Christians and the Death Penalty

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received the death penalty yesterday for his part in the bombing of the Boston Marathon two years ago. It's a good time for us to reflect and ask whether Christians should support the death penalty.

I suppose the Christians I most respect as thinkers and, indeed, as people of God, would mostly oppose it. I suspect that the rising generation of Christians mostly oppose it. I can live with this position and, of course, will have to, since no individual decides such matters.

But I also do not have a problem with the death penalty from a Christian standpoint, especially in a case such as this one. And I thought I would think through it with you.

1. I was trying to come up with a nice phrase that might guide our approach to the Bible on such things. One that came to mind this morning is "trying to put the Bible in the context of eternity." It's not popular right now to think in terms of the original meaning of the Bible, by which I mean the meanings these words from God had when they first spoke to the specific times and places of the Bible. For example, Paul's letters are "occasional," which means that God inspired him to write them to address specific occasions in the life of the early church.

The objection to a phrase like, "putting the Bible in the context of eternity" is at least two-fold. First, it seems rather presumptuous to think that, while the biblical authors only saw things from a contextualized point of view, I can somehow see the timeless perspective of God and get a God's eye view.

Thus the second objection--I can't see the Bible from the standpoint of eternity. I can ultimately only see it from where I sit... on a different occasion.

I've never thought that this conundrum was a reason not to try.

2. So the Bible knows nothing of a world where the death penalty is not an assumption. The penalty of death is assumed throughout the OT. And the fact that Paul endorses the Roman government as an instrument of justice (Rom. 13:4) seems to indirectly support the death penalty.

If there is one thing of which I would like to convince the church, it is that this is not the end of the story. We have to put this teaching in the context of eternity--or at least try. We don't simply apply a verse directly to us today without stepping back to think theologically, to integrate it into the principles of the whole Bible.

3. So I am sympathetic to arguments like the following. The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us that God will take someone who repents back no matter what horrible things they have done. If a person is given a life sentence, then there is at least a little hope that they might repent at some point and be saved.

Good argument and I think one that shows the heart of Christ. I do not think justice is unloving and I take the "law of retribution" as a fundamental statement of justice--an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But the heart of Christian faith is God's love for humanity, the "righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17), his desire to save humanity. As Christians, we believe that God still loves Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and would prefer for him to repent than to perish.

I have serious questions about those strands of Christian thinking that treat justice as something to which God is a slave. In my opinion, justice is not unloving. But God can show mercy without having to satisfy justice (thus the Parable of the Prodigal Son). After all, he is God.

Justice makes sense. The cross makes sense. But I see it as an act of God's free will, not an instance of God following some rule book he had to follow if he wanted to get forgiveness done. In my mind, that diminishes God and makes him a slave to rules he did not create.

4. Hell suggests that God is not, in principle, against the death penalty, where hell is thought of as a final and unalterable eternal destiny. There are of course questions about the justice of hell. Even Hitler's sins, it would seem, were finite. If so, God would seem to be unjust to give an eternal punishment for them. The suggestion that any offense against God is an infinite crime meriting an infinite punishment makes some sense logically, but in the end doesn't sound like the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to me.

I am not a ecumenical council, so it would be perilous for me to take a position on this issue. But I could at least make a good theological case that annihilation after final judgment is a possible position to argue from the biblical texts taken as a whole and that it is a position that fits better with the biblical picture of God than eternal torment.

In either case, the existence of hell suggests that God would not be opposed to the death penalty.

5. Death, it would seem, is not intrinsically evil. I imagine the experience of death to be unpleasant for most people, but suffering in itself is not evil. Indeed, the death penalty as it is currently administered is not intended to cause pain.

In that sense, it might be considered an unjust punishment to give Tsarnaev the death penalty because it is not painful enough! In the death penalty, the criminal does not experience "an eye for an eye." Justice in Tsarnaev's case, it would seem, would literally be to blow up parts of his body in stages in accordance with the number of people his actions injured or killed. The fear he would experience might render "fear for fear," for him to pay for the collective fear and distress his actions caused.

Wittgenstein once said that "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death." Of course Christians believe in more beyond death, but there is perhaps a sense in which he is correct. Those who are put to death by the death penalty ideally experience a moment of passing into unconsciousness. Thereafter, any pain they might experience is not caused by us but by God.

The this-worldly part of death is nothing but to go to sleep. Death itself, from the perspective of this world, is only troublesome to those who live thereafter. As far as our bodies are concerned, it is nothing but a sleep to those who die.

6. So should Christians support the death penalty? I have been arguing 1) that it is allowed for biblically and 2) that it is not unjust theologically or philosophically. So the question is whether a life sentence is better in keeping with the nature of God and Christ, to leave room for the possibility of repentance.

I have argued in the past that there are three reasons why the administration of justice is not unloving. The first is when justice is redemptive. This is discipline in its best sense--the attempt to reshape individuals by letting them experience the consequences of their actions.

Would a death sentence provide a clear window for re-assessing one's actions with a view toward repentance? I don't know.

The second situation in which justice is not unloving is when it protects others. So there seems little question that this young man might try to harm more people if he were released. And let us also recognize that there is such a thing as a "hardened heart," individuals who will never change no matter how much time they are given. Theologically speaking, there is a point when God withdraws his Holy Spirit and, accordingly, individuals will never be able to repent in their hearts, even if they know with their heads that they should.

Most of the time, we had best leave it up to God to sort out who such people are. Miracles happen.

It seems to me that the third situation in which justice is not unloving is something like the situation under discussion. These are situations when the very concept of justice seems at stake. Serial killers, mass terrorists, the Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens of the world. In these cases, we seem to be putting the existence of justice itself up for question as a society.

God is a God of justice, not only a God of mercy. As an individual, must we as Christians prefer that Tsarnaev repent? Yes. By the power of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in us wants him to be truly sorry for what he has done and experience the forgiveness of God through Christ.

But there is also something more at stake, even if he were repentant but even more since he is not. The system of justice is at stake. The very notion of right and wrong itself is at stake. It becomes about something more than one individual. It comes to be about righteousness itself.

For this reason, I am not opposed to the death penalty as a Christian, especially in heinous cases such as this one.

What do you think?


Pastor Bob said...

Good thinking, well said from a sound mind.

::athada:: said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention Scriptural trajectory (or is that the "eternal context"?). Are we really to take such "liberties" on the issue of slavery and women's rights (and rightfully so!) but not this issue? Although the NT appears to uphold the right of the state to wield the sword, Jesus' attitude toward capital punishment (on the cross, and with the adulteress) seems to be a clear candidate for following the trajectory on this one.

There are also some more technical/situational (?) arguments to which Christian thinking might be applied in the 21st-c US context: standing up for the innocent who are wrongly accused and executed, especially those who had been historically subjected to racial and economic prejudice (as has happened many times, though in this bombing it appears not to be an issue).

What I wouldn't give to have the Ask-a-Schenck app... don't you do any consulting on the side? :)

Ken Schenck said...

Trajectory is another way of saying, "putting in the context of the eternal," but I was thinking the latter might communicate better. :-)

Anonymous said...

In Matthew, we read that "And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." Matthew 12:31, so that would solidify a chance for redemption for anyone. But in 2 Corinthians 5:10 "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.". This means that ultimately we should leave God to be the ultimate Judge.
But some people will point to Genesis 9:6 which states "Whoever sheds human blood,by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind" in order to suggest the death penalty is a form of punishment that should be used that is approved by God. However, I believe there is much more evidence in the New Testemant that suggests God intends to be the final Judge. I only presented a few scriptures because I want to see what your responses are? I like 'athada's" comment about the scripture in John about the adulteress.

dudleysharp said...

I recommend this book, by a Methodist scholar:

"All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.